Last year I took note of “Mark Lilla’s Tragic Trilogy on France” which ran in the New York Review of Books. Lilla now returns with the first of a two-part series on France’s socio-political decline in the wake of both the Charlie Hebdo and Paris attacks. Here is an excerpt from “France: Is There a Way Out?“:
Economic stagnation, political stalemate, rising right-wing populism—this has been France’s condition for a decade or more. So has nothing changed since the Charlie Hebdo killings? Yes it has, and not simply because of the Bataclan massacre. Since 2012 France has suffered a steady series of Islamist terrorist attacks, some dramatic, some less so, that have changed the political psychology of the country. Intellectuals and politicians have been arguing about the causes of le malaise français for decades, calling on the French to change their policies and thinking, on the assumption that their destiny was in their hands. That assumption no longer holds. The globalization of economic activity, including the American financial crisis and the transfer of decision-making to the opaque institutions of the European Union, has been eroding the sense of national self-determination for some time. And now the refugee crisis and international jihadist networks are eroding confidence that the state, which the French expect to be strong, can protect its citizens.
Though there were no major successful terrorist attacks on French soil between January and November 2015, there were enough small or unsuccessful ones in the news to keep the public on edge. In February, just weeks after the Charlie murders, three soldiers defending a Jewish center in Nice were stabbed by a Muslim man, and in November a jihadist network in Saint-Denis and Lyon was discovered and dismantled. In June another Muslim man whose name was in a police terrorist database decapitated his employer at a delivery company near Lyon, and before trying to blow up the building planted the man’s head on the building’s gate next to two banners, one referring to ISIS and the other with the Muslim shahada written on it (“There is no god but Allah. Muhammad is Allah’s messenger”). He then took some photos.
In August a young Moroccan living in Spain, who was also in a European police database, boarded a high-speed train from Amsterdam to Paris with a Kalashnikov and a Lugar pistol; he wounded five people before his guns jammed and he was wrestled down by two vacationing American soldiers. In October and November French police foiled what would have been two major attacks against naval installations in Toulon and Orléans by French Muslims with Syrian connections. And in December police investigating a recent female convert found in her apartment the hollowed-out mold of a pregnant woman’s belly, presumably intended to hide explosives. The French government now has a policy of publicizing its antiterrorism operations, which keeps the public alert but can also leave it with the jitters. In September the minister of the interior announced that over 1,800 French citizens had been identified as belonging to jihadist networks, triple the number recorded in January 2014.
The second, yet-published, article promises to focus more on France’s political future and the prospects of the National Front taking control of the country. And if people think the French experience has little to say to those living in the United States, think again. America, like France, is experiencing a surge in right-wing populism, only of a less principled and far stupider variety.