What is responsible for Paris?

January 28, 2015

In the aftermath of the horrific attacks at Charlie Hebdo's offices and a kosher market in Paris by adherents of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, as many as 4 million people marched in cities and towns around France on January 11 to express their outrage against the killings. But there has also been a surge of racist attacks against Muslims and immigrants, and Socialist Party President François Hollande--who called for the January 11 "national unity" demonstrations--has used the opportunity to initiate a crackdown against dissent and to win near unanimous approval from French lawmakers for the government's participation in the U.S.-led war on the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Meanwhile, on February 3, there will be a mass mobilization sponsored by unions in opposition to a series of neoliberal reforms, known as Macron's Law, named after French Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron.

Julien Salingue is a member of the New Anti-Capitalist Party (NPA) and author of numerous books and articles, most recently La Palestine d'Oslo. In an article for the NPA website, Salingue makes the case for anti-racist action and working-class unity after the attacks.

THE KILLINGS at Charlie Hebdo and the Porte de Vincennes should not prevent us from thinking. On the contrary, the attacks open a period of questioning and doubts for millions of people among us who demand answers--even if these answers cause discomfort and challenge the consensus. This is critical in order to prevent others from imposing their warlike, repressive and racist responses. What follows is an attempt to answer, in an incomplete form, some of these questions, but also to formulate the lines of work and action. Perhaps this may sound rigid, but it points out a real concern about what we must do: action instead of submission.

The murderers are not without responsibility

With respect to the killings themselves, two apparently opposing discourses confront one another, but they have one point in common: They relieve the murderers from responsibility. The first discourse dominates the politico-media elites: The killers are described as "crazy" or "monsters," they are "barbarous," and there is no way to explain their actions rationally. The second discourse comes from various anti-racist and/or anti-imperialist activists: The killers are a product of French political policy, both domestic and foreign, and can be understood (without justifying them) as a consequence of these policies.

Leaders of the world's most powerful governments put themselves at the front of the Paris march
Leaders of the world's most powerful governments put themselves at the front of the January 11 march

The first of these discourses exploits the legitimate emotions arising from the violence of the killings in order to censure any reflection and any attempt at explanation. The second discourse, which I feel closer to, suffers from the same defect as the first: It "forgets" that the killers are themselves subjects who thought for themselves and took action, and they aren't simply passive byproducts of racism and imperialism. In certain ways, this discourse comes dangerously close to that of the conspiracy theorists who see the murderers as puppets of the great powers. Yet the killers themselves have a discourse (see their interviews and videos, in which they speak about Syria and Iraq, the offenses suffered by Muslims at the hands of France and in the world in general, etc.); they have their own theory (especially note the article published by Mediapart); they have their own organizational reference points (Islamic State, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula).

Why insist on this point? Certainly not in order to judge the killers independently from the political, economic and social context (both national and international) in which they evolved, thus excusing France and its policies. Rather, it is necessary to understand this in order to shine a light on the discourse and the political positions of the Kouachi brothers and of Amedy Coulibaly, who, from their point of view, believe, rationally, that they are at war with a certain France, and that they consider, rationally, themselves to be engaged in a legitimate defense. See this statement that Coulibaly gave in a posthumous video:

You attack the Caliphate, you attack the Islamic State, so we attack you. You can't attack and expect nothing in return.

France (re)discovers it is at war

One of the causes for the shock hitting large sections of the population, including circles of left-wing activists, is the (re)discovery of this truth: Yes, France is at war. A war which does not always speak its name, a war which is not discussed in the governmental assemblies or in the media, and is generally not talked about in the public arena, a war against enemies who are not often identified, an asymmetric war--but a war all the same. The recent killings, in the most brutal way, brought this to light for those who did not know, or those who refused to see, or those who had forgotten. France is at war, war creates casualties, and these casualties do not always only fall in your enemy's home.

With whom is France at war? According to various discourses and the media, it is at war against "international terrorism," against "jihadism," against "fundamentalist barbarism," etc. I won't discuss these imprecise labels and the abusive generalizations they imply, nor the paradoxes that underlie them (alliances based on an unstable geometry, support for regimes that support the development of "jihadist" currents, participation in military interventions that reinforce these currents, etc.). It is enough to underline that France has, in reality, followed the lead of George W. Bush and the United States after September 11, 2001, in the rhetoric and politics of the "clash of civilizations," even if not always saying so out loud.

France has been at war for almost 14 years without saying so. If the killings at Charlie Hebdo and at the Porte de Vincennes have provoked such shock and such dismay, this is because many people have been forced to abruptly absorb 14 years of recent history in just hours or days: "Here we are, us too, and it's only logical that we would not be spared forever." After the United States (September 11), after Spain (the attacks in Madrid in 2004), after Great Britain (the attacks in London in 2005), etc. Now it is France that has been caught up in its history, both its recent past and its present, and is, by necessity, forced to look in the mirror and ask: why "us?"

National unity and republican unity

Many statements, texts and articles have pointed out the foolishness of "national unity" and the hypocrisy that accompanies it. Others have emphasized the dangers of such a "union" and the exploitation which can be carried out in its name, and which has, in fact, already been carried out. There is another point that I would like to emphasize here: those who have answered the call for unity did not necessarily do so out of excessive patriotism or chauvinism. For many of them, in fact, they did so to affirm a commitment to certain principles and values (freedom, equality), which are supposed to be guaranteed by the "Republican model."

National unity is indeed, in many respects, a republican unity ["republican" in the sense of the French Republic], with which it should not be confused. This sort of unity does not necessarily defend France just because it is France. Rather, it is put forward to defend a certain model of society, in the name of values and emancipatory principles that have nothing to do with chauvinism. But behind this unity, there are different postures and divergent discourses, and contradictions can be seen: For some (institutional parties, editorialists, mainstream intellectuals), the killings are a sign that "our model" is under attack and it is necessary to defend it; for others (from Edwy Plenel [editor-in-chief of Mediapart] to Jean-Luc Mélenchon [ex-Socialist Party Minister of Education and leader of the Left Front] as well as certain talking heads and academics who publish in journals and blogs), the killings are a sign that "our model" is dysfunctional and it is necessary to question it.

I am one of those who thinks that there is no such thing as a republican model "à la française" which can truly guarantee liberty and equality for all and protect us from such violence. This does not mean completely denigrating or rejecting "republican" aspirations out of hand, from beginning to end; no, the millions of people who took to the streets are not, neither objectively nor subjectively, out-and-out reactionaries. Quite the contrary, they are clearly posing relevant and legitimate questions, which can be summarized as follows: "What have we done to create such monsters?"

Putting forward radical responses

The current situation, which clearly favors the powers that be and their reactionary discourse, isn't one in which anti-racists and anti-imperialists are completely disarmed. The millions who were stunned by the attacks, but who are questioning and who refuse to concede to the rhetoric of "defense" of "our model" and of "our values" are not condemned to silence, and radical responses can be put forward. These radical responses are based on the sense in which Marx understood the word when he wrote "to be radical, it is necessary to grasp things by their roots." Radical answers are required that call into question a system that generates structural inequality, exploitation and violence.

The debates taking place about schools, about prisons, about secularism, about anti-terrorist legislation, etc., do not take on the real issues, that is, the material conditions (be they economic, social or political), which have allowed the reactionary and violent discourse of Al Qaeda and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria to be accepted by certain youth--who were born, grew up and were socialized in France--and convinced them to take action. These are the material conditions (misery and social marginalization, ghettoization, structural racism, oppression based on their identity, stigmatization, and individual and collective humiliation, etc.) that must be examined, along with all the discourses that accompany them, legitimate them or exploit them.

This means, in particular, a fight against what is considered to be obvious by those repeating in the dominant discourse: [we must argue that] religion is not a factor in the radicalization of young "jihadists," rather, it is a vehicle for their radicalization. Empirical studies confirm the "anger against injustice, moral superiority, the feeling of having an identity and purpose, the promise of adventure and the desire to become a hero all exist in the case studies. Religion and ideology serve as vehicles for an 'us against them' mentality and as a justification for violence against those who represent the 'enemy,' but they do not the fuel radicalization."

Unite without ignoring sensitive topics

It is necessary, therefore, to capture reality in all its complexity and dynamism, and to reject any simplistic shortcuts: The killers are not just "crazy" or simply "victims." They are political actors in their own right who consider themselves to be engaged in a war. They hold a worldview that has as much in common with that of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria as it does with many of our rulers: civilization against civilization, identity against identity, violence against violence. To state this is not the same as drawing an equal sign between the two "camps"; after all, it is the racist, colonial and militarist policies of the Western countries that create the conditions of possibility for the development of their adversarial "jihadist," and not the other way around.

In order to grasp this reality in its complexity, it is also necessary to understand, and to assert, that the recent killings aren't the first manifestations of this war on French territory. The war has been raging for a long time--against the poor, against Muslims, against young people from the neighborhoods. The factors that radicalized the Kouachi brothers and Amedy Coulibaly are not confined to French foreign policy, but also (and even primarily) spring from its domestic policy. We only have to recall various episodes in the "miserable childhood of the Kouachi brothers," or remind ourselves that Coulibaly's best friend was killed by a police officer during a robbery in 2000, and that this same Coulibaly was singled out in 2010 for denouncing prison conditions at Fleury-Mérogis. In other words, we can say (without apology) that this attack was a French attack and expressed (in a horribly distorted way) a violent resentment against a "model" that serves as nothing more than a machine that manufactures and stigmatizes inequalities.

We must therefore state loud and clear: each act of ethnic profiling, every instance of police brutality, every episode of discrimination, each Islamophobic attack and every military expedition in the name of the superiority of a civilization...increases resentment and provides "jihadist" currents new potential candidates. Not all those who suffer this resentment will take this sort of action: but most of them who will take action are recruited under these conditions. Thus, the unity we need to respond to the government's racist and security-state offensive must not sacrifice two essential elements, even though there is not a consensus on these (we at least know this for certain): First, the fight against Islamophobia in all its forms (injecting into this battle the idea that another form of racism, anti-Semitism, is not a "response" but an equally odious poison); and second, the relentless struggle against French military expeditions (remembering the slogans raised in the demonstrations that followed the Madrid attacks: "Your war, our dead," "Bombs dropped in Iraq explode in Madrid," etc.).

Anti-racist and anti-imperialists are not doomed to submit to the current offensive. But in order to deal with the storm, we must stay the course and concede nothing under the pressure of emotion or shock. Any repressive, stigmatizing or blind response to the economic, political and social realities of France in 2015 is not only doomed to failure but, more importantly, will be merely another step toward new killings tomorrow. Fourteen years of the "war on terror" have brought only more war, oppression, discrimination and violence to the four corners of the globe: It's time to move, radically, on to something else.

Translated by Todd Chretien. First published in French by the New Anti-Capitalist Party.

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