A couple of months ago, France was engulfed by an explosive wave of civil unrest powered by surging interethnic rivalries. The dramatic images and headlines of this crisis could illustrate a textbook example of what a lawless Hobbesian state of nature looks like. The significance of the situation cannot be overstated: the entire world witnessed the outbreak of anarchy in a major European nation. Street violence took place not just in Paris, but also in various other French cities and the contagion even reached the neighbouring Swiss city of Lausanne. People were beaten, business were looted, vehicles were burned and countless acts of vandalism were committed. As law enforcement was overwhelmed by the proportions and intensity of this popular revolt, the French government —unable to respond effectively— was badly shaken by the seismicity of the ensuing political shockwaves. Raison d’état was nowhere to be seen in the Élysée Palace.
In turn, the reaction of everyday citizens showed a combination of disbelief, concern, dismay, outrage and uncertainty. The perception of danger made people think that there is no reliable guarantee that their lives, integrity and property will be respected. Moreover, the fact these events took place shortly before the anniversary of the French Revolution makes things look even more ominous. From a long-range perspective, they could be interpreted as a powerful confirmation that history has fatefully returned to Western Europe, a region that held grandiose expectations in the post-Cold War era. Such illusions of everlasting peace and harmony are being shattered by reality. Thus, it is pertinent to assess the background of the situation, clarify its larger implications in France and beyond and foresee the behaviour of conceivable trajectories.
Deciphering the Crisis
Attributing these events to a tragic incident involving the French police force and an Arab teenager in a fatal shooting is an oversimplification of reality. Such occurrence was merely the trigger which ignited the riots, but the metaphorical witches’ brew has been there for a while. In other words, it is the result of impersonal structural forces. In the last decades, France embraced mass immigration —mostly from the MENA region and Sub-Saharan Africa— in order to compensate the low birth rates of the local population and also to import workers whose cheap labour represented a valuable asset for both employers and also for politicians interested in developing voting blocs. Unlike other states, there was no systematic policy effort to encourage assimilation so that a ‘melting pot’ could ensure a reasonable degree of social cohesiveness. As a nation that often presents itself as the chief legitimate heir of the Enlightenment, France adopted multiculturalism as a model that would —in theory— facilitate a harmonious coexistence.
Nevertheless, things have played out differently. Facts on the ground show that such model has not delivered its promise. Instead, France has become a hotbed of militant Islamism and interethnic tensions. Contrary to what is commonly believed, the proliferation of reciprocal hostility between different demographic groups is not a result of a lack of mutual understanding. Actually, animosity flourishes under such circumstances because groups which belong to different civilisations are deeply aware that their substantial distinctions, worldviews, interests and identities are difficult to reconcile.
The clash of civilisations —prophesised by Samuel Huntington— can take place not just between nations or regional coalitions, but also within states. Indeed, history teaches that different peoples that inhabit the same territory are often at odds with one another. They may do business and interact with each other, but mutual distrust and profound cultural contrasts are hard to overcome. Although some individual immigrants do manage to assimilate successfully and thrive in all walks of life (including sports, fashion, business, academia and politics), liberal French citizens condescendingly regard their communities as unenlightened and backward groups who must adopt postmodern liberal beliefs. For hawkish nationalists, the increasing presence of African and Arab immigrants that prefer not to assimilate must not be welcome because their socio-cultural, religious and linguistical backgrounds are vastly different. According to this logic, their alienness weakens the fabric of society and challenges the preservation of the “French way of life”.
In turn, many of these immigrants have moved to France in the pursuit of higher levels of material and economic prosperity and, in some cases, they have formally been granted French citizenship. Nevertheless, not all of them are interested in relinquishing their distinctive identities to assimilate in their host society. From their viewpoint, despite its material wealth, France —along with much of the Western world— is held in contempt. France is seen as a declining society full of individualism, unbelievers, intellectual hubris, rootlessness, hedonism, moral depravity and sexual promiscuity. And they do not want any part of that. They are in France to make a living, not to emulate Voltaire, Robespierre, Michelle Foucault or Simone de Beauvoir. Interestingly, they intuitively share the Spenglerian idea that a society in which the decision to have kids is merely a matter of cost-benefit analysis is already on its way out. For many of these people, collective structures like organised religion, family values, tribal affiliation and traditional gender roles matter. There is also a great deal of political and historical resentment. They are aware that, despite the rhetorical allegiance of the French state to the principles of liberté, egalité, fraternité —linchpins of its self-proclaimed mission civilicatrice—it has behaved as a ruthless imperial overlord in the Middle East, the Maghreb and Africa.
Regardless of what one might think about the ultimate legitimacy of these competing claims, it is clear that reaching a functional modus vivendi is a challenging endeavour, to say the least.
Moreover, the French state has done nothing to address these issues, mitigate the asymmetry of perceptions or build bridges. That attitude is hardly surprising. After all, post-historic liberal leaders and analysts lack the appropriate cognitive frameworks to identify, diagnose and approach these challenges. Technocrats overlook the importance of fear, relational identities and love of own’s one as timeless and universal components of the human condition. For them, human beings are merely rational maximisers of instrumental convenience so, when a problem cannot be explained with such logic, they either turn a blind eye or expect that it will go away on its own as a result of incremental ‘progress’. Predictably, said neglect has been fuelling the rise of tensions. Such growing societal problem is reflected in the proliferation of violent acts of militant Islamism, the rise of hardline nationalist forces and even anti-Christian as well as antisemitic attacks. Under these conditions, the concentration of unassimilated immigrants in certain peripheral urban areas has given birth to ethnic enclaves in which the presence of the French state is not even symbolic. “Outsiders”, foreigners and tourists are advised to stay away. Even police officers are reluctant to patrol said areas. In many of these so-called ‘no-go zones’, the constitutional law of the land is overruled by the superior grassroots support for Sharia Law. For years, both active and former members of the French military have been warning about the prospect of mounting tensions which could lead to a “racial war”, a possibility with troubling ramifications for national security. Their latest message —allegedly signed by 100,000 active servicemen— even mentions that the French men and women in uniform would have to restore order in case of insurrection or civil war. Yet, these predictions have been dismissed as fearmongering motivated by politicking and inertia has prevailed.
Another major factor is the influence of external developments. The aftermath of the Arab Spring —including power voids, failed states and sectarian carnage— has facilitated the arrival of jihadists to France. Concerning their capabilities, these fighters have accumulated combat experience in some of most dangerous operational theatres in the MENA region. Regarding their resolve, they are willing to die, kill and wage war for what they believe is the literal word of God. Furthermore, in their homelands, these Wahabis were the sworn enemies of secular strongmen like Colonel Gaddafi and Bashar Al-Assad. If they were unafraid of challenging their draconian regimes, they are certainly not intimidated by the likes of François Hollande and Emmanuel Macron. Likewise, the Russian and American military interventions —both overt and covert— in the MENA region may have been motivated by a hidden interest in provoking a massive exodus that could not be absorbed, managed or controlled by European states like France with the purpose of sowing instability. Such measure would be consistent with Machiavellian Realpolitik.
The most obvious consequence mentioned by most media outlets and mainstream commentators is the political rise of hardline nationalist forces and a greater societal resonance of their message. Needless to say, this chaos can be beneficial for politicians for Marine Le Pen, Éric Zemmour and for networks which share their ideology in varying degrees. Nonetheless, there are three other implications that need to be examined.
1. The failure of multiculturalism is a consequential matter for national security. For example, the violent breakup of the former Yugoslavia was ignited by interethnic tensions. The same factor also played a meaningful role in the downfall of the USSR and is one of the major ingredients in many of the so-called “frozen conflicts” in the post-Soviet space. Likewise, such element is a key driver of conflict in confrontational hotspots like Kashmir, the West Bank, Xinjiang, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Iraq, AfPak and even Ukraine. On the other hand, irregular migratory flows —just like any other vector of complex interdependence— can be weaponised as instruments to blackmail, gain bargaining chips, harness asymmetric strategic advantages or destabilise rivals through disruption. States like Belarus, Libya, Turkey and Cuba have convincingly wielded the threat of flooding their neighbours’ gates with a large influx of refugees.
Unsurprisingly, several states —like Israel, Turkey, Hungary, Poland and India— are approaching the preservation of their national character, identity and core demographic balance as an existential priority. As Israeli thinker and contemporary theorist of nationalism Yoram Hazony explains, a nation is a network of individuals whose mutual loyalties are undergirded by common denominators related to culture, history, language, traditions and the expectation of a collective fate. Therefore, if a state becomes merely a collection of unrelated tribes whose members only share passports issued by the same government, then there is no longer any glue that underpins national cohesiveness. Under prosperous conditions, that reality can persist for a while but, as soon as a major crisis hits, there will not be any incentive to join forces to meet the challenge. A house divided cannot stand. The ability of France to operate as a functional nation is therefore being tested.
Yet, perhaps the most problematic implication of recent events in France is that similar dynamics could gain traction in societies with similar conditions, most notably Britain, Germany and Sweden. Signs of violent interethnic animosities are becoming “part and parcel” of everyday life in such European nations.
2. There are reasonable doubts about the sustainability of France’s geopolitical position as a major European power. Powerful states can withstand their fair share of turmoil. The Troubles in Northern Ireland did not compromise the national power of the UK. In turn, Russia seems to have weathered the impact of the recent rebellion headed by the Wagner Group with its overall political stability largely unscathed. Yet, in both cases, the event horizon was limited in terms of scope, time and space. However, a civil war in many corners of the so-called “Hexagon” would be an entirely different thing. Far from being a peripheral backwater, France is a state with advanced industrial capabilities, its own nuclear arsenal and significant conventional forces. It is also a key member of NATO, as well as one of the two engines of the European Union. A France engulfed in an internal conflict could entail risks for the regional balance of power in Europe and maybe even for systematic strategic stability. Needless to say, a potential triumph of either nationalist forces or Islamists would likely alter the international correlation of forces in more than one way as a result of the winner’s geopolitical realignments.
3. A civil war in France would open windows of opportunity for foreign intervention, either covert or overt. Depending on their interests and ideological proclivities, other states might decide to support liberals, nationalists, Islamists or Africans. States like Russia could support more than one faction and engage in “active measures” in order to instigate chaos in Europe and undermine the unity of the so-called “collective West”. Similarly, it is unknown if and how NATO forces under American leadership would approach the crisis. However, the need to restore order on French soil, ensure a favourable political and strategic outcome and prevent the outbreak of a similar conflict in other European nations would provide incentives for the transatlantic coalition to get involved in one way or another. The spectrum of conceivable possibilities could include a) the diplomatic facilitation of a negotiated ceasefire as a step for a compromise, b) an outright military intervention with boots on the ground, similar to the operations of the Warsaw Pact in both Czechoslovakia and Hungary and c) everything and anything in between. Considering the ongoing reactivation of strategic rivalries in the second Cold War, this scenario could lead to a proxy war in the heart of Western Europe.
What to expect
France may already be in a state of low-intensity civil war. So far, it remains to be seen if the clashes remain intermittent or if they will spiral out of control. The undecisive reaction of the French government reflects an unwillingness to confront a difficult situation. Blaming videogames and expect trouble to go away on its own is the equivalent of burying one’s head in the sand. Macron feels cornered as a result of outspoken expressions of political discontent, such as the Yellow Vests movement and protests over pension reform. The erratic ‘ostrich’ policy likely responds to Macron’s short term political interests, but it will not solve the crisis. Macron has also flirted with more Quixotic ideas, like the theological dream to remake Islam as an apolitical religion that embraces Western values. Such To put it charitably, such idea is out of touch with reality. As Ayatollah Khomeini once observed, those that deny that Islam is a political religion are clueless about both Islam and politics. Furthermore, the myopic prevalence of sanctimonious condescendence is an obstacle for the development of policies based on the lens of strategic empathy. Therefore, French statecraft can only rely on a handful of options to address the crisis:
Assimilation policies. A better integration of highly heterogeneous demographic groups is needed if France does not want to fall apart as a result of Balkanisation or civil war. This would mean the abandonment of multiculturalism followed by the adoption of policies that generate a ‘melting pot’. With some luck, a greater number of intermarriages can even encourage higher birth rates and bring together members of different communities under the umbrella of a unified polity. The lessons of successful multi-ethnic empires and nations can be instructive for this purpose. However, since the achievement of results takes generations, this is a long-term solution and right now time is a luxury that Paris cannot afford.
Counterinsurgency. An irregular conflict cannot be won by conventional law enforcement. Arrests and criminal prosecution will not suffice to address organised riots as an emerging expression of calibrated street warfare that intends to achieve political outcomes. Instead, it requires targeting the core ideological, political and operational leaders of Islamist militant networks in order to undermine both their structures and their popular support. Asserting the authority of the state with coercive measures will change the balance of power within the French Muslim community in favour of the country’s security services and intelligence agencies. The state does not need to be loved, only to be feared as a Hobbesian Leviathan that does what it takes to restore order. The successful experience of states like Israel, India, Colombia and Russia in counterinsurgency can provide valuable insights. Such strategy is unpleasant for a state like France, but sometimes unsavoury decisions are needed to make sure that worse remains behind. In contrast, inaction would encourage the organic growth of right-wing paramilitary groups like Generation Identity and the Jewish Defense League, furthering the atmosphere of unruliness.
The reformulation of immigration policies. A moderate approach —and perhaps palatable for most French citizens— suggests the importance of enforcing stricter migratory regulations based on selective criteria. Competitive hardline nationalist forces go much further. They demand drastic measures like curtailing legal immigration, a heavier state surveillance of mosques and even the removal of existing immigrants that refuse to assimilate as a part of a “reconquest” to reclaim urban areas “occupied” by foreigners. According to Eric Zemmour (ironically, a child of North African Jewish immigrants), France must welcome Ukrainian refugees, but not Muslims and/or Arabs. Such views are no longer marginal. Their increasing socio-political echo generates pressure for the French republic to adopt an unapologetically illiberal migratory framework.
These carrots and sticks are not mutually exclusive. In addition, counterintuitive ideas might provide Solomonic solutions worth exploring. After all, extraordinary circumstances require unconventional prescriptions. For example, the controversial novel Submission —written by Michel Houellebecq— depicts a paradoxical hypothetical scenario in which Islamic rule in France leads to a societal rejuvenation which ensures the national survival of this European state.
Although the latest wave of urban riots in France seems to have subsided, their underlying structural roots remain unchanged. Accordingly, this episode foreshadows the escalation of violence sooner or later. The magnitude of the next crisis will likely be higher both quantitatively and qualitatively. Moreover, considering the extent of its potential spillovers, it is a matter whose implications pose challenges for the national security of the French state and also for European regional security. As the sinister spectre of civil war is haunting France, it is unknown if the so-called ‘Hexagon’ will manage to revitalise itself as a cohesive national state. Under such conditions, a sanctimonious spirit of wishful thinking is a recipe for disaster. Paraphrasing ideas attributed to legendary French statesmen Richelieu and Talleyrand, the souls of men might be eternal, but taking for granted the vitality of the state is worse than a crime, it is a blunder.