[REPORT] France Between Je Suis Charlie and Terrorist Threats

Stefania Rinaldi
Source: CNN

France is one of the European countries with the largest number of Islamic terrorist attacks perpetrated by young people, usually of second generation of immigrants who were recruited by the Islamic State (IS). There are many prominent factors that have played an influential role in launching these attacks, including the historic relation with and colonization of Middle Eastern countries, socio-economic estrangement, France’s secularism, and its cultural diversity.

The Islamic State

ISIS fighters Source: Politico

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) or Islamic State (IS), is an organization which was established between 2013 and 2014 amid the Iraqi war, the Arab revolution, and the current civil war in Syria. Thanks to the convulsions of wars in the Middle East, IS had the opportunity to spread into Syria and Iraq, launching a series of attacks. They succeeded in conquering several cities, including Ramadi and Fallujah. Following the invasion of Raqqa in January 2014, IS proclaimed the city to be the “capital of the ISIS emirate”. On June 29, it announced the creation of a caliphate and named it “Islamic State” (Oosterveld and Bloem 2017, 5, 7-8, 17).

According to several experts, “ISIS is the outgrowth of broader global trends of Islamization that stress the tensions between religiosity and modernity, compounded by an increase in Islamic militancy”. This extreme jihadi organization has been attempting to revive the caliphate and “expand [it] to all current Muslim countries in the world and fight and win the apocalyptic war against the West”. Closely linked to its ideologies is IS’s depiction of itself as the “savior of Islam” and its perception of Western countries as a dangerous threat. At first, in order to succeed in expanding regionally, IS had a “focus on the ‘near enemy’, but later was evolved towards targeting the ‘far enemy’ as well” (Oosterveld and Bloem 2017, 5, 9-10, 17).

Compared to other religious terrorist organizations, like al-Qaeda, ISIS has successfully been using modern tools to recruit more people for the caliphate, especially young people. In fact, IS has been using social media and the Internet in general to “spread its message and encourage others […] to support the organization to travel to the Middle East to engage in combat”. In addition, Jihadists have been attempting to radicalize young recruits to “commit acts of violence wherever they are when traveling to the Middle East isn’t possible”, by using social media, including Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube (Blaker 2015, 1).

Media is also used by Jihadists to threaten people and show the attacks they have executed, with the goal of fascinating young people. In September 2013, Jihadist terrorists tweeted in real-time amid an attack they executed in a shopping mall in Nairobi, showing the shooting of innocent people. Furthermore, in order to reach a greater audience in Europe, Jihadists have been publishing posters and videos on social media, translated them into several European languages, so that the target audience would be able to understand them (Blaker 2015, 1-3). In this way, young, second-generation Muslims living in Europe become fascinated and captivated by the authority and dominance of IS through their propaganda and social media posts. If they cannot join IS fighters in Syria, they are still recruited and radicalized to launch terrorist attacks in their own home countries.

The Main Islamic Terrorist Attacks In France

On January 7, 2015, French-Muslim brothers Said and Chérif Kouachi entered the Parisian offices of Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical newspaper, and shot employees, killing 12 and injuring 11. According to official sources, the attack took place because the newspaper published cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed. Following the attack and arrest of the perpetrators, people from Europe and around the world have been using the phrase ‘Je Suis Charlie’ to “represent the power of art and writing”, closely linked with free speech and religious tolerance (Nelson 2015).

On June 26, 2015, one Islamic terrorist attack took place in Saint-Quentin-Fallavier, near Lyon. Yassin Salhi, working as a delivery man, killed his employer and beheaded him, before reaching the factory where he was working. There, he placed his employer’s head on a fence, with two flags and the word “Shahada” on them. After that, Salhi attempted to light a gas and acetone cylinder, injured two other employees, and was ultimately arrested by French police. Amid the arrest, it was reported that Salhi yelled: “Allahu Akbar” (God is great). According to official sources, the perpetrator was born in France, while his parents were from Algeria and Morocco (Weinberg 2015).

On August 21, 2015, Ayoub El Khazzani, a Moroccan national, started shooting a gun on a Thalys Train en route to Amsterdam-Paris. Passengers succeeded in subduing him, but nevertheless, the attack left three people injured. According to the police reports, the perpetrator attempted to carry out a massacre on the train in order to “‘kill Americans’ in retaliation for bombings in Syria”. Following the arrest, El Khazzani was sentenced to life in jail (Willsher 2020; BBC 2020).

On the night of November 13, 2015, one of the biggest Islamic terrorist attacks took place in Paris. The event itself consisted of several planned attacks that took place at the same time in different places across Paris; namely, the concert hall Bataclan, the Stade de France stadium, and restaurants and bars on several different streets. Following the attacks, it was reported that 130 people died and 416 were injured. Former President Francois Hollande described it as an “act of war” by IS. At the stadium, three explosions took place, while other attackers were shooting at Le Carillon bar, the restaurant Le Petit Cambodge, and in diners in Rue de la Fontaine and Rue de Charonne. On Boulevard Voltaire, another attacker detonated a suicide bomb. Lastly, three attackers stormed into the Bataclan concert hall with suicide belts and attacked people with weapons. According to a witness, one gunman was “blaming President Hollande for intervening in Syria” during the attack. Following days of research, investigations, and arrests, French officials announced that all of the attackers were both second-generation Muslims living either in France or Belgium and members of IS (BBC 2015; BBC 2016).

French Red Cross rescuing the victims of the terrorist attacks in Paris, France on November 13-14, 2015 Source: IFCR

On July 14, 2016, Mohammed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel drove a cargo truck into a crowd on Promenade des Anglais in Nice, killing 86 people and injuring more than 300. The perpetrator was a member of IS (BBC “Nice attack” 2016). Since then, there have been several other Islamic terrorist attacks that took place in France. However, they have been more limited in planning, execution, and numbers of victims, as the French police enforced more preventive investigations and were more prepared to take immediate action against the perpetrators amid an attack.

Factors That Influenced The Second Generation To Radicalize

External factors: Historical connections

One thing that diversifies France from other European countries, like the Netherlands, Spain, or Italy, is the fact that the French government has been heavily militarily involved in the Middle East. This has caused hostilities between the two regions, and among second-generation Muslims who have foreign origins but have been living entirely in France. In fact, according to several experts, including Laurence Bindner, the main grievance that Jihadists have towards France is that past and current French foreign policy makes France the “enemy of Islam” (Bindner 2018, 1).

First of all, many hostilities come from countries in Northern Africa and the Middle East, which were former colonies under France. The colonizer has been depicted as having a “perceived tendency to regard its former colonies as its backyard”. Besides supporting and influencing the “apostate regimes” of its former colonies, France has also been criticized for “helping these regimes loot the natural resources of Muslim lands for its own economic interest”. Additionally, Jihadists have criticized France because it established and enforced its own educational, cultural, and political organizations abroad, thus succeeding in “erasing the Muslim identity of those nations and their inhabitants” (Bindner 2018, 4-5).

In the last decade, France has been at the center of Jihadist narratives due to its current foreign policy. In fact, France plays a prominent role through its involvement in military operations in several Middle Eastern countries, including Iraq and Syria, as well as in counter-jihadist operations (Bindner 2018, 4).

Alone in the desert? How France can lead Europe in the Middle East –  European Council on Foreign Relations
France’s military presence in the Middle East, with focus on its military interventions in Syria and Iraq Source: European Council on Foreign Relations

Jihadists have, therefore, been using this narrative and shaping it to justify their actions against and hostility towards France so that IS can more easily attract young people and attack France.

Domestic Factors: Socio-Economic and Religious Alienation

Estimated percentage of the Muslim population in Europe in 2016 Source: PRC

In 2016, the Muslim population in Italy totaled 2.8 million, whereas France’s Muslim population totaled more than double that number in the same year (Pew Research Center 2017), mostly due to the close link between France and its formers colonies, as well as its asylum policies. Although the Muslim community in France already comprises 8.8% of the country’s entire population, it still has several issues around integration, religious tolerance, socio-economic difficulties, and alienation in French society towards the Muslim second-generation, which makes up a large group of IS fighters.

One of the issues that second-generation Muslims in France struggle with, and which IS has been exploiting and shaping in its own way, is the religious alienation that the community has felt from France’s secularism and its perceived “sign of aggression towards Islam”. France established its secularity with a law in 1905, which allowed for the separation of Church and State. In 2004, another law was approved which “prohibit[ed] conspicuous religious symbols at schools”, including wearing a hijab. Finally, in 2010, the French government approved a law which forbade the use of “face coverings”, including burqas. Following the approval of the last two laws, many jihadist organizations have criticized France for its stance on religion, as they perceived these laws to be targeted against the Muslim community in France. For instance, following the 2004 law, Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb have described France as the “mother of all evils” and “threatened retaliation for its ‘fierce war on [their] daughters who wore Hijab’” (Bindner 2018, 6).

France’s secularism is at the center of its society. Although it gives more tolerance and freedom for people to practice their own religion, it also gives neutrality in the country, as people are not allowed to show religious symbols in government and educational buildings. In addition to this, it also indirectly grants more freedom of speech. Now, there is a huge conflict between France’s secularism, the publication of the satirical cartoon of the Prophet Mohammed by Charlie Hebdo, the use of religious symbols and headscarves, and the Muslim community, its religion, and its customs.

Closely linked to France’s secularism is another issue that second-generation Muslims have been struggled to cope with: the social and economic alienation and discrimination that lead to identity issues. Although the Muslim community has been living and working in France since the fall of French colonization, Muslims have been at the center of daily discrimination in every way. According to several studies, in 2015, only 18% “of the right-wing in France has a favorable view of Muslims” and “two-thirds of France associates Islam with religious fanaticism”, even though most of the Muslim community does not regularly practice the religion (Feikes 2016).

The media is playing a powerful and influential role in this, as, according to a study, more than half of the media in France “poorly depicts Muslims”, who are “associated with violence, extreme religiosity, and disrespect for France’s secularism”. In addition, resentment and discrimination are openly expressed by the right-wing political party Front National, which “blames France’s economic detriments on the Muslim population” (Feikes 2016).

Experts like Chaim Narang have been analyzing the current situation and have concluded: “later generations of immigrants perceive greater levels of discrimination than their first-generation relatives”. In fact, the first generation has to cope with “economic disadvantage, rapid acculturation challenges, and cultural dislocation”, while the second, and even the third generation, are integrated into their new society, but deal with most of the discrimination and racism in the job and housing markets. This leads to “grievance accumulation, societal disaffiliation, perceived economic inequality, and exclusion”. Several experts have warned that discrimination against the second and third generations of Muslims has led to a “double sense of non-belonging”, making them easy prey for IS’s radicalization and recruitment (Narang 2019).

Interpol has analyzed the same phenomenon, commenting:

“One of the reasons for the attraction of the ideology of global jihad may be that it gives meaning to the feeling of exclusion, prevalent in particular among second or third-generation immigrants who no longer identify with the country and the culture of their parents or grandparents, yet feel also excluded from western society, which still perceives them as foreigners”.

Narang, 2019
Muslims in Neglected Paris Suburbs Worry Conditions Could Produce More  Terrorists | Time
Neglected Paris suburbs, also called banlieues, that have been inhabited by the Muslim community Source: TIME Magazine

This discriminatory view of the Muslim community also has a heavy influence on their socio-economic situation. More than 30% of the Muslim population in France is unemployed, contrary to 10% of the French population in general. Consequently, the lack of jobs that Muslims can get in France has an influence on their low-income housing, called banlieues, and can lead to poor education (Feikes 2016).

Macron and The Freedom of Speech

President of France Emmanuel Macron Source: The Times of Israel

In recent years, the French government has been implementing several measures to counter discrimination against the Muslim community and prevent radicalization. Nevertheless, the problem of IS and its terrorist attacks still persist.

Another central figure in this conflict is the current French President Emmanuel Macron and his protection of the freedom of speech at all costs. Incidentally, one of the latest terrorist attacks in France saw teacher Samuel Paty beheaded in 2020 after showing the caricature of the Prophet Mohammed that was used by Charlie Hebdo to his class in order to explain and teach the concept of free speech. A few days before the event, Macron had made a speech in which he acknowledged the failure of the state to support the Muslim community, including the establishment of low-income housing in unsafe neighborhoods, poor educational buildings, consequential marginalization, and “obstruction to social mobility”. In addition, Macron recognized the role that France’s colonial past has played in the hostility and resentment that the Muslim community has faced (Talmiz 2020).

At the same time, Macron glorified France’s concept of secularism and announced his desire to create an “Islam of France”, which would be “anchored in national values of secularism and cleanse the faith in France of the influence of radical expressions”. According to him, this would be in opposition to the Muslim separatism, which would “deprive the nation the rights provided by laïcité – ‘freedom of expression, freedom of conscience and the right to blaspheme”. After the death of Samuel Paty, Macron gave another speech in which he “seemed to be condoning the caricatures about the prophet” (although it raised several critiques from many Muslim leaders and the Muslim population) and stood committed to free speech, depicting it as one of the basic values of the country (Talmiz 2020).

Nevertheless, experts have warned that the President’s speeches, although inspiring, have “provided no healing touch in a country reeling from the pandemic and the attendant economic challenges”. This could aggravate the “alienation of French Muslims by accusing them of separatism, identifying their faith as the source of violence, accusing the community collectively of being a threat to the unity of the nation”. In turn, it makes it difficult for everyone in France to move forward, solve the basic problems that the Muslim community has been facing, and create a fruitful approach to combating radicalization (Talmiz 2020).


BBC. 2015. “Paris attacks: What happened on the night.” BBC News, December 9, 2015. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-34818994.

BBC. 2016. “Nice attack: What we know about the Bastille Day killings.” BBC News, August 19, 2016. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-36801671.

BBC. 2016. “Paris attacks: Who were the attackers?” BBC News, April 27, 2016. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-34832512.

BBC. 2020. “Ayoub El-Khazzani: Gunman jailed for life over 2015 France train attack.” BBC News, December 17, 2020. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-55351608?xtor=AL-72-%5Bpartner%5D-%5Binforadio%5D-%5Bheadline%5D-%5Bnews%5D-%5Bbizdev%5D-%5Bisapi%5D.

Bindner, Laurence. 2018. “Jihadists’ Grievance Narratives against France.” The International Centre for Counter-Terrorism – The Hague 8, no. 7: 1-24. https://icct.nl/app/uploads/2018/02/Bindner-Jihadists-Grievance-Narratives-Against-France-February2018.pdf.

Blaker, Lisa. 2015. “The Islamic State’s Use of Online Social Media.” Military Cyber Affairs 1, no. 1: 1-9. http://dx.doi.org/10.5038/2378-0789.1.1.1004.

Feikes, Allison. 2016. “The Alienation, Victimization, and Frustration of French Muslims – Part I.” The SAIS Review of International Affairs, July 25, 2016. https://saisreview.org/the-alienation-victimization-and-frustration-of-french-muslims/.

Narang, Chaim. 2019. “Socio-Economic Discrimination and Processes of Securitisation as Catalysts of Radicalisation among Franco-Maghrebis.” Undergraduate Journal of Politics and International Relations 2 (1). https://www.ujpir-journal.com/articles/10.22599/ujpir.102/.

Nelson, Libby. 2015. “The Charlie Hebdo attack, explained.” Vox, January 9, 2015. https://www.vox.com/2015/1/9/18089104/charlie-hebdo-attack.

Oosterveld, Willem and Willem Bloem. 2017. “The Rise and Fall of ISIS: From Evitability to Inevitability.” The Hague Center for Strategic Studies: 1-23. https://hcss.nl/sites/default/files/files/reports/The%20Rise%20and%20Fall%20of%20ISIS.pdf.

Pew Research Center. 2017. “Europe’s Growing Muslim Population.” Pew Research Center, November 29, 2017. https://www.pewforum.org/2017/11/29/europes-growing-muslim-population/.

Talmiz, Ahmad. 2020. “Macron’s Mistaken Challenge to ‘Islam’.” Outlook, November 13, 2020. https://www.outlookindia.com/website/story/opinion-macrons-mistaken-challenge-to-islam/364185.

Weinberg, Stevie. 2015. “The June 26 Saint-Quentin-Fallavier (France) Attack.” International Institute for Counter-Terrorism, June 30, 2015. https://www.ict.org.il/Article/1430/Saint-Quentin-Fallavier-Attack#gsc.tab=0.

Willsher, Kim. 2020. “Terrorist behind foiled 2015 French train attack receives life sentence.” The Guardian, December 17, 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/dec/17/terrorist-ayoub-el-khazzani-2015-thalys-train-attack-life-sentence


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[REPORT] France Between J…

by Stefania Rinaldi time to read: 12 min