Will France attack fuel tensions?

Story highlights

  • Yassin Salhi has been detained over an attack that left one dead in France
  • Jonathan Laurence: Public discussions of violent radicalization have hit saturation point

Jonathan Laurence is associate professor of political science at Boston College and nonresident senior fellow at the Center on the U.S. and Europe at the Brookings Institution. He is author of "The Emancipation of Europe's Muslims" and co-author of "Integrating Islam."

(CNN)News that a man brandishing flags professing faith to Islam carried out a fatal attack at a gas plant near Lyon sent the French political establishment into a frenzy, pulling President Francois Hollande out of his meetings and into a specially convened council of defense advisers.

This seems, in the light of day, to be an overreaction to an incompetent criminal act. Compared to January's events, when three men turned heavy arms against targets of high symbolic value -- the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and a kosher market in the capital city -- Friday's attack was a dud. There was a personal connection -- the victim reportedly knew his alleged killer -- and it was limited in scope. Firemen arriving on the scene averted the worst damage by arresting the suspect as he allegedly tried to set off an explosion.
Jonathan Laurence
Its effect has nonetheless been immediate and incendiary. The news landed amidst a rush of images of wounded and dead Europeans from a separate attack on the beaches of formerly French-governed Tunisia, cut down by the same type of weapon the Kouachi brothers used to murder the staff of Charlie Hebdo. And it took place on the anniversary of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria's declaration of a new caliphate.
    Even this weak spark is enough to ignite an atmosphere in which political strategists hesitate between the "spirit of January 11" -- when 4 million French briefly united in street protests against Islamic extremism -- and the spirit of April 21, 2002. That's the day roughly the same number voted for the far-right National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, who advanced to the second round of presidential elections seven months after 9/11. That election sent the center-right into years of hot pursuit of National Front voters, and divided the left between secularists and multiculturalists of differing degrees.
    As a result of all this, public discussions of violent radicalization have reached a saturation point. In June alone, the French Parliament approved a major sharpening of intelligence laws and issued a 500-page report on jihadist recruitment in France, while four major political forums on Islam's place in the French republic were held in succession: by the Interior Ministry, both main political parties and the national mayors association.
    And now, unlike in January, when the opposition exhibited some restraint, there is less impulse towards national unity. The attack came just days after the Prime Minister stated publicly that Islam would be a campaign theme in the next elections. On cue, the Républicains, led by Nicolas Sarkozy, said the government "wallows in naïveté" about the dangers and needs to acknowledge that "we are at war." The mayor of Nice has suggested the attack confirmed the presence of a fifth column in the country, and the National Front denounced the government's inaction.
    Since January, however, there has been a noticeable trend towards more candor and interest by officials in addressing some of the underlying causes. The Prime Minister speaks with resolve about the need to end "apartheid" in French suburbs. The political establishment has responded with educational reforms and by shaking up the way it consults Muslim federations and the diplomatic networks that send hundreds of Imams to preach in mosques during the current Ramadan holiday.
    With the next presidential election coming in 2017, the government still has two years to draw the line between accepting a terrorist's terms of debate -- a severed head on a gatepost -- and continuing to constructively focus on areas that need frank and immediate attention, like imam training, theological education, mosque construction, religious radicalism in prisons and anti-semitism in the banlieue.
    But the reality is that it is unlikely any of the of the new antiterrorism and counter-radicalization policies would have had an effect on the trajectory of the suspect, Yassin Salhi. He has no prison record, was not known at his local mosque, and has not been to fight in Syria or Iraq. This underscores a troubling prospect: a 35-year-old Frenchman with a family and a job wanting to murder his employer and blow up his workplace. This case will therefore feed the sense of urgency and preoccupation because it is all so frustratingly familiar.
    Encouragingly, a recent Pew poll suggested an increasing ability among French to separate terrorism from their general assessment of Muslim fellow citizens. Indeed, the actual military response on the weekend after the attack was limited to the Rhones Alpes region where the attack took place.
    But the President still needs to undertake a truly candid discussion with the nation in which he explains the challenges and the reasons why the state needs to actively help the Muslim communities defend themselves against the Islamic State's ideology. True, it would be yet another discussion in a sea of discourse on Islam. But if accompanied by a coherent policy agenda that is actually backed up with appropriate resources, then the case could be made for definitively "resolving" the issue.
    When events reached a similar boiling point before the last presidential election in 2012, French voters opted to defuse tensions by electing the first Socialist President since the 1980s. However, they will face subtly different choices next time. Both Sarkozy and Hollande are likely to be back in the next election, but they are joined by a changed National Front leader who many citizens will feel was vindicated by the January attacks. Marine Le Pen, meanwhile, is now ready for prime time, having expelled her racist father from the party rolls. She has been carefully courting constituencies that once felt threatened by the party's anti-Semitic and xenophobic overtones, but now appreciate the party's assertiveness.
    Ultimately, leading politicians have all climbed the same pole to denounce violent Islamic radicalization, and so to minimize Friday's event would be to abandon the post of town crier to the competition. But the man holding the country's largest megaphone sits in the Elysée Palace. We can only hope that he seizes the opportunity to reclaim the political leadership he found during January's tragic attack in Paris.