French Introspection & Action: The Paris Aftermath

What are the French saying in the aftermath of the Paris attacks? What are Parisians thinking as they add the massacre of November 13 to the surge of refugees and the persistently slow economic progress? I asked these questions of my colleague, Andrew Scharf, a business and entrepreneur adviser in the Paris area. Scharf generously shared his thoughts on what is happening in Paris and in French politics.

"President Hollande has been on hyper-drive: air strikes in Syria, intensified security, and persistent lobbying among key world leaders for a coordinated war against ISIS. What he has not done in public is to link the dots. There has been much chest beating and soul searching. Defining that soul in a multi-ethnic and pluralistic society has been difficult. Corporations hired fewer people, and shared out the work to the special few who held full time employment. Nationalist feelings are at a fever pitch across the political spectrum. French flags are hanging everywhere, as if hanging a French flag in your window indicates French-ness. If our values and society are at risk, then what are our values?"

Regional elections are coming up and Scharf reports that politicians and pundits are speaking out on terrorism, but hesitate to address social issues for fear of enabling France's extreme right wing political party. Yet, there is a a growing sense that something must be done about the social issues leading to terrorism. He quotes French intellectual, Alain Minc, "Islam resembles a subterranean territory within French society."

Scharf notes that the government has not addressed the scarcity of options, particularly for integrating diverse youth into the national fabric, and the political will to do so has been lacking. He described the current, more robust, discussion.

"Some suggest that the country adopt affirmative actions, boost civics classes within the public schools, and foster anti-discrimination initiatives. Others claim that in the current fragile environment, such statements of support for those left economically behind in the poorer urban quarters and suburbs are untenable, given the atmosphere of fear in the face of any future terrorist assault."

Can the Muslim community fit in the French secular tradition of Equality, Freedom, and Fraternity?

Scharf appreciates that Hollande is rallying France's diverse communities, but is concerned that no one is addressing the root problem, "How does the government better integrate those of immigrant descent among us?" He explains that the answers are close to home.

"The hard truth that the perpetrators were born among us has been a difficult pill for many to swallow. The culprits might have been seduced by a twisted ideology, but ISIS was just a means for them to legitimize their social grievances. Out of desperation and alienation, they have bought into an argument that we are living through a clash of civilizations. The West is seen by radical Islam as decadent, dismissive, and antithetical to the teachings of the Prophet and therefore must be destroyed. This perverse interpretation of the Koran could not have come about if the people of North Africa, who immigrated to France, felt a deeper part of French society."

Describing how France's social problems emerged in the past twenty years, Scharf talks about passive discrimination, income inequality, and a lack of viable employment for an entire generation clustered in isolated satellite cities outside of Paris.

"Factories continue to close and many traditional white-collar jobs have been off shored. To try and change this dynamic, the Sarkozy administration re-calibrated work contracts. Unfortunately, it did not have the desired effect. It was meant to introduce more flexibility in the workplace and allow people to earn more. In the end, cooyment. The rest were left to scramble and hold multiple part-time work contracts to make ends meet."

There has been world-wide attention to the economic and social inequality views of French economist, Thomas Picketty. Scharf refers to Picketty's comments on the link between inequality and terrorism in the French newspaper, Le Monde. He also notes that Picketty's views have not shaped France's policies to date.

"In Picketty's view, the West is partially to blame with its callous manipulation of geopolitics, the two Gulf Wars, and its relationships with the Gulf States. If terrorism is rooted in inequality as Piketty claims, then the best solution is for Western countries to demonstrate that they are more concerned with the social development of the region than they are with their own financial interests."

Despite the decisiveness of Hollande, the solidarity of the French people, and the determination to persevere, Scharf reports that most people are afraid. The attacks in Paris were on a culture and way of life. Extra security, while laudable, does not eliminate the fear. Rather, addressing the underlying social issues is the solution, and Scharf makes several recommendations.

"To resolve the dangers of our times, we must all stand up and hold hands together against the hate mongers. This means inclusiveness, openness, tolerance, and mutual respect. Immigrant bashing and name calling only serve to fracture a fragile society looking for a comprehensive solution.

The way forward is for France to turn away from "austerity" and reinvigorate its model of integration and job creation. To combat a twisted ideology, you need to be able offer a positive solution where people have the opportunity to fulfill their dreams and belong to a larger community."