The Lesson From France: 'No' to the Politics of Fear

The message Israelis should take from recent events in France is that solidarity born of fear is not true solidarity. True solidarity can only emerge from sharing universal values, not from security-dominated patriotism.

Eva Illouz
Eva Illouz
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A French army soldier patrols under the Eiffel Tower in Paris, Tuesday Jan. 13, 2015.Credit: AP
Eva Illouz
Eva Illouz

France – the exotic country of sophisticated literature, refined manners and elegant fashion — was the sinister site last week of terror perpetrated by its own citizens, adherents of extremist and murderous factions of Islam, killing French people of all origins, and hitting at the heart of France’s most cherished values: freedom of expression, secularity, irreverence and humor.

Israelis, normally critical of France’s foreign policy and overblown rhetoric, felt an odd fraternity with a society hit by vile acts of terror (“Now maybe they will understand what we go through,” many of us thought in the deep recesses of our hearts). But equally discernible was a slight condescension on the part of Israelis for what seemed to be the undeniable proof that France’s Republican model had failed.

Why had France been blind to the Yemeni Al-Qaida trail of one of the Kouachi brothers – was the first question local Hebrew- and English-language media asked. The answer, many thought, was to be found in France’s lax immigration policies, and the self-delusional hope that all religious identities and ethnic groups could be integrated in one single citizenship, the famous French Republican model.

France, Israeli commentators averred, had been the victim of its excess of political correctness, of its nave belief that a host of religious identities could disappear under the thin veneer of secular citizenship. The widow of Charb, Charlie Hebdo’s editor, confirmed this bleak assessment that France had been blind to its own failure in an interview she gave to BBC: “We are in a war,” she said.

For three days, Paris was the site of police and other security forces stopping traffic and controlling the streets, indeed an all-too familiar spectacle to Israelis.

When news of the carnage at the kosher supermarket broke, the tone in Israel changed: France’s tragedy became “our” story.

Israeli media feverishly announced the impending mass exodus of French Jews; some Israeli politicians blatantly called on French Jews to “make aliyah.” French Jews were interviewed proudly declaring that only in Israel would they feel safe; that only Israel is effective at fighting Islamic terror. Journalists here also asked if France had done everything to protect its Jewish citizens, whether it should not have posted a guard at every Jewish store, and then added the observation that while the French were quick to say “ Je suis Charlie,” they had been slow in saying “Je Suis Juif.”

In three short days, Israel played to itself the narrative it is most familiar with: Islam is dark and dangerous; the Western world is either anti-Semitic or complicit with the enemies of tolerance by way of its politically correct morality. Only a muscular security state, one that controls immigration, spies effectively on its immigrant populations through intelligence agencies and police, can effectively fight Islamic terror.

Moral vs. military values

There is no doubt that the darkest forms of anti-Semitism today are to be found in the extremist factions of Sunni, Salafi and Shi’ite Islam. There is no doubt, too, that a culture of religious extremism and hatred has developed unhampered in France. But is Israel’s reaction to the recent events the only possible reaction? By comparison, France’s own response shows how deeply seated what I call “securitism” has become in the Israeli psyche. Like colored glasses, securitism taints everything, making it impossible to remember the original color of things or to open the field of political imagination.

In particular, the “securitist” outlook of Israeli right-wing politics makes it difficult to understand France’s unique and uniquely powerful model of citizenship. Shouldn’t we Israelis be a tiny bit more modest in our judgments, and try to see what we can learn from that model of citizenship, however vulnerable and fragile it may be?

Political scientist Bruce Ackerman commented on the Huffington Post website that the French constitution allows the president to use “the state of exception” – a situation in which real and severe danger justifies the suspension of the normal legal conduct of the state. But in contrast to the United States (or Israel), he can do this for a total of no more than 60 days (after which he must request a new authorization from the Conseil Constitutionnel, France’s supreme court).

In other words, the French constitution is very reluctant to suspend basic rights (such as by allowing the practice of administrative detention) or to infringe upon privacy, and will usually be interpreted as upholding the fundamental rights of its citizens.

This is a model we should respect rather than dismiss, for it contains a form of strength and power no less impressive than the military one. It defines political power through the values it embodies. “Securitism,” in contrast, does not define values. Rather, it defines a whole society through its enemies and thus reduces politics to fear, and political leadership to the deployment of strategies of survival. Securitism is created by fear and in turn sows fear. It teaches citizens not to expect to flourish, only to survive. In that sense, securitism is the politics of the weak. It affirms nothing to the world, except its own fear.

The French refusal to embrace securitism is based on an affirmative model of the nation as a moral enterprise, as the direct expression of the moral values French have chosen for themselves in the last 200 years. It ignores, mocks, opposes the values of the enemy. It defeats the enemy by refusing to have the enemy define its ideals, struggles and wars. It refuses to have the enemy define who the French are. (The cover of Charlie Hebdo’s latest issue, showing the Prophet Mohammed saying “Je suis Charlie” is a good example of this; the staff yielded neither to fear nor to hatred).

This is why during these dramatic days, contrary to what Israelis may have expected, it was not extreme right-wing politician Marine Le Pen who was the hero of the hour, but the ideals of the French Revolution: freedom, equality and brotherhood.

Consider this: Soon after the first terror attack, on the magazine, a wide consensus was formed among French journalists, commentators and intellectuals, according to which, despite the horror of the attack, there was a need to establish a sharp distinction between peaceful Muslims and terrorists, thus blocking the temptation to stigmatize the hard-working and peaceful French Muslims. Any temptation to generalize about Islam was consciously opposed. “Terror has no religion” read posters carried during the demonstration in Paris on Sunday.

Standing in solidarity

Interfaith gatherings were organized immediately, convening Muslim, Jewish and Christian clergy. Representatives of France’s Muslim communities condemned in the strongest possible terms the attacks and declared unambiguously their allegiance to the French nation.

The imam Chassen Chalghoumi – a prominent Muslim preacher — attended the memorial service Saturday night at the Grande Synagogue on the Rue de la Victoire, where he kissed and hugged representatives of the Jewish community. Prime Minister Manuel Vals and President Francois Hollande stood in the synagogue with kippot on their heads, at one in solidarity with the Jews as French citizens. Jews at the Grande Synagogue sang “The Marseillaise.” Vals declared in an interview with The Atlantic that, “If 100,000 French people of Spanish origin were to leave, I would never say that France is not France anymore. But if 100,000 Jews leave, France will no longer be France. The French Republic will be judged a failure.” A sentence like that can be pronounced only because of the integrative model of French citizenship.

Perhaps most impressive of all was the extraordinary mass of an estimated 3.7 million people marching in cities across France, the largest demonstration in French history. Whatever their social class, religion, ethnic group, race or even political orientation, French citizens marched together and reaffirmed as a single voice and body the sacredness of their political values, the sacredness of freedom and the sacredness of French secular citizenship.

A securitist state would not be able to organize such mass demonstrations of solidarity because, after it creates fear, it subsumes the rights of citizens to the rights of the state, and generates apathy and alienation in citizens who know in the recesses of their heart that the state does not care about their fundamental rights.

Thus the Israeli right wing sold us and continues to sell us an enormous lie: Its politics of fear is not strong but weak, because it does not stand for any values; it does not unite but divides. More crucially: The politics of fear does not create patriotism, because it cannot create true solidarity.

True solidarity can only emerge from sharing, and cherishing, common values. And what enables values to be shared? It is the fact they are universal. Only the affirmation of a universal moral project can unite vastly different groups and in a sustained way, because only universal values can mobilize the vast diversity of human beings as human beings.

Francois Hollande can stand with a kippah and French Jews can sing “The Marseillaise” because they are united by a common, powerful universal identity. The essence of a true patriotism that unites all its citizens is not securitist but universalist.