PARIS – The trial taking place in the heart of Paris, at the Palais de la Justice, right in the middle of an island in the Seine, has been compared in importance to the prosecution of Klaus Barbie, the Nazi war criminal dubbed the ‘Butcher of Lyon’ who was convicted of crimes against humanity. The presiding judge, Jean-Louis Périès, has called it one of the most important events of this century.
It centers around the accused, Salah Abdeslam, the sole surviving member of a ten-man cell that terrorized Paris on the night of November 13th 2015. The ten men mowed down 130 people and injured hundreds sitting on café terraces, at the Stade de France and at the Bataclan concert hall.
For unknown reasons, Abdeslam failed to blow himself up as he had originally planned to. He stands trial with 19 others: 13 are also present in the dock, five are presumed dead in Syria or Iraq and one is behind bars in Turkey. They are all accused to different degrees of complicity in aiding and abetting the bloodiest terror attack ever perpetrated on French soil.
The trial opened on September 8th and will run for an estimated 149 days over the course of the next nine months.
On trial days, virtually every street around the small island is blocked by police barricades; both sides of the building facing the Seine are chockablock with police vans forming an outer protective wall.
This is an unusual trial, not just by its nature, but also in the considerable logistical effort required to host the 1,765 plaintiffs, 20 accused, 300 lawyers and countless journalists. A 750 square meter auditorium was constructed especially for the trial, costing an estimated 7.5 million euros.
Just as the trial kicked off, the heat wave that has held for days broke, with sudden autumnal rain showers. The café terraces that were heaving, including those targeted on that fateful November night, emptied out. For Parisians, only rain and terror lulls, temporarily, that perennial activity.
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For five years, Abdeslam has kept silent about that night and his role in the attacks. With the eyes of the world focused on on him he has decided not to lose the opportunity to use it to propagate the ideas that radicalized him, even if his remarks so far read less like philosophy than a tragicomedy.
As the trial opened, Abdeslam, dressed in a black T-shirt and matching mask, accompanied by his 31 year-old lawyer, Olivia Ronen, gave an opening statement that began with the contention that "Only God can judge me." To which the presiding judge Périès answered promptly, "We will see about that."
When asked to state his profession he answered in a similar vein, that he was a "soldier of the Islamic State," Périès replied, crisply, that his legal papers list him as a "former temp."
Indeed, the perils of such a trial in the glare of global attention is that it provides a platform not just for the victims’ testimony and trauma, but also for the perpetrators’ attempts to aggrandize themselves and their cause.
The political scientist and expert on radical Islam, Olivier Roy, speaking from his office in Florence where he is based at the European University, argues the trial "is in itself a theatrical performance," and that efforts should be made to minimize its exploitation. "Why does it take months to try someone like this?" Roy, one of France’s most well-known and respected commentators on radicalization, has studied Abdeslam and the evolution of radical Islam in France.
Abdeslam has already used the stand to call for "justice for the children of Syria," a summons that helped push many to pick up arms and leave for Syria to fight for the Islamic State.
Despite Abdeslam’s eagerness to amplify his views from the court-room to the world, "he is a prisoner to that night," Roy argues. Abdeslam’s attempts to provoke his audience and bamboozle the court are self-defeating. "He is too much of a clown…too out-of-touch to put forward convincing arguments and utilize" the platform to which he now has access.
But the turn to radical Islam has lost its allure. Young Western Muslims of GenZ, Roy argues, aren’t interested in the ideas that radicalized Abdeslam’s generation: Syria and violent extremism "isn’t the stuff that makes the kids from the suburbs dream anymore." Abdeslam, now 32, is a throwback, "outdated," speaking the language of the Islamic State from 2015, that no longer speaks to the new generation like it once did to some of his millennial peers.
Roy’s 2017 book, "Jihad and Death: The Global Appeal of Islamic State" argues that we have yet to see a new generation of radical Islamism of the type that Abdeslam signed up to, "at least for the time being."
Roy describes Abdeslam as an "ambivalent character" whom, he stresses, having failed to become a martyr like his co-perpetrators (who included his own brother), is "no hero" to the constellation of jihadist groups both inside and outside of France.
Abdeslam managed to elude the police on the night of the attack ditching his suicide vest on a street corner and calling a friend in Brussels who came to pick him up, triggering a four month manhunt. He was eventually found hiding in a basement in the Brussels neighborhood of Molenbeek, arrested and soon after extradited to France.
Just months before the attacks, the Abdeslam brothers owned and ran Les Béguines bar in Brussels, until it was closed by the police for selling hard drugs. His ex-lawyer Sven Mary described Salah Abdeslam as having the "intelligence of an empty ash tray."
Roy has argued that second generation Muslims in Europe fell into an identity vacuum, making them more vulnerable to radicalization.
Roy’s book argues that it is Islam that has been hijacked by radical and violent movements, in which the appeal is violence and thrillseeking and not religion per se. Abdeslam is the archetype of this theory.
Lawyer Sven Mary concurs: "Abdeslam is the perfect example of Generation Grand Theft Auto, who think they are living in a video game." Mary has defended several terrorists of the same type, such as Fouad Belkacem, leader of Sharia4Belgium that was key in recruiting and radicalizing Belgian Muslim youth.
With presidential elections around the corner in France, in April 2021, the Paris trial has taken on additional political weight. It provides round-the-clock coverage on the French far right’s favorite themes: Islam, immigration and the purported decline of France in the world. So will the spotlight on the trial, and the populist, nativist ‘answer’ to its perpetrators, swing the vote at all?
So far, the trial has not galvanized the usual suspects of the far right, partly out of respect for the victims, despite the risk of the main exploiters, and potential electoral ‘beneficiaries’, of the trial and its associated issues potentially coming from France’s far right.
The attacks "killed so many, from all social and ethnic backgrounds, of different nationalities in such a terrible way that it seems to have led to a pause for reflection from the far-right and a decision to not be polemical, for once," notes Jean-Yves Camus, a French political scientist who specializes in nationalist movements and is director of the Observatory of Radical Politics at the Fondation Jean-Jaurès, in a telephone interview.
In contrast, when Abdelslam was first arrested, one of France’s most influential far right leaders and a presidential contender, Marine Le Pen, didn’t miss the opportunity to try and extract political dividends from the attacks.
She argued that France "had not realized the level of danger" it was in, highlighting the failures of the state and inflaming mutual suspicions by querying how many more undetected Muslim terrorists were preparing attacks Belgian or French soil.
The role of religion and Islam in French society, with Muslims constituting the country’s second largest religious group, is proving yet again to be a key feature of the coming elections.
All eyes are on Eric Zemmour, a journalist and now potential presidential candidate from the extreme right, who’s been convicted in the past of inciting racial hatred. Still undeclared, he is polling around ten percent of the vote.
Zemmour is a dedicated advocate of the "great replacement theory" that argues that the "other," namely Muslim immigrants, will replace the "indigenous" or "authentic" French people, their ideas and culture. This has been core to the rallying cries of the European and American hard right, from Tucker Carlson to Geert Wilders to Viktor Orban, and to white nationalist terrorists who committed atrocities in Pittsburgh, El Paso and Christchurch, New Zealand.
Facts rarely enter into the debate. Muslims are estimated to make up only five to eight percent of France’s population, with a potential rise, according to the Pew Research Center to 18 percent by 2050.
More in-depth qualitative studies from the French Institut Montaigne however show that the majority of French Muslims hold little or no religious affiliations, and respect the republic’s legal system’s authority over religious law.
A string of comments from government ministers and recent legislation have all helped spin the pendulum of the political debate rightwards, before the Abdeslam trial had even started.
The government’s controversial "anti-separatism" law was framed as ensuring stricter controls over radical Islamist groups: full oversight of homeschooling, additional powers and oversight for local authorities, who can now close down local associations.
To its many critics, the law strayed from France’s long-held liberal, egalitarian model of secularism, based on freedom of religious thought. Sociologist Marwarn Mohammed pointed out its enforcement was not universal and specifically targeted Muslims. Far left head Jean-Luc Melenchon, called it "anti-republican" and "anti-Muslim."
Camus believes the law was a clear result of "political pressure, in which the government needed to be seen to be in control," he explained, listing a string of attacks starting from 9/11 to the 2015 Paris attacks, Nice in 2016 and more recently the murder of Samuel Paty, a teacher who showed his class a charicature of the Prophet Mohammed and was beheaded by a radical Islamist.
Further comments by government officials have intensified the sense of a generalized ‘othering’ targeting largely Muslims often accompagnied by unsophisticated conspiracy theory-fuelled thinking.
France’s minister for higher education, Frédérique Vidal, has vowed to investigate what she terms "Islamo-leftism" and its influence on universities, arguing that "Islamo-leftism is eating away at our society as a whole." The interior minister, Gérald Darmanin, himself of Algerian descent, recently declared that he found ethnic food aisles in supermarkets "offensive."
It is still not clear if politicians on the center, right or far right will actually profit politically from the Abdeslam trial, and if it will refuel xenophobic sentiments that have been side-lined by the COVID pandemic and subsequent economic crisis.
However, Macron’s government is laser-focused on "short term" goals, not least the presidential elections, meaning it is eagerly "pandering to the estimated 20 percent of the electorate that will vote for the far-right, that will have disastrous effects," warns Camus.
What is clear from this trial is that as the dust of these attacks (from Paris, Nice and Paty) begins to settle, France needs an open, substantial and unbigoted debate about integration and national identity.
If that doesn’t happen, the climate of fear that they created is likely to continue to be ruthlessly exploited by far-right figures such as Zemmour who are managing to move the goal posts far to the right, leaving even the likes of Le Pen looking moderate.
Esti Judah writes on Europe, the Middle East and Turkey. She also works in the field of emergency humanitarian assistance having previously worked with UNHCR and the UN World Food Programme. Twitter: @EstherJudah