Fight or Flight?
Will France stand up to terrorism this time?


On a street in Paris, there is a kiosk that on the outside looks like all the other kiosks selling their wares. On the inside, just above the tourist maps and miniature Eiffel towers, there is an entire wall lined with pro-bin Laden and anti-Semitic books for sale. One book maintains that Jews run the Saudi government. Another praises bin Laden and his cause and violently attacks the U.S. and Western “values” in general.

The name of that street is the Champs Elysées. The kiosk sits right by the chic Louis Vuitton store just about ten-feet away.

In a country where freedom-of-speech laws are much stricter than in the U.S., the radical stance of this vocal minority of Islamic fundamentalists is virulent and often unabashedly public. Even more worrisome is that it is often connected with officially recognized Muslim organizations.

The Union of Islamic Organizations of France is the largest umbrella organization of French Muslim groups and has obtained more seats than any other in the “Conseil Français du Culte Musulman” (CFCM), supposedly the leading voice of the more than five million Muslims living in France. Tariq Ramdan, grandson of Hassan al Banna–founder of the Muslim Brotherhood–has been a frequent guest of the UIOF’s annual national congress meeting in Le Bourget, a suburb north of Paris. The UIOF has had longstanding ties with the Muslim Brotherhood. Outside the conference you can buy books with titles such as “The Sharon Protocols” and “The Jews Follow the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” The recent Israeli assassination of Hamas’s “spiritual leader,” Sheik Yassin, drew immediate condemnation by the UIOF on the front page of its website.

The other current of hate speech in France comes from the far Left, and takes the form of pure revisionist history. For example, the Frenchman Thierry Meyssan’s book 9/11 The Big Lie became the number seven top-seller in France. It claims that the Pentagon was not hit by American Airlines flight 77, but by a missile. According to Meyssan, the CIA, with the aid of bin Laden himself, helped coordinate the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in order to give the U.S. a pretext to go into the Middle East to secure oil. Meyssan even declares that Bush and the bin Laden family are business partners.

Together, these two currents–Islamic fundamentalism and left-wing anti-American revisionism–are proving lethal in France. Islamic fundamentalism provides the ideology and revisionism helps to provide the “justification.” When planted on the fertile soil of poorly assimilated, predominately young Muslim males from the suburbs of big cities, it is produces men like Zacarias Moussaoui, the 9/11 “twentieth hijacker.”

Moreover, Muslim animosity in France is not directed just toward Jews or America. Five days after the Madrid bombing, which caused a death toll of 191 people, a popular French newspaper called Le Parisien received a threat from a group calling itself “The Servants of Allah, the powerful and Wise.” It was addressed to the “servants of the French Republic,” and specifically mentioned Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, who is largely credited for France’s recent banning of the Islamic headscarf and other religious apparel in schools. One part declares, “We take France to be a declared enemy of Islam.” Another says,

“Our organization, and whoever associates with it, is lifted by the grace of Allah, and has even become more powerful in mastering new technology, and assured massive recruitment by volunteers for especially jihad, and Europe is the new land of Jihad. A heavy offense is going to come to the lands of the allies of Satan and we are going to plunge France into terror and remorse, and blood will brim beyond your borders…”

Are these empty threats, or the previews of terrorist plots? Last Thursday, a Spanish CIA agent tipped off the French DST counter-intelligence service to a possible attack on the RER railway going from Paris to the suburbs. Nothing was found, but between 40,000 to 50,000 passengers were stranded. A few weeks earlier, on March 24, another group called AZF–a group little known to French authorities–claimed they had planted nine bombs along the French railway. A bomb was discovered on the railroad tracks leading from Paris to the Swiss city of Basle. This was the second bomb discovered in just over a month on the railway lines in France.

France has not seen this kind of terrorist threat since the 1980s. Then, unfortunately, accommodation prevailed. The French government stopped the wave of attacks that took place during February, March, and September of 1986–which were claimed by the Committee for Solidarity with Near Eastern Political Prisoners (CSPPA)–by giving arms, economic aid, and diplomatic support to Syrian terrorists and by releasing Wahid Gordiji, the mastermind behind much of the terror.

Will France deal with the current threat through accommodation, or will it adopt new, more proactive policies? Paris’s recent rejection of bin Laden’s proposal for a “truce” is a good sign. For the French, the choice between vacillation and self-defense could mean the difference between one day having to interrupt their conversations in cafés to nervously glance at who is coming in the door–like Israelis are forced to do today–or not. If they give in, not only will their security be threatened, their culture itself will be. And in terms of richness of culture, one must admit, the French have bragging rights.

Glen Feder is a terrorism analyst at the Investigative Project and an advanced doctoral candidate in political science at Boston College and L’Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris, France.