Analysis & Opinions - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

France's Terrible Swift Sword

| January 15, 2015


A shorter version of this op-ed subsequently appeared in the Huffington Post on January 16, 2015.

The stirring martial line from the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" comes to mind in contemplating the amazing feat of the French security services: in a country of 66 million people and in a matter of two days, localizing and liquidating the two terrorist brothers of Algerian descent who had rampaged through the offices of the iconoclastic weekly, Charlie Hebdo on 7 January, killing 12 people.

France is one of the most heavily policed countries in the world, for keeping order in a disorderly nation, apt—with its revolutionary tradition—to take to the streets at the drop of a hat, to accomplish political ends.

France has multiple police and paramilitary organizations, including two anti-terrorist intervention forces, à la Seal Team Six. One, under the police, is known under the acronym RAID; and the other, known as the GIGN, is part of the gendarmerie, a quasi-military force that patrols the French countryside. Both came into action in the double takedowns on 9 January: in the north near Charles de Gaulle airport and in the east of Paris. In the latter scene, a terrorist of black African descent, having seized a kosher supermarket, threatened to kill his hostages if the two terrorist brothers, holed up in a printing factory near the airport, were not released—a clear impossibility.

The attack on the Charlie Hebdo followed a series of smaller attacks in France in recent days, raising the question of why France appears to be a major target of Muslim extremism. There are a number of reasons for this. France has the largest Muslim population in Europe—an estimated five million people. (It also has the largest Jewish population).

Many of the Muslims are Arabs, and many of these Arabs of North African descent, mostly of Algerian background. From the historical memory of the Algerian war of independence from the French (1954–1962), there is a legacy of the horrible things that each side did to the other. The bitterness was intensified by the fact that France considered Algeria as integrally a part of France and divided it into three French départments—without, however, granting French citizenship to any but a few. This did not prevent, however, a large influx of Algerians to France, even before independence. At the same time, Algerian Jews were given a special status by the Crémieux decree of 1869, which allowed them to become French citizens. 

Some of these people of Algerian origin are well integrated into French society, but others are not—living in decrepit high-rises in the suburbs (banlieues) of Paris and other cities: a breeding ground of discontentment. Many Algerians came to France after the Algerian civil war in search of a better life; many others are descendants of the harkis, those Algerians who sided with the French during the civil war and thus had to leave when Algeria became independent in 1962.

Additionally, France is an aggressively secular country, forcing religion into the background, even to the extent of banning the wearing of the Muslim veil in public places.

And last but not least, France has been in the lead in combating Islamist forces in the Near East and Africa, particularly in Mali (a former French colony) and Iraq.

In short, France has become a cocktail for the focus of extremist Muslim ire.  

Statements and views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author and do not imply endorsement by Harvard University, the Harvard Kennedy School, or the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Cogan, Charles. "France’s Terrible Swift Sword." Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, January 15, 2015.

The Author