By Robert F. Worth
April 5, 2017
Gilles Kepel, a French political scientist, was at home in Paris brushing his teeth one morning last June when his Cellphone rattled on the sink. It was a text from a journalist he knew: “I’m sorry to tell you this, but you’re on the death list.” Kepel turned toward his TV, which was already on, and the top story eliminated any confusion. A French-born Jihadi named Larossi Abballa had murdered a police officer and his wife in a town west of Paris and then delivered a macabre speech on Facebook Live — with the couple’s 3-year-old child cowering nearby — in which he called for the killing of seven public figures. The French media omitted the details, but an Interior Ministry official soon called with confirmation: Kepel’s name was near the top of the list. His initial feeling, he later told me, was “as if the subject I’ve been studying for 35 years had turned around to strike at me.” Within hours, he had a government security team assigned to guard him 24 hours a day. A similar death warrant was issued against him later that summer, elevating the sense of danger.
The threats came at an unusual turn in Kepel’s career. He has long been a prominent figure in the French intellectual world, a scholar whose face — a distinctive, narrow-eyed mask of polished sobriety — is often seen on TV news shows. But recently he has assumed a far more combative stance. Kepel has argued that much of France’s left-leaning intelligentsia fails to understand the nature of the threat the country faces — not just from foreign terrorists but also from the Islamist provocateurs in its exurban ghettos, the banlieues. Unlike the Islam-bashing polemicists who haunt French opinion pages, Kepel brings a lifetime of scholarship to this argument. He has always been careful to distinguish mainstream Islam from the hard-line Islamist ideologues of the banlieues, who have no real equivalent in the United States. He has long been a man of the left; his wife’s family is from North Africa, and he has no sympathy for the xenophobia of the right-wing National Front. But he believes that radical Islamists are trying to shred France’s social fabric and foster a civil war, and that many leftists are unwittingly playing into their hands. This view has made him a target for almost everyone.
Kepel’s assault against what he calls “Islamo-gauchism” has earned him an unusual role during a French presidential campaign that has seemed, at times, to be a referendum on the country’s tortured relationship with its Muslim immigrants and with Islam writ large. The string of terrorist attacks that intensified two years ago in Paris has fed a current of national anxiety, and it has only grown worse with the recognition that hundreds of French citizens fighting alongside ISIS — more than those from any other European country — will be trickling homeward from Syria and Iraq, many of them to French prisons that are widely considered to be incubators for terror plots. The National Front candidate, Marine Le Pen, has called for drastic reductions in immigration and the expulsion of all illegal immigrants, in terms that have been echoed by the Trump administration. She regularly invokes radical Islam and globalization as two linked evils threatening France. The mainstream right-wing candidate, François Fillon, published a book late last year titled “Defeating Islamic Totalitarianism.” On the left, the candidates have issued a confused mix of panicky alarms about terrorism and denunciations of racism and Islamophobia. At times, the candidates seem to suggest that France’s very identity is at stake. The elder statesman Jean-Pierre Chevènement, in a recent book, wrote of the attacks and their aftermath: “Isn’t the essence of the matter that we don’t know today who we are or what we want to do?” The cover shows a storm-tossed ship flying le tricolour.
Some of Kepel’s fellow intellectuals contend that the election should be an opportunity to look inward instead of blaming Islamists. The political scientist Olivier Roy argues that France’s rigorously secular government and society have helped create an airless environment that has allowed jihadism to thrive. Roy and others on the left appear to believe that the terrorist violence of the past two years has illuminated fatal flaws at the heart of French political culture: too rigid, too hierarchical, too insistent on imposing cultural conformity on an increasingly diverse population. This critique is sometimes echoed by critics in Britain and the United States, who say France needs to get over its horror of communautarisme — the formation of ethnic and social enclaves — and loosen the sense of what it means to be authentically French. In other words, France would be better off adopting a more hands-off, multiculturalist approach to the head scarf and other Islamic cultural symbols.
Kepel scoffs at this argument, and sometimes derides its proponents as naïfs or even Islamist fellow-travellers. He is more than an observer to this debate: Kepel was a member of the commission that helped create France’s controversial 2004 law banning Islamic head scarves and other religious symbols and clothing in public schools, and remains proud of that role. He believes that eroding French state secularism, known as laïcité, would lead to a “Balkanization of Europe along religious and ethnic lines,” with a Muslim voting bloc, Muslim schools and a hardening of quasi-separatist communities of various religions. With his career coming to an end — he is 61 — he is making these arguments with ever-greater urgency. He has repeatedly dismissed claims of widespread Islamophobia in French society as fraudulent, saying the word has become little more than a rhetorical club used by Islamists to rally their base.
Kepel’s term for this cultural malaise — and the title of his latest book — is la fracture. When I saw him recently in his spare office at the Paris Institute of Political Studies, commonly known as Sciences Po, a copy was on the table: The cover is a color portrait of his face against a black background, staring at the viewer with an expression of almost morbid gravitas. I had not seen it before and was taken aback, as much by the egotism of the gesture as by its tacit acknowledgment of the death threat. He had set another copy of the book on a pile of boxes in an alcove, flanked above and below by two reproductions of one of the Fayum mummy portraits made for funeral sites nearly 2,000 years ago. It was his own kitschy little death shrine. Kepel told me he would have to be more careful if the book was as successful as he hoped. “This is why I put my face on the cover: If you want to kill me, kill me,” he said, with a twinkle in his eye. “This is resistance.”
France’s standoff with its Muslim immigrants evokes such wrenching anxiety in part because it touches on what was once a source of great national pride. For much of the 20th century, France was the country of immigration par excellence. This was true despite France’s demanding approach to immigration, requiring newcomers to surrender their old identity completely and forget where they had come from. They could keep their religion, but it had to remain entirely private. In exchange, they could in principle become as French as anyone else, or even more so (Yves Montand, the great French actor and singer, was a poor migrant from Italy). Most of the immigrants were European Catholics, with fairly compatible heritage, but not all: More than 100,000 Indochinese refugees came in the decades after World War II, and they assimilated easily, too. French politicians boasted of their country’s universal values as the beacon to these immigrant hordes. And French laïcité was seen as one of those values: People who had been in thrall to church dogma in other places would breathe more freely in France, where Enlightenment principles prevailed.
By the time Kepel was born in 1955, that happy era of successful immigration was coming to an end. The years that followed saw a brutal war in Algeria and other struggles in France’s former North African territories. At the same time, millions of Muslim immigrants began arriving in the concrete high-rises of the French banlieues, French cities, with a culture less amenable to the kind of assimilation France had always preached.
Kepel grew up in Paris, the son of an immigrant playwright and actor who translated Vaclav Havel’s plays into French. As a young man, he hoped to become a classics scholar, but he was captivated by Syria during a summer excursion through the Arab world with a friend. When he got back to Paris, he started studying Arabic, and eventually entered a graduate program at Sciences Po (where he now teaches). Like most students of the Arab world, Kepel immersed himself in Arab culture, living in Damascus and then Cairo. But in 1982, his academic adviser told him he had seen something unusual back home in France: striking workers prostrating themselves in the direction of Mecca. Five years later, Kepel published “Les Banlieues de l’Islam,” a sympathetic and detailed study of France’s Muslim community that is still considered a landmark. At the time, anti-Arab racism was mostly seen as a social issue in France, not a religious one; Islam scarcely registered as a domestic phenomenon. Kepel spent much of the following two decades writing about the Middle East. His books on political Islam and the Arab world, authoritative but accessible, were valuable primers for many of the journalists (including me) who began writing about these issues in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.
In 2010, Kepel returned to the banlieues, and he found them vastly changed. Years of worsening joblessness and unrest had helped to fuel the spread of a militant and often rejectionist Muslim identity, especially among the young. He was most concerned about the rising prevalence of Salafism, a puritanical Islamic current that is the typical gateway to jihadist violence (though most of its practitioners, it must be emphasized, are peaceful). Kepel published two volumes about the state of the banlieues in 2012, and the title of the second book, “Ninety-Three,” is deliberately — some said excessively — ominous. It is the government designation for the Seine-St. Denis district, but it is also an allusion to Victor Hugo’s novel about the Terror of 1793, heyday of the guillotine.
The Paris terrorist attacks of January 2015 made Kepel’s emphasis look not alarmist but prophetic. In their aftermath, he quickly completed “Terror in France,” which outlines three generations of Jihadism, starting in the 1980s and culminating in the newly decentralized attacks associated with ISIS across Europe. It was on the verge of publication when the second and far more deadly Paris attacks took place, on Nov. 13 of that year, helping to turn it into a best seller.
About a week later, Olivier Roy, who teaches at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy, wrote an essay for Le Monde that challenged one of Kepel’s core ideas. Roy argued that the issue was not the radicalization of Islam but “the Islamization of radicalism” — a phrase that quickly caught on. For Roy, the terrorists, mostly second-generation immigrants, were caught between the tradition-bound world of their parents and the secularism of their French contemporaries. Unable to find a place, they adopted a nihilistic rejection of society, expressing it not in the Marxist language of the 1960s and ’70s but in its current equivalent: Islam. The same logic could explain why so many white Catholic French kids had become jihadis.
Kepel responded quickly and forcefully, accusing Roy, who does not speak Arabic, of cooking up a thesis that suited his own ignorance: If Islam is incidental, no need to listen to the Friday sermons or read the theological debates online. Roy’s argument was also a salve to the liberal conscience, Kepel added, allowing people to believe that the state of contemporary Islam had little or nothing to do with the violence. Roy, clearly stung, responded, and the argument went on for months, fueled by frequent stories in the French press. Other intellectuals joined in, notably the academic François Burgat, who argued that both Roy and Kepel failed to adequately recognize the role of France’s colonial history and current foreign policies in shaping the younger generation’s anger. But it remained primarily a two-man fight.
When I met Roy in November, he told me over a lunch of Breton oysters and Muscadet that he had not wanted a feud. “He attacked me — I had to respond,” Roy said, squeezing his lips out in a Gallic expression of disdain. “He’s someone who needs enemies. He’s like an academic version of Sarkozy.” Roy made clear that he respects Kepel’s erudition but believes he is projecting his own obsession with jihadism onto the more nuanced political realities of a hybrid France. The two men form a striking contrast. Roy is a bit paunchy and disheveled, with an amiable, jowly face; he has the air of a college professor who likes taking students out for a drink. Kepel teaches class in elegantly tailored suits, and his manners are more formal. He has a volatile streak; he has feuded in public with several peers and former students. He is also more visibly interested in power. He makes no secret of his membership in the Siècle club, a quintessentially French institution that gathers much of the nation’s political and social elite for a formal dinner on the last Wednesday of every month, in an 18th-century mansion near the presidential palace. In an article last year, Roy referred to Kepel cuttingly as a “professional Rastignac,” an allusion to a socially ambitious character in the novels of Balzac.
Roy told me he believed that France’s political culture had become too hostile to religion, and that laïcité — originally created as a way to keep the state neutral — had become “eradicatory” in its application. It would be healthier for France to give more space to all religious discourse. “You have a whole generation of politicians here who do not know how to talk to religious people,” he said. When I asked Roy how France should handle the jihadist challenge, he said: “Isolate the radicals and saturate the religious space.” In other words, the way to counter violent Islamists is to open our arms to Islam in other ways — including, presumably, to peaceful Islamists.
This may sound reasonable in the abstract. But it is uncomfortably close to the pressure tactics I often heard from Salafists and Muslim Brothers during my years as a correspondent in the Arab world. (“If society were more Islamic, Al Qaeda would have no foothold.”) Roy is no Islamist, but I couldn’t help wondering if his sympathy for Muslims, who are disproportionately poor and unemployed in France, had made him a little too sanguine. Terrorism aside, a distressingly large number of Muslims are in open revolt against French cultural and political norms. In September, a landmark survey commissioned by the Montaigne Institute found that 28 percent of French Muslims had adopted values “clearly opposed to the values of the republic,” with a mix of “authoritarian” and “secessionist” views, including support for polygamy and the niqab, or full-face veil, and opposition to laws enforcing secularism. These attitudes reinforce anti-Muslim sentiment, in a spiral of crispations identitaires (“identitarian fist-clenching”) that is a boon to the anti-immigrant National Front.
Kepel’s fracture is nowhere more evident than in the hometown of Larossi Abballa, the man who condemned him to death. Mantes-la-Jolie is an old industrial town in the far western suburbs of Paris. Its downtown resembles many others in northern France: a prim cluster of gray, Norman-style buildings that are home to shops, restaurants and bakeries. As you drive west, the landscape quickly changes to ugly block towers, vacant lots and mosques. The neighborhood known as Val-Fourré, wedged between a highway and a bend in the Seine river, is populated almost entirely by Arab and African immigrants, living in one of France’s highest concentrations of subsidized housing. On Fridays, after the weekly prayer sermon in the local mosques, the crowded market stalls around the high-rise tower known as la Centrale look like a scene from an Arab city. The women are in long black abayas and veils; many of the men wear traditional Malian garb or North African-style djellabas. The white neighborhood that borders Val-Fourré has turned into a bastion of National Front supporters.
The first person I met in Val-Fourré was a burly man in Afghan-style dress, with the scraggly beard favored by Salafi Muslims. He preferred not to give his name. After chatting for a few minutes, I brought up Abballa and the killings in June. “That was just a matter of revenge,” he said dismissively. “It had nothing to do with Islam.” I asked what Abballa was taking revenge for, and he gave me an incredulous look. “Why? The cops had probably beat him up,” he said. “They stop you, they harass you, they come to your house. It’s the same for all of us.” A few minutes later I asked him about the word “radicalization.” He said: “What does ‘radicalization’ mean? What does ‘fundamentalism’ mean? It means what’s fundamental, the basis of the religion. This is what they don’t like. They keep pressuring us, but we will not give up our religion. And if it leads to a clash. ... ”
He seemed uneasy talking to me and turned to say goodbye. He probably would not have spoken to me at all if I hadn’t been introduced by a 31-year-old local blogger named Aboubakry N’diaye, who had offered to be my guide for the day. Hatred of the police is rampant in the French banlieues, and journalists are mostly assumed to be working with the cops.
One after another, the young men I met that afternoon said the same thing, in almost exactly the same words: It had nothing to do with Islam, and revenge against the police is perfectly natural. None of them admitted to having known Abballa, though some insisted that he was an “ordinary guy.”
In a sense, Abballa’s very ordinariness, his invisibility, is the most sinister aspect of the younger generation of French jihadists. They leave no trace, and that is partly because the banlieues now provide both isolation and camouflage. Neighborhoods like Val-Foureé were once full of youth associations — many formed by the Communist Party — but those have slowly disintegrated over the years, along with the jobs once provided by local car factories. (Local youth unemployment is said to be at least 30 percent.) “That social tissue was necessary, but there are so many fewer associations now, and people are more isolated,” I was told by Yasser Amri, a political consultant who grew up in Mantes and worked as an adviser to a French lawmaker for the area. “They stay at home with a laptop, the internet takes over and they are vulnerable to ISIS.” Abballa may also have learned — or have been taught — to keep a low profile. In any case, his jihadist sympathies would have raised little suspicion in an environment where Salafism and hatred of the state have become norms.
Abballa’s life, at least early on, seems to bear out some of the arguments Olivier Roy makes about the second-generation immigrant’s sense of dislocation, and the hunger for an identity. His father was a labourer from southern Morocco who arrived in France five years before Larossi was born, the last child in a family of five. Abballa spent his early life in Les Mureaux, a town 12 miles away from Mantes with a very similar mix of poor immigrants and a reputation for riots. Abballa knew little about Islam — at least at first, according to the co-conspirators in his first terror plot, in 2011. At the same time, he told them he was “thirsty for blood,” court documents show. He was first arrested at 18 on theft charges, and seems to have fallen into jihad the same way he fell into petty delinquency.
Abballa’s first dip into jihad was almost comical. At 19, he joined a group of other young banlieue men in a park east of Paris, where they beheaded rabbits in preparation for murdering human captives. His plan to join the jihad in Pakistan were thwarted soon afterward, and police officers found terrorist propaganda in Abballa’s home and those of other plotters, court documents show. They also had an academic volume co-written by Kepel, called “Al Qaeda in Its Own Words”: apparently they saw it as a handbook.
But it was the next phase that turned Abballa into a real jihadist, and it is hard to avoid the conclusion that his path conforms closely to the stages Kepel identifies with the third generation of European jihadism. Abballa spent almost three years behind bars, and was moved among jails several times because he was proselytizing for jihad. Later, he made direct contact with a member of ISIS in Syria who had helped direct terrorist attacks in France. By the time Abballa died, his religious devotion was unmistakable. The final video he made is a long sermon about Islam, and it includes a citation from a relatively obscure 11th century Islamic jurist. He was anything but a nihilist — the word Roy often uses to describe these young men.
After his release from prison, Abballa maintained a facade of normalcy, starting a one-man business delivering sandwiches and burgers. His Facebook feed is full of images of fast food and happy clients. Even the girlfriend he saw for years before his prison term claims she had no idea he had become radical. “After me, there was religion,” she said, in a short interview she gave on French radio just after the murders. “All he said was that he’d like it if one day I became like him, and wore a veil. But not once did he judge me or refuse to talk to me because I wasn’t veiled, or was wearing ripped jeans or leather. Not once.” Abballa’s family appears to have been the one group from whom he could not hide his new allegiances. On the night of Nov. 13, 2015, after the news of the Paris terrorist attacks spread, one of his sisters became terrified that he was among the attackers, according to an article in Le Monde. She called the house and asked another member of the family to pull up Abballa’s duvet and make sure he was safely in bed.
Exactly seven months later, on a balmy June evening, Abballa drove the 10 minutes to Magnanville, where Jean-Baptiste Salvaing lived. It is still not clear how he chose Salvaing, a midlevel career police officer who focused on local delinquency. What is clear, according to local news stories sourced to the police, is that Abballa had planned his attack carefully. He knew when Salvaing would be returning from work and hid behind a gate, where he sprang out and stabbed Salvaing repeatedly, piercing his heart. He then went into the house and cut the throat of Salvaing’s companion, Jessica Schneider, and used his Cellphone to conduct the broadcast on Facebook Live.
Watching the video is a profoundly unnerving experience. Abballa is seen from below, his long face distorted and lengthened by the angle. A patch of coloured cloth can be seen hanging on the wall by his head, conveying an eerie hint of private domesticity; this room was clearly a place of comfort and happiness to the two people he had just murdered. Abballa does not look angry or upset. He sniffles frequently during his speech — a cold — and at one point says, “Pardon me.” Every now and then you can see and hear the shuffling of the paper from which he is reading. Abballa speaks for 12 minutes, mixing his French with bits of Quranic Arabic, pledging his allegiance to the leader of ISIS, calling for mass murder and predicting a new age of Islamic conquest. After the police SWAT team burst into the apartment and killed him, they found the couple’s 3-year-old child unharmed, in a state of shock.
The day before Salvaing was murdered, according to the Le Monde article, he attended a training session at his Police Headquarters, which abuts a mosque. The subject of the session was “radicalization.”
One of the most common critiques of Kepel is that his relentless focus on Islam casts a shadow of suspicion onto all French Muslims. As Roy put it to me, “If you say it’s a religious issue, then the extremists are seen as the avant-garde of the whole Muslim population.” Jean-Pierre Filiu, another prominent French scholar of the Islamic world, pointed out that several thousand Muslims marched for peace in Mantes-la-Jolie after the Abballa murders, many of them bearing pictures of the murdered couple and posters denouncing terrorism, and laid wreaths on the steps of the local Police Headquarters. There was no one there to greet them, and not much news coverage. “The Jihadis want to blur the lines, but the lines should be clear,” Filiu told me. “It’s not the Salafis who are against us, and not the Muslims. It’s the Jihadis.”
These are generous sentiments, and no doubt many French Muslims appreciate them. Kepel would say they seem less aimed at truth than tact, the idea that hurting Muslim feelings will poison the atmosphere further. At its extreme, this view risks its own form of condescension: Be nice to Muslims or they will turn into suicide bombers.
Kepel has argued in his recent books that the French Muslim community, once guided by the paternalist figures from the old country known as darons, is now increasingly under the sway of younger and far more confrontational Islamists. These ideologists, Kepel believes, have fostered a rupture with French values that nourishes the ISIS narrative. Yet some French intellectuals naïvely disregard or even embrace these figures in the hopes of “isolating the radicals.” In other words, Kepel turns the accusation of Filiu and Roy — that his own emphasis on Islam is unwittingly doing the work of ISIS — against them. Kepel likes to cite ISIS propaganda urging its followers in Europe to hide behind the language of victimhood, including one document shared among ISIS sympathizers titled “How to Survive in the West,” which includes the following lines: “A real war is heating up in the heart of Europe. ... The leaders of disbelief repeatedly lie in the media and say that we Muslims are all terrorists, while we denied it and wanted to be peaceful citizens. But they have cornered us and forced us into becoming radicalized.”
This kind of mutual accusation defines much of the past decade’s debate on Islamic symbols. Roy and other leftists tend to see the 2004 law banning the head scarf as an unnecessary provocation that has played into the hands of extremists. Kepel, who helped guide the law, says it was the rising prevalence of head scarves in schools that was sowing division and bias, and the ban has put an end to that. Each camp has Muslims supporting them. Surveys suggest that the French public overwhelmingly supports the ban, and my conversations with a dozen schoolteachers who work in the banlieues reinforced that conclusion.
Robert F. Worth is a contributing writer for the magazine and the author of “A Rage for Order: The Middle East in Turmoil From Tahrir Square to ISIS,” which won the 2017 Lionel Gelber prize.