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France

Eye on France: How religiously radical are French public servants?

media A woman wearing the body-enveloping burkini on the beach in Marseille. Reuters/Stringer

Centrist Le Monde and right-wing Le Figaro both devote prime space today to a report prepared for the National Assembly on how the French public services are dealing with the threat of the Islamic radicalisation of their staff.

Sport, police, transport, education, health, justice and prisons were all put through the parliamentary grinder.

Le Monde says the 100-page report presents a broadly satisfactory overview, with a few “marginal” problems and what the writers call “shadowy areas”.

Le Figaro, in sharp contrast, says the report is “shocking,” “worrying,” and stresses that the authors, both MPs, one right-wing, one ruling party, have called for “increased vigilance”. That is strictly true, but the vigilance is recommended in certain specific areas, like the prison service.

Le Figaro’s editorial on the subject is headlined “The Wages of Weakness”. The writer finds proof in the parliamentary report that “militant and conquering Islam is making rapid strides on our soil”. That’s a direct quote. Apart from bloody and spectacular terrorist attacks, the article continues, Islam is sneakily infiltrating all aspects of society. This “gangrene”. . . Le Figaro’s word, not mine . . . is the result of years of “weakness and misplaced sympathy” by the authorities. For fear of being labeled racists, extremists or anti-Islamists, a guilty silence has encouraged those who threaten the very values of the French republic.  

The end of history

Le Figaro can’t resist a reference to the clash of civilisations, first evoked in 1992 by Samuel Huntington to suggest that post-Cold War conflicts would be between cultures, not between countries. That clash was more recently mentioned by Gérard Collomb as he left his job as French interior minister. Le Figaro wants us to know that, tomorrow, that war will be fought on our very doorsteps.

So much for the rhetoric. What does the report actually say?

The first thing the two deputies do, clearly showing that the money spent on their education was far from wasted, is define their terms. What is “radicalisation”?

They accept the rather off-puttingly technical definition established by the Interministerial committee for the prevention of delinquency and radicalisation. According to that committee, radicalisation is, “a process by which an individual or group adopts a violent form of action, directly linked to an extremist ideology with a political, social or religious agenda, in opposition to the established order”. That’s clear, as far as it goes!

Radicalisation is not the same thing as being serious about your religious beliefs, even to the point of what the rest of us might consider fundamentalism. It is not radical to call for the ending of the French insistence on a secular state. Nor is it radical to shout the name of Amedy Coulibaly, the killer involved in the terror attack on a Paris supermarket. That’s not to say it’s legal in all circumstances, as the so-called humourist Dieudonné discovered to his cost. But it comes into the legal range as provocation, or encouraging terrorism, it does not make you radical.

Refusing to shake the hand of a female colleague could be a sign of rudeness, religious belief (including ultra-orthodox Judaism) or plain pig-headed stupidity. But it doesn’t automatically make you a candidate for an anti-terrorist investigation.

Let's talk statistics

Their basic position established, the two MPs get down to counting heads.

In the army, less than half a percent of soldiers are suspected of radicalism; there are 30 individuals under suspicion in the police force, out of a total of 280,000 staff; a total of 10 suspects in the prison service.

In the public transport sector, just 1.35 percent of staff have attitudes which the report’s writers consider incompatible with their duties as public servants.

Over at Le Figaro, the same report gives rise to a raft of shock headlines.

“The worrying situation in public transport,” “The prisons service in the firing line,” and “Three radicalised staff sent to a prison for minors,” is a selection. And, just in case we had not quite understood the lesson, Le Figaro asks readers to vote on the divisive question of how women dress when using municipal swimming pools. Ninety-two percent of the eleven thousand readers who bothered to vote are against allowing women to wear the body-enveloping “burkini,” the sole attire which is acceptable for certain Muslims.  

Tragically, we are perhaps not all that far from the world envisaged by Samuel Huntington.

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