The aim of jihadist attacks is not to defeat and subjugate Western societies through the weapon that is terror. It is to use terror to instill fear, impose its vision of a binary world and, ultimately, to provoke widespread confrontation within the societies being targeted. In short, it aims to provoke a civil war between non-Muslims and Muslims, in order to drive the latter into radicals’ clutches. This axiom must never be forgotten when analyzing the effects of jihadist terrorism. Although this threat no longer tops the list of issues that motivate how French people vote, it’s impossible not to observe, in the current electoral period, the harmful, long-term effects of the wave of terrorist attacks that France has seen over the last 10 years.

No Western country has been so hard hit by jihadist violence over the past decade. Home to Europe’s largest community of Arab-Muslim origin − as well as Europe’s largest Jewish community − France has been a prime target for jihadist organizations, from al-Qaida to the Islamic State.

There are several reasons why jihadist groups have focused on France. The first is undoubtedly the French concept of secularism, which led to a ban on wearing the Islamic headscarf in schools in 2004, and then a ban on wearing the niqab (a full-body garment, which leaves only the eyes exposed) in public, in 2009. This vision of secularism was also behind the publication of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, which was held up as a “barometer” of French society’s level of tolerance. This is a secularism that, in the end, has become increasingly rigid, to the point of becoming a form of ideological combat, which risks separating rather than uniting people.

Divides to exploit

France has also been targeted because of its role as a former colonial power, particularly in North Africa, but also in sub-Saharan Africa: A status that has led it to carry out military interventions in the Sahel and the Levant, as well as in Afghanistan, in predominantly Muslim territories. The unspeakable echoes of the colonial past − in particular, the atrocities of the Algerian war − among an immigrant population that has been socially relegated to underprivileged suburbs, as well as the latent resentments of those repatriated in 1962 (many of whom were Mizrahi, or middle-eastern, Jews, driven out of a land where they had been present for thousands of years), form divides that jihadist terrorist organizations have not failed to exploit.

This recruitment policy has paid off. The wave of jihadist attacks that hit France began with the attacks of Mohammed Merah in 2012 (a French-Algerian jihadist who killed seven people, including soldiers, three Jewish children and a rabbi, in shootings in southwestern France), peaked between 2015 and 2018, and continues to this day with isolated but spectacular and high-profile terrorist attacks, such as the murders of teachers Samuel Paty in 2020 and Dominique Bernard in 2023. While France has not succumbed to panic (nor have the French people given in to the temptation of revenge), it is plagued by growing tension towards Islam in general. The dozens of terrorist attacks (some 40 jihadist-inspired attacks, which have claimed more than 260 victims since 2012) have had the desired effect: The stigmatization of Islam as a religion and of Muslims by the far right and the conservative right, as well as by part of the center and the so-called secular left.

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