Gilles Kepel is a University Professor of Political Science at Sciences Po in Paris, and one of France and Europe’s leading experts on Islamism, the Middle East and North Africa. He has been described as “the best possible guide through the frightening labyrinth of militant Islam.” His books such as Jihad: the Trail of Political Islam have been translated into seventeen languages.
Professor Kepel, what is happening in France today?
France is a country which is hard hit by jihadism, the European country with the highest death toll, and it is also a place which carries a unique legacy in its relationship with the Arab world because France was present in Algeria for 132 years, and also for a long time in both Tunisia and Morocco. In the colonial days there was a conjunction between North Africa and France, even though it was unequal in nature, nevertheless North African elites were deeply embounded with French culture and civilisation, and France was also characterised by an Arab complement which permeated its language, its slang, its food and its imagination.
After independence both France and Algeria each thought that they would go their own way. France would get rid of her colonial burden and erase the eight cruel years of the Algerian war for independence that brought the Fourth Republic down. France – together with Italy, Germany and the Benelux – forged ahead with the Common Market, and thought it could forget the days of empire.
What actually happened?
Many North Africans came to France looking for jobs, and they created a new proletariat that became unemployed after the oil crisis of the mid-Seventies when blue collar jobs disappeared in Europe and moved elsewhere. They had many children, with families far more numerous than the French average. On one hand the children benefitted from the French educational system and France’s social benefits, but on the other hand they could not find jobs, and so they began to search for a new identity that would overcome both their North African and their French legacy.
What did they find?
In Islamic ideology a number of them found something that they thought could transcend their social malaise and would give them a heroic identity – when they thought they had been condemned to be the underdogs. This is where we are today, with huge banlieues populated with children of immigrants who now feel that they live in enclaves. A minority of them did wade their way up into French society, where you now find cabinet ministers, entrepreneurs, business people, and artists of North African descent, but they failed to become role models for the majority.
Are Muslims going to take over France, as the writer Michel Houellebecq describes in his novel Submission, or is this only a fiction?
Submission is a very brilliant work of fiction, and Houellebecq has an incredible novelist’s flair for exacerbating the contradictions in societies. His books have an international reach and are translated worldwide. They are an embodiment of what Aristotle called catharsis, and as I just said he exacerbates passions in order to purge them. But social reality is different, and what we need now is a political class which is up to par in dealing with the political, social, cultural and religious challenges of jihadism, which has devastated the country with hundreds of dead.
Are we on the verge of a far-Right regime in France?
No, I don’t think so. Even though the extreme Right is reaping tremendous benefits from jihadist terrorism, and even though jihadist ideology aims to create civil war in the old continent because they hope that this will lead to the destruction of Europe and the emergence of a caliphate on its ruins. French society has remained remarkably cold blooded in the face of these jihadist provocations, and there has been no backlash against Muslims in general. People know the difference between the jihadist minority and the Muslim citizens with whom they socialise on a daily basis. The electorate gave significant support to Marine Le Pen’s Front National in the regional elections in December 2015 – the month after the November 13 attacks of Paris – but this was only in the first round, and it was done to send a message to the old political class that they were obsolete and had to change. In the second round the Front National, despite its hopes, was unable to gain control of the executive body of any of the 13 French regions.
Do you think that Donald Trump may be the next President of the United States?
Trump may create a landslide, because America is a continent which has not been used to dealing intimately with the Muslim world as much as the Europeans have. Trump uses strong anti-Muslim language. His ideology is suited to people that see the rest of the world from a distance, although the fact that he is now perceived as a Putin agent certainly reawakens a feeling of American pride that could not imagine electing a President subservient to Russia, after the US has won the Cold War against the Soviet Union.
Do you see the danger of a global war?
There already is war in the Middle East. Whether or not it will reach the rest of the world or remain centred in the Middle East and extend only to Europe via jihad is dependent on the price that the oil barrel reaches in years to come. The digital economy has shifted the centrality of oil energy in the postmodern world. The Middle East was central only as long as oil and gas were central.
In this troubled world what is the role of France in Europe today?
Europe has to reinvent itself after Brexit in order to become a more cohesive power, with its own defence policy and foreign policy, and unification of its institutions. Regrettably England did not really play by the rules of the game and wanted to ‘have its cake and eat it too’. I believe London will pay a high price for the demagoguery of its Eton-educated ruling class. I hope that France will be able to recreate the so called ‘German-French engine’ as a reliable partnership. This partnership has always brought stamina to the European vision, but I believe that the French political class must overcome its present state of mediocrity, and I hope that next year we will elect a President who is up to dealing with so many challenges.
Is France in a state of siege?
Strangely enough you don’t feel like it if you live in France. Jihadist terrorism is spectacular, but until now it has had no lasting effect because the terrorists have proved unable to mobilise the mass of their co-religionists that they would like to recruit into their civil war fantasy. I am confident that the vast majority of our Muslim compatriots will debunk the fallacies of these terrorists and do not consider that they act in their name.
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Professor Kepel’s lectures as Philippe Roman Chair at the London School of Economic and Political Science explored the nature of Islamism and the future of the Middle East, Muslims in Europe and American engagement with the Muslim world.