Fear, resentment and hate are making a comeback in France. Indeed, the recent terror attacks that took place in Paris, Nice and Lyon in October 2020 have reopened old wounds among the French people, just as they were preparing to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the 2015 Paris attacks. Not only have the attacks reignited several debates over freedom of speech and France’s very controversial secularism, but these events’ political repercussions are also endangering the nation’s democracy by reinforcing affective polarization and islamophobia, while consolidating far-right populism.
For several years now, France has been experiencing increasing partisanship and polarization mostly tied to political and social differences among its citizens. The last 2017 presidential election is evidence of this clear divide within the population, as Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Rally, came close to winning the election against current President Emmanuel Macron. This divide over socio-economic inequalities continues to grow, as the Yellow Vests Movement’s rise over the past two years has demonstrated. However, ever since the 2015 attacks, French partisanship and polarization have been, above all, fueled by ideology rooted in socio-cultural and religious differences, a symptom of rising anti-Muslim sentiment[i] created by the series of terror attacks linked to radical Islam.
More specifically, the horror of the October 2020 terror attacks, particularly the one involving the beheading of school teacher Samuel Paty, has reignited and intensified fear, resentment and hate against Islam. Following the attacks, the French government carried out raids against Muslim individuals and organizations suspected of potential radicalization. On this issue, French people remain extremely divided; some support the act, others condemn it for being too drastic and unfounded. Meanwhile, Marine Le Pen has adopted the language of war, saying that “Islamism is a bellicose ideology whose means of conquest is terrorism”. Such a statement inevitably causes more fear. The recent attacks are therefore not only creating fear on their own, but far-right populists are also using these events to advance their political agendas by exploiting people’s fears.
Politically and socially, the attacks are thus making French polarization increasingly affective – driven by emotions rather than public policy concerns, and identity-based. This kind of polarization is extremely dangerous as it relies on a preexisting identity cleavage[ii], essentially between Muslims and non-Muslims, creating an “us vs. them” dynamic among the people. The amalgam of Muslims and immigrants has also contributed to reinforcing this “us vs. them” dynamic, with “us” specifically designating native non-Muslims and “them” designating Muslims and immigrants. This ethnocentric rhetoric has been repeatedly associated to the National Rally who has been firmly advocating to suspend immigration for years.
In turn, this polarization, deeply anchored in ideological differences, has created more and more social and cultural intolerances. Arguably, this will hinder social interactions and mutual understanding between groups and communities, which will make depolarization highly difficult[i]. Societal polarization has increased, extending the division to social spaces such as families and friends, schools and communities; the “us vs. them” division is becoming ubiquitous. The more people will be driven by fear and resentment of the “other”, the less incentives they will have to try to understand the “other”, creating fictitious walls among each other. These are what Arlie Russell Hochschild calls “empathy walls”[iii], intrinsic to all polarized societies.
What does this mean for French democracy?
French citizens are increasingly aligning within two camps with mutually exclusive identities and ideologies, threatening to undermine social cohesion and political stability[iv]. The terror attacks are rendering cross-cutting intergroup differences obsolete and are turning everyone’s focus on a single difference revolving around Islam. Paired with emotional grievances, the people and some party leaders are looking for someone to blame. The National Rally has arguably been exploiting the social grievance brought by the attacks and the growing resentment against anything and anyone related to Islam to attract supporters. As Katherine Cramer argues[v], politics is therefore increasingly driven by the need to blame someone for the country’s grievances, and the terror attacks have made Muslims the obvious candidate.
Not only are terror attacks challenging French ideologies and values (eg. integration), but more importantly, they are also contributing to the erosion of democracy in France by nurturing far-right populism. Indeed, populism is well underway as the National Rally’s rhetoric is attracting anyone remotely angry, frustrated and suffering from resentment due to the attacks[vi]. In other words, terror attacks are just what Le Pen needs to amass more supporters. Moreover, like other populists, she has already gained legitimacy by operating within the established democratic system after running in the last presidential election, rendering her undemocratic agenda even more legitimate. In addition, according to Milan Svolik[vii], it is likely that Le Pen supporters will tend to be more lenient toward their candidate’s undemocratic principles as long as she aligns with their partisan interests. Together, both factors shape the perfect conditions for her to rise to power and directly threaten French democracy’s integrity and French society’s pluralism.
As terror attacks multiply, islamophobia spreads, and the National Rally’s support grows, French democracy’s safety lies in French people’s capacity to resist affective polarization and their ability to value democracy over partisan interests. They have done it once already in 2017, but will they do it twice in 2022?
[i] Bansak, Kirk, Hainmueller, Jens, and Hangartner, Dominik. 2016. “How Economic, Humanitarian, and Religious Concerns Shape European Attitudes Toward Asylum Seekers.” Science 354(6309): pp. 217-222
[ii] LeBas, Adrienne. 2018. “Can Polarization Be Positive? Conflict and Institutional Development in Africa.” American Behavioral Scientist 62(1): pp. 59-74
[iii] Hochschild, Arlie Russell. 2016. “Traveling to the Heart”, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right. New York: The New Press. Chapter 1
[iv] McCoy, Jennifer, Rahman, Tahmina, and Somer, Murat. 2018. “Polarization and the Global Crisis of Democracy: Common Patterns, Dynamics and Pernicious Consequences for Democratic Polities.” American Behavioral Scientist 62(1): pp. 16-42
[v] Cramer, Katherine J. 2016. “Making Sense of politics through Resentment”, The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Chapter 1
[vi] Müller, Jan-Werner. 2016. What Is Populism? Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press
[vii] Svolik, Milan W. 2019. “Polarization Versus Democracy.” Journal of Democracy 30(3): pp. 20-32