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france 24 Europe

What could French political culture have to do with Islamist violence?

© AFP (file photo)

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2016-03-27

French political culture may play a key role in Islamist radicalisation, according to two American researchers who study Sunni extremist movements in the world.

The recent attacks in Brussels and those in Paris in January and November 2015 underscore an unsettling truth. “Jihadists pose a greater threat to France and Belgium than to the rest of Europe," wrote William McCants and Christopher Meserole of the Brookings Institution in an article called “The French Connection" published on March 24 in bimonthly magazine Foreign Affairs.

According to the two researchers, “As strange as it may seem, four of the five countries with the highest rates of radicalisation in the world are Francophone, including the top two in Europe (France and Belgium)."

There are an estimated 1,700 French and 470 Belgian individuals who have travelled to join the Islamic State group and other violent extremist groups in Syria and Iraq, according to a report by the Soufan Group published in December 2015. The Soufan Group also reported that France and Belgium have the highest number of fighters per capita.

After examining the country of origin of Sunni foreign fighters in Syria and the locations of Sunni terror attacks, McCants and Meserole came to a "surprising" conclusion: the single most predictive radicalisation characteristic was the fact that a country was Francophone – defined as a country with French as a national language.

This proved to be a better predictor for radicalisation than the average GDP of a country or the quality of the national education system. It was also a better predictor than the level of education or the personal wealth of the jihadist fighter in question or even their amount of access to the internet.

These observations led McCants and Meserole to conclude that French political culture seem strongly linked to comparatively high rates of radicalisation.

“The French approach to secularism is more aggressive than, say, the British approach. France and Belgium, for example, are the only two countries in Europe to ban the full veil in their public schools,” the authors wrote.

Based on research comparing the number of jihadist fighters with the total Muslim population in the country, Belgium has a higher percentage of radicalisation per capita than either the UK or Saudi Arabia, even if more jihadist fighters have theoretically gone to Syria and Iraq from these two countries.

McCants and Meserole also underlined two other important factors in radicalisation: the relationship between high unemployment rates among young people and urbanisation. A combination of urbanisation rates between 60 and 80 percent and youth unemployment rates between 10 and 30 percent also seem to show an increase in Sunni radicalisation.

"We suspect that when there are large numbers of unemployed youth, some of them are bound to get up to mischief. When they live in large cities, they have more opportunities to connect with people espousing radical causes. And when those cities are in Francophone countries that adopt the strident French approach to secularism, Sunni radicalism is more appealing," they write.

For the authors, this could explain why certain Parisian banlieues, the Molenbeek neighbourhood in Brussels and Tunisia’s Ben Gardane have had disproportionately high rates of radicalisation.

The authors however want to remain cautious. “Our report is still preliminary and hasn't been vetted well by peers yet. It's also based on a very small dataset and should be taken cautiously. That said, we went public with our results early because our initial findings suggest a strong relationship, one we can't fully explain, between Francophone countries and foreign fighter radicalisation," Meserole told France 24. 

Date created : 2016-03-26


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