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The Failure of Intelligent Explanations

France grapples with the aftermath of attacks that are no longer ‘just against Jews’

Marc Weitzmann
November 25, 2015
Dominique Faget/AFP/Getty Images
In front of the Bataclan theater in Paris, November 18, 2015. Dominique Faget/AFP/Getty Images
Dominique Faget/AFP/Getty Images
In front of the Bataclan theater in Paris, November 18, 2015. Dominique Faget/AFP/Getty Images

I lived for 12 years in the area targeted in last week’s Paris massacre, moved out last spring. I was two minutes away from Le Petit Cambodge and the Carillon—my usual cantinas, and the first places to be hit—and about ten minutes from the Bataclan theater. Also close by are the Charlie Hebdo offices attacked by the Kouachi brothers in January, and the synagogues that a “pro-Palestinian” crowd tried to storm in the summer of 2014.

Not that the area’s especially dangerous. To the contrary. With its many bars and music clubs it’s usually both quiet and full of energy and fun—one of the last young, ethnically mixed neighborhood of a city otherwise atrophied. The mood is frivolous, even slightly childish—well illustrated by the attitudes of several young people in the quartier, who, in the aftermath of the attacks, posted defiant selfies picturing themselves sitting at terraces drinking, eating, smiling and giving the finger to potential terrorists. There’s even a hashtag for the spirit behind the posts: #terrassons les terroristes (“terrasser” means to crush).

These young people were trying to make sense of what happened. They were trying to give meaning to the massacre. They told themselves and others—and others told them—that this carefree atmosphere is why the area was attacked in the first place (along with the facts that the prime minister lives a few hundred meters from the Bataclan, and that the demonstration against terror last January started there). That act of sitting on a café terrace and dancing to rock ’n’ roll personifies French decadence as imagined by foreigners. And maybe there is something in this.

But as the notion spread, propagated by the media and politicians to grandiose proportions, it quickly became the sole accepted rationale for the killings. It’s now said that we French should, from hence forward, sit and sit on terraces—with the consciousness of accomplishing some kind of collective Résistance. That we are now to take frivolousness as seriously as we had taken the caricatures after the January attacks—when each and every caricaturist ended up metamorphosed by the press in a new Jean-Paul Sartre. Actors impersonating cheating husbands went on TV making solemn statements in defense of “the French way of life” (read: good wine, good food, adulterous affairs) under threat. Not only was the Bataclan targeted for “being a mythical temple of rock ’n’ roll,” wrote Le Monde, but by examining the lives the 130 people who died that night, and of the 356 wounded we can easily see that they are the symbol of “youth, intelligence, culture, tolerance, knowledge, science, open-mindedness”—no less, in short, than “the pride of the Paris of Enlightenment in the 21st century.” The socialist Party in power even planned a patriotic “evening of terraces” that were to take place one week after the attack in every café in town—if not in the country—to reaffirm our national character, praise multiculturalism and back up with demis and sandwiches, as it were, French strikes in Syria. Unfortunately the weather, which had been exceptionally warm this autumn, and was the reason terraces had been so full on a mid-November night at the time of the massacre (global warming helping the terrorists?), had changed. And under heavy rain and cold wind, the government initiative disintegrated miserably before it was implemented.

Meanwhile, ordinary people rushed to hospitals to give their blood and spontaneous applications to join the army have multiplied by three. And it is said that the most obvious political consequence of the attacks in the coming regional elections will be to strengthen the National Front. What this means for the presidential in 18 months is unpredictable.


All of this had been easier for everyone when it was just Jews and other possible degenerates who were being attacked. In fact, attacks on French Jews have been happening with increasing frequency and success over the past few years—and yet continue to be greeted with what can only be described as polite, slightly distressed, indifference. Mohamed Merah’s murder spree in 2012—three soldiers in Montauban, three Jewish children and their father in Toulouse—was seen as a distant tragedy, rather than a terrifyingly close one; some people considered it as an understandable response to injustice, with one French college a professor going so far as to ask for a minute of silence—for the killer.

Two years later, the massacre at the Jewish Museum in Brussels by Mehdi Nemouche was shrugged off as well. It is doubtful that the killings at the kosher supermarket two days after the Charlie Hebdo assassinations would have been considered as a tragedy without the attack against French journalists. And even that atrocity was rationalized afterward as a response to the magazine’s supposed “Islamophobia.”

Who offered this excuse-making? Well, the New York Times, for one: “Unlike the attacks against Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket in January, terrorism experts said, the attacks on the targets on Friday had no apparent rationale.” But also some prominent French intellectuals who do find a rationale for the last attacks—in the French military interventions.

On Nov. 19, the Italian Corriere della Serra and the New York Times website both published under different titles the same op-ed piece by the popular writer Michel Houellebecq—whose last book sold 650,000 copies in three weeks, and who now seems to be the only novelist listened to by politicians and the media. It takes the Italian title of his piece to grasp its full measure—and the fullness of Houellebecq’s self importance in writing it: “I accuse Hollande and defend the French people.”

Houellebecq blames terror on the “political leaders who committed France to ridiculous and costly military operations” (Iraq and Libya) while failing “pathetically, systematically, deplorably, to protect the population under their responsibility.” In passing, he insults the prime minister—and throws the president in the same bin with words that echo almost exactly the phrasing of Daesh.

He is joined in this by another popular intellectual less known in the United States, the hugely popular—and no less narcissistic—philosopher Michel Onfray, an autodidact whose rate of publication defies common sense (500 or 600 pages every eight months on subjects as light and diverse as Freud or cosmology, several hundred thousand copies each time—the next, in January, being aptly called Islam). In the many statements he made since the January attacks, Onfray, who also calls for a stop to the strikes in Syria, goes as far as blaming an “Islamophobic world foreign policy” that, he says, has been implemented by the western world since the end of colonization. “When you attack people they return fire.” Predictably enough, one of his interviews on French TV is used in the most recent video threatening France launched by ISIS after Nov. 13.

What Houellebecq and Onfray politically anticipate—and, from a pure opportunistic point of view, not unintelligently—is that in the aftermath of the attack, right and left are going to agree on most subjects, National Security first. But at the approach of the presidential election next year, and in a country as ideologically split as France is, they will have to make up for that lack of differences, which they will do by resorting to fear, insults, and hatred. That derelict atmosphere will leave a door open for something like a powerful pacifist-nationalist extreme-left and/or extreme-right—and for bestsellers surfing on that wave.

Opportunism aside, their assumption goes like this: People are reasonable. People do not commit mass murder without a motive, because if they did, reason would fail us, we would all go mad. So let’s try to understand. Let’s find a rational cause for what is, obviously, irrational. Or, in other words: Reason needs reason in order to think.

So, if it’s not our decadent way of life, then it’s our incompetent and wrong-headed foreign policy. It’s Charlie Hebdo’s alleged Islamophobia. It’s American imperialism. It’s Israel’s existence invoked as the “reason” behind the murders of Jews in France today. The newspaper Libération just published a petition of “intellectuals” and professors blaming French policy for the massacre and “explaining” the motivations of the killer with French social injustice in the “cités.” And even some of the victims on Nov. 13 espouse that logic. Thus Louis, 26, survivor of the Bataclan, interviewed by Radio France-Info: “I will never blame a poor Palestinian kid, who has suffered since he was born, for blowing himself up and taking me with him.” Quentin, 27, whose best friend was killed at the Bataclan : “This is so shocking. The Charlie Hebdo attack was specific, targeted. But this time, it’s terrifying because it’s about innocent people killed haphazardly.” But they’re victims. Houellebecq and Onfray aren’t.

In 1980, after the first anti-Semitic attack in Paris since WWII—when a bomb at a liberal synagogue Rue de Copernic killed four pedestrians—the then-Prime Minister Raymond Barre got lynched by the press when he spoke of “an odious attack that aimed at killing Israelites and hit innocent French.” Now, this logic of devising the population between “legit” targets and “innocent” ones is common place.


The current investigation of the Nov. 13 massacre shows us how wrong this thinking is, and how steep the price France may be paying for it today. The police have confirmed that Abledhamid Abaoud, the leader of the operation who was killed in the Saint-Denis raid, was also Mehdi Nemouche’s operator in 2014 during the Brussels attack. Fabien Clain, the convert established in Syria, and identified by the investigators as the voice of the Islamic State claiming responsibility for the November attacks, was a close friend of Merah’s in Toulouse. They grew up together and both belonged to the same Salafist group there, the Artigat network. Which is to say: The link between the targeting of Jews and the events of Nov. 13 that targeted everyone is now firmly established.

Conversely, all of the recent attacks have had anti-Semitic elements. Charlie Hebdo was paired with the kosher supermarket. There was a Jewish school, and potential target, close to the site the young policewoman Clarissa Jean-Philippe was killed. The reason the Bataclan was on a terror hit-list has been stated to an investigator by a militant of Jaish al-Islam in 2011 in a single sentence : “Because its owners are Jews.” Although affiliated to al-Qaida at the time, Jaish al-Islam French members are linked to the same Artigat network that produced Merah. In the trial that condemned him to five years of prison in 2009, Fabien Clain, one of its main figures, also confessed planning an attack of the Bataclan for being a “Zionist” theater. And 48 hours after Nov. 13, the very day of the raid in Saint-Denis, at 8 p.m. in Marseille, a Jewish professor, Sylvain S., was assaulted by three men with knives. One of the assailants wore a Daesh T-shirt. They threw him to the ground, showed him a cellphone picture of Mohammed Merah, and spoke of Syria while trying to stab him.

People are reasonable. People do not commit mass murder without a motive, because if they did, reason would fail us, we would all go mad. So let’s try to understand.

Whether or not France could have prevented this last atrocity if authorities had paid attention to the anti-Semitism of the terror networks is an open question. Why they weren’t able to do so is well known: It’s called fear of “communitarianism.” The government feared that by supporting the Jews too obviously, they would be accused of “taking sides.” And in fact, Prime Minister Manuel Valls, who did exactly that after the January attacks, was later accused by an ex-Minister of Foreign Affairs of being under the influence of his wife, who is Jewish. And this was not simple a stray offshoot of banter between political rivals. The Jewish-owned Bataclan was never properly protected, although the place was known to be on a target list—precisely because protecting Jewish sites was seen as “taking sides.” And, as a recent paper in the right-wing newspaper L’opinion argued, by dedicating forces to the protection of Jewish sites, France weakens its police and army—and thus presumably can’t properly protect genuine French people and locales.

Still: According to statistics from the Ministry of the Interior, not a month passed in 2014 without some act of aggression—death threats, slaps, insults, hammer or knife attacks—on innocent bystanders merely for being Jewish. Is it too much to say that the raw material for terror lies in the free pass given to an instinctual anti-Semitism?


On the morning after the attacks of Nov. 13, the philosophy professor Alexandra Lavastine, who lives in a Paris suburb, went to a neighborhood café to see how the regular customers reacted. In the account she wrote for Le Figaro’s website, she reports that the general reaction was, first, indifference, and, second, disbelief. That disbelief took the form of a by now familiar conspiracy theory: “the Jews” had planned the attacks to discredit the Muslims. And in the phone conversation we had, Lavastine told me in relaying it to Le Figaro she actually had to soften a bit what she heard on location.

Drawing conclusions about the mood among Muslims of France from a random poll conducted in a single café would of course be foolish. I have been going to Muslim neighborhoods and housing projects myself in recent weeks, and I can testify to the overwhelmingly supportive reactions of people in suburbs like Bondy, Bobigny, and elsewhere. On the Internet, or in open letters, calls to arms are being made almost daily since Nov. 13 by Muslims in favor of the French republic. Imams not known for their liberalism have denounced the massacre and on Rue Jean-Pierre Thimbaud—not far from the targeted key sites—even the fundamentalist bookstore there exhibits in its window the slogan “Not in My Name”—something the shopowners didn’t do in January, let alone in 2012.

French being French, some sociologists from the Bourdieu school have nonetheless already jumped on all this to argue that fundamentalist mosques shouldn’t be closed down. Since everything we learn about the French terrorists tells us they knew almost nothing about Islam, let mosques spread, they say. “Fundamentalism Islam, although reactionary, is the best rampart against terror.” An idea that will certainly help the numerous French mayors who, all over the territory, have bought social peace by making deals with Islamist imams.

The best answer to this is to say that the war we’re facing is also a civil war within the French Muslim population. Paris is the de facto capital of Muslims in continental Europe. That makes them an issue in the current war for the control of Muslim population, which is what’s at stake since the beginning of the so-called Arab Spring—if not since the Iranian revolution in ’79. There is no doubt that if the Muslims were to accept the western way—namely the French “laic” way—to live their faith, that would create an alternative, a counter-model to both Iran and the Wahabist kingdoms in their competition for the control of Muslim minds. And given the geographical proximity to Maghreb, that counter-model would prove terribly appealing for the populations there. (Let’s remember that the Saudis did everything they could in the past few years to break the democratic process in Tunisia for that reason.) That’s really what’s at stake today behind the question of “integration.” By involving in their networks as much of their kin, neighbors, and friends as they can, the message the terrorists send to the French Muslim is very straightforward: Integration means you’ve got to be a rat. You’ve got to denounce some of your kin to French police and shame yourself.

The lives and the freedom of French Muslims—their freedom from totalitarian propaganda imposed on their faith—is on the line. And if we are to help them—something we must urgently do—we have to stand united in defense of the Republic and of its values—the same Republic Houellebecq and others hate so much.

All this is probably true. But if it were to succeed, what this integration would mean for Jews remains a pending question.


Joseph Conrad in The Secret Agent, a novel that now seems prophetic: “What is one to say to an act of destructive ferocity so absurd as to be incomprehensible, inexplicable, almost unthinkable; in fact, mad? Madness alone is truly terrifying.” Modern terror agents today have probably never heard of Conrad, but they grasp his logic instinctively, just as we—the potential victims—do. The more massive the murders, the more crazy the violence, the more logically absurd the statement written to justify it, the more we need nonetheless to believe in it if only to reassure ourselves, even the smallest bit. In the acknowledgement, as potential victims, of rational motivations that we know don’t really hold, lies the key of the whole, perverse process—the key to terror.

But the roots of the political implosion in the Middle East were planted long before any of the recent Western military incursions. Weren’t the dictatorship of the region—Saddam, Khadaffi, and Assad—propped up by the USSR for decades, and sometimes supported by France or the United States, to name a few—sooner or later doomed to crash when the Cold War ended? What we are facing is a political disruption of historic magnitude. We wanted a “multipolar world”? We have it.

To read Marc Weitzmann’s series on anti-Semitism, France’s Toxic Hate, click here.

Marc Weitzmann is the author of 12 books, including, most recently, Hate: The Rising Tide of Anti-Semitism in France (and What It Means for Us). He is a regular contributor to Le Monde and Le Point and hosts Signes des Temps, a weekly public radio show on France Culture.