Fresh off his country’s recent presidential election, Gilles Kepel, a leading scholar on Islam, shared his considerable insights on jihadist attempts to sway the vote in France, how French police intercepted those plots, and the relationship between Islam and French culture during a Center on National Security event held at Fordham Law School on May 9.
Two days earlier, France overwhelmingly selected 39-year-old pro-European Union candidate Emmanuel Macron over his far-right, anti-Muslim opponent Marine Le Pen, who had billed herself as the only candidate who could protect French citizens from terror. Le Pen failed to capitalize, as forecasters had predicted she would, on the fact that 239 French citizens were killed due to jihadist terrorism between January 2015 to July 2016.
“Many people thought this was the end of the European Union, and that in a way the jihadists would have succeeded because they would have boosted nativist, backward-looking, extremist right politics,” said Kepel, whose latest book is Terror in France: The Rise of Jihad in the West. “But they did not succeed.”
During his Fordham appearance, Kepel was interviewed by longtime New York Times journalist Robert F. Worth, whose April 5 New York Times Magazine piece on Kepel, titled “The Professor and the Jihadi,” detailed a death threat against the terrorism expert. Kepel informed the Fordham audience that hours earlier in Manhattan he’d gone out for breakfast without a police escort for the first time in 11 months.
Police efforts had a tangible impact on the Macron-Le Pen election, said Kepel, who in addition to writing numerous books on Islam is a professor at Paris Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po) and director of the Middle East and Mediterranean program at Paris Sciences et Lettres Research University.
In the wake of high-profile jihadist attacks against Charlie Hebdo cartoonists, concertgoers at the Bataclan music venue, and revelers in the city of Nice on Bastille Day, French police stepped up their anti-terror efforts, tapping phones and breaking encryption. The country has also tightened its borders; a deal with Turkey, for instance, has stanched the flow of ISIS recruits trained in Raqqa, Syria, and Mosul, Iraq, from re-entering France.
“There were scores of plots that had been prepared to take the elections hostage, to boost Marine Le Pen,” Kepel observed. “They were just all foiled, except one at the end when a policeman was killed on the Champs-Élysées three days before the first-round vote.”
In that instance, Kepel continued, Le Pen attracted widespread criticism for her comments after the officer’s funeral that it was a shame his ceremony honored a gay man rather than a policeman, and thus was unable to use the attack to her political advantage.
According to Kepel, the reality facing French politicians, particularly with Macron now as president, is that France is part of the Arab world, insofar as it has a large postcolonial mix of Muslims from North Africa. Moreover, issues impacting the Middle East ultimately affect Europe and France, Kepel said.
“Everybody lives in France now with people from North African descent, whether in the workplace, at the dinner table, or in bed,” the scholar shared.
Exacerbated by unemployment and concerns about secularism, jihadism in France builds on the feeling that there are still a number of accounts to settle for the past, Kepel said. The French saying for this idea, which translates roughly to “When the sea comes back,” explains, in part, attacks such as the March 19, 2012, shooting at a Jewish school in Toulouse that killed four. The shooting happened on the 50th anniversary of the implementation of a ceasefire between the French Army and the Algerian French resistance forces, the scholar noted.
Kepel’s ebb-and-flow description of France’s fight against terrorism resonated with Center on National Security director Karen Greenberg.
“This is an image we should really think about—what exactly is coming back and what it’s going to erase in its path,” Greenberg said in her closing remarks.