Terrorism in France – All You Need to Know

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“I may not agree with what you say, but I shall defend until death your right to say it” is one of the most profound arguments for freedom of speech and expression. This quote has never been more relevant than under current circumstances when a series of Islamic terror attacks in France has reignited the debate between freedom of speech and blasphemy. These attacks were a response to an offensive depiction of Prophet Mohammad by a satirical magazine. The recent terror attacks and the freedom of expression and religion followed in France have spilled over to the international arena, with several Muslim majority countries like Turkey, Pakistan, Malaysia and others criticising French President Macron’s strategy to reform Islam in France in accordance with its constitutional principles.

terrorism in france

What happened in France?

  • On 30th October 2020, three individuals were killed in a knife attack by a Tunisian national at the Basilica of Notre-Dame in Nice, France.
  • These attacks were termed as Islamic terrorist attack by the French government as the attacker repeated “Allahu Akbar”.
  • This incident comes following the beheading of a teacher on October 16 after he showed cartoons published in the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo depicting the Prophet Mohammad to his students.
  • The attacker in this case was an 18-year-old Chechen refugee.
  • Prior to these attacks, two people were seriously wounded in Paris after they were stabbed by an Islamist extremist of Pakistani origin in September 2020.

What are the causes of these attacks?

Religious sentiments:

  • France is a secular society commends the values of free speech and freedom to practice religion.
  • It is home to one of the largest population of atheists, who account for 37% of the French population.
  • France has the highest number of Muslims in Europe, at around 9% of total Muslims in Europe.
  • Charlie Hebdo, a satirical magazine, is infamous for mocking almost all religions and ideologies.
  • It published satirical cartoons of Mohammad on October 2012.
  • The controversial cartoons have angered numerous Muslims across the globe.
  • However, Charlie Hebdo remained resolute in publishing such controversial cartoons under the rights to freedom of expression.
  • This resulted in extremists using the cartoons as an excuse to wage war on French secularism.
  • Several terror attacks followed the publication over the past years.
  • Among these attacks are the infamous 2015 shooting, the 2018 Paris Knife Attack and the 2019 Lyon Bombing.
  • In the last 10 months, 7 major Islamic terror attacks occurred in France. They ranged from ramming of cars to beheading of individuals.
  • The latest terror attacks followed the republication of the same contentious caricature.


  • In France, there exists a section of the population that is concerned about radical Islam and immigration.
  • To gain political advantage, several politicians introduced controversial laws in 2010 that banned the wearing of hajibs, burqas and niqabs in certain settings.
  • These laws openly violate the “freedom to practice religion”, which was recognised since 1905 when the Law on the Separation of the Church and State was enforced.
  • Since then, the French government does not favour any one religion and guarantees their peaceful coexistence with respect to the laws and principles of the Republic.
  • The 1905 law penalises anyone who forces a religion or prevents someone from following a religion.
  • Far-right attitudes and France’s long tradition of secularism may have played a significant role in the French public’s criticism of Islam.
  • This is pushing down the already struggling minority in addition to contributing to the structural Islamophobia in France.

Socio-economic reasons:

  • The country is home to over 6 million Muslims, many of whom are within the economically weaker sections, often being marginalised by politics and media.
  • Though a vast majority of France’s Muslims condemn Islamic extremism, they often become victims of unfair stereotyping.
  • Far-right groups attempted to Islamized poverty in France, leading to people seeing crimes in suburbs as a Muslim problem rather than a socio-economic problem.


  • Most of the Islamic terror cases in Europe do not always involve poor people.
  • Those involved in terrorism come from various backgrounds.
  • Over the past 8 decades, Europe witnessed intense waves of immigration because of multiple reasons.
  • The first wave was during the post-World War II era when Europe was falling short of hands and required manpower to run industries.
  • The second wave took place as expertise was required and had to be imported.
  • The third wave occurred due to the dislocation of Western Asian states.
  • Countries like Sweden and France, despite encouraging immigration, did not ensure cultural assimilation.
  • The attackers involved in the recent terror attacks in France were not French nationals but were from countries like Tunisia, Pakistan etc.
  • The conditions in the home countries of the attackers like Pakistan are increasingly becoming Islamised and anti-western through politics, while their education system crumbles.
  • In addition, the conditions of immigrants do not improve even after arriving in Europe, as there is a ghettoization of Muslim immigrants.
  • Religion has become a defence mechanism and the rallying point of these immigrants.
  • The controversy over the publication of caricatures of Prophet Muhammad has caused widespread protests across the world.
  • This has motivated the first attacker, who was a Pakistani national arrived in France several years ago. He stabbed two individuals outside Charlie Hebdo in Paris on 25th September this year.

Social Media:

  • None of the attackers in France pledged allegiance to a terrorist group and no group claimed them as members.
  • None of them stated any political agenda except for religion.
  • However, the signs of radicalisation are visibly expressed on social media.
  • Those behind these terror attacks can be seen as isolated, self-radicalised individuals rather than being a part of Islamist extremist networks.
  • The stabbing incident involving the Pakistani national in September this year has pushed the 18-year-old refugee of Chechen descent to become active on extremist social media sites, leading to the beheading of the school teacher, who showed Charlie Hebdo’s caricature of Prophet Mohammad.
  • The third attacker was also involved in social media.
  • He was found to be searching for addresses of those who opposed Islam in Twitter.
  • This shows that the threat of Islamic extremism arises from religious anger propagated by some accounts in social media.
  • This is a deviation from the French government’s perception that the threat occurs mainly from “Islamic Separatism”

What is France’s response to these terror attacks?

  • Thousands of soldiers were deployed to protect public areas, especially churches and schools.
  • The French President Emanuel Macron has supported the right to publish cartoons (right to free speech) and his government has been cracking down on radical Islam in response to the attacks.
  • Since the first attack in September, the government has shut down a major mosque, some Muslim aid groups and conducted several raids.
  • The Macron government had also unveiled an anti-radicalisation plan aimed at quashing religious “separatism” and freeing France from what is described as radical “foreign influence”. The plan includes:
  1. Funding for programmes to combat extremism and addressing social problems in neighbourhoods
  2. Additional security for religious schools
  3. Near-total ban of homeschooling
  4. Restriction on foreign imams travelling to France for work
  5. Tighter regulations for mosques, including a requirement that imams should be officially trained and certified in France
  6. Islamic organisations receiving funds from government must sign a “secular charter” that accepts French principles of free expression, tolerance and other aspects associated with the secular democracy.

Why is France’s new anti-radicalisation plan a game-changer?

  • The new anti-radicalisation plan can provide a whole new template for other European countries, which are also facing the threat of Islamic extremism, to adopt.
  • While the European countries maintain secularism and inclusiveness, they have stepped up their scrutiny of Muslim communities over the past years.
  • For instance, Austria shut down 7 mosques and expelled 60 Imams last year.
  • In 2015, it had banned foreign funding of religious institutions.
  • Last year, Germany began training of imams locally by launching a pilot project in order to reduce foreign influence on religious leaders of Islam.
  • The proposed plan by the French government is a combination of these and other similar measures.
  • The unveiling of the anti-radicalisation plan by France has led to the creation of one consolidated playbook.
  • This may be adopted by other European countries to ensure systematic deradicalisation and to create their own version of Islam that incorporates their values.
  • This, in turn, would have a high impact on Muslim countries, especially on those like Turkey that are looking to become global Islamic leaders.

What is the criticism of Macron Government’s response?

  • French government’s support to Charlie Hebdo’s right to publish provocative caricatures has led to protests in several Muslim countries.
  • The criticism is that the timing of the republication and the French government’s support for the same.
  • These caricatures were published against the backdrop of rising Islamophobia in France across the political spectrum.
  • The Muslim community in France are targeted, marginalised, disempowered and demonised by powerful politicians.
  • France has banned the wearing of burqas and niqabs and other full-face coverings in public places.
  • Transgressors are subjected to fines.
  • These controversial laws are viewed as unfair since they do not allow “freedom of expression” for Muslims.
  • Thus, these aspects led to the questioning of consistency of the application of freedom of expression by the French government, with it supporting the publication of provocative cartoons but not allowing the cultural practices by Muslims.
  • According to critics, the French government is imposing a different kind of state religion through these controversial rules.
  • Under these circumstances, there is a lack of constructive debate on how to be both French and Muslim.
  • There is also a lack of concrete strategy on how to prevent discrimination against Muslims.
  • In addition, there is a lesser focus on the protection of the Muslim community’s mental health and social welfare.
  • These aspects are often downplayed or overlooked when trying to understand how radicalisation happens.
  • These factors are often exploited by foreign players, who provide corrosive, narrow theological interpretations of Islam to young Muslims facing social, political and economic injustice within the French society.
  • French government’s support for Charlie Hebdo has not only led to criticism across the world but also worsened the divide in French society, leading to increased instances of violence by Islamic extremists.
  • It has sparked protests in Arab Gulf states, Pakistan, Turkey and several Muslim countries in South East Asia.
  • This, in turn, has given the opportunity for the right-wing elements in France, who often gain mass support whenever assaults in the name of Islam claimed lives, to gain momentum.
  • The rise of right-wing politicians creates the possibility of foreign terrorists entering the country to exploit the crisis.
  • The recent attacks – the one in Nice and two in Paris – were perpetrated by foreigners.
  • The Macron government had initially assigned Jean-Louis Borloo to assess the problems of France’s suburban ghettos.
  • The Borloo report, which was submitted in 2018, called for government interventions in low-income areas to promote equality for all, including the marginalised communities in France.
  • However, it was dismissed by Macron government, with the focus shifting to the alleged shortcomings of Muslim schools and mosques, sports clubs, fraternal circles etc.
  • These small-bore regulatory measures do not address the core problem that created the favourable grounds for radicalisation, which is systemic racism.

How have these terror attacks influenced France’s bilateral ties with Turkey?

  • Turkey has heavily criticised France’s response to the terror attacks, though it offered sympathy for the victims.
  • Its bilateral ties with France is at a new low after its President Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused French President Macron of Islamophobia over the caricatures and even questioned his mental health.
  • Erdogan has also called on Muslim countries to boycott French goods, which was then backed by several Muslim majority countries like Pakistan and Bangladesh.
  • While the immediate trigger was the Charlie Hebdo cartoons and Macron government’s push to “reform” Islam, there is a larger geopolitical context to the rising tensions between Turkey and France.
  • Turkey, under Erdogan, is striving to expand its influence to the erstwhile Ottoman territories.
  • However, France stood in its way, creating indirect scuffle between the two countries in various parts of the world.
  • In Libya, where Turkey is supporting the Tripoli-based internationally-recognised government, France is backing the Tobruk-based parallel government and the military campaign of the General Khalifa Haftar who is rebelling against Tripoli.
  • In the Eastern Mediterranean region, Turkey has launched a gas exploration mission, clashing with Greece. France has stood with the fellow EU members and sent French warships to the region.
  • In the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict, when Turkey offered unconditional support to Azerbaijan, France slammed Ankara’s interventions in the conflict.
  • In all these cases, France and Turkey emerged as two opposing parties.
  • While France, having the most powerful military among the EU members, is trying to assert itself under the Macron government, Erdogan’s neo-Ottoman foreign policy creating conflicts whenever there is an opening.
  • Both countries are fellow NATO members. This has further led to a divide within the group.

What is India’s response?

  • India was the first non-western country to publically back French President Macron as he faced criticism from Turkey, Pakistan and several other Muslim majority countries.
  • It had called for “coordinated” response on state supporting terror and radicalisation amid French action in the aftermath of the recent terror attacks.
  • This response comes at a backdrop of India and France sharing common areas of concerns like terrorism, global warming, maritime security, sustainable development, norms-based international institutions.

Is there is a rise in terrorism in Europe?

  • Deaths in Europe from all forms of terrorism declined by 70% in 2019.
  • Western Europe recorded the lowest number of incidents since 2012.
  • According to the latest Europol reports, there were 21 jihadist plots in the European Union in 2019, lesser than 24 and 33 in the previous two years.
  • Of these 21 jihadist plots, only 3 succeeded.
  • The scale of these attacks was nowhere near those that occurred during 2015 and 2016, which killed hundreds of people.
  • The surge in 2015 and 2016 can be attributed to several causes like the Islamic State’s control over a swath of Iraq and Syria, its decision to target the west, its huge militant network linking France and Syria and establishment of training camps.
  • Despite the fall of ISIS, the threat of extremism still persists, though at a reduced level.
  • There is the persistence of sporadic instances of ISIS attempting terror strikes in Europe.
  • Currently, the ISIS is active in social media, encouraging supporters to make use of chaos caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • The recent instances of Islamic terrorism in France are unlikely to be a part of a concerted campaign organised by a major group.
  • These attacks, however, are responses to each other, with one attack frequently triggering more, often with the same tactics.
  • Despite the decline in Islamic extremism, there are growing instances of right-wing and left-wing attacks since last year.
  • In 2019, three EU members reported a total of 6 right-wing terror attacks compared to only one in 2018.
  • Though the majority of the right-wing extremist groups across the EU do not resort to violence, they do contribute to the climate of fear and animosity against minority groups within Europe.
  • This has led to the prevalence of Islamophobia and hatred for Jews and Muslims, anti-feminism and anti-immigration sentiments.
  • The report revealed that 26 left-wing and anarchist terrorist attacks in 2019 reached the same level as in 2016 and 2017 after a decrease in 2018.
  • The number of arrests on suspicion of left-wing or anarchist terrorism in 2019 has tripled compared to 2018 due to its sharp increase in Italy.


What can be the way forward?

Countering terrorism:

  • Though the recent attackers involved in France acted alone, they are not disconnected from extremist groups who are actively involved in propagating extremist version of Islam.
  • Extremist networks must be eradicated via intelligence gathering, which should involve law enforcement officials and others.
  • As it is difficult to track individual extremists, who have no link to terrorist groups, instances of radicalisation must be assessed on social media.
  • There is also the need to intensify counterterrorism measures, information sharing and law-enforcement cooperation on the ground and online to address the issue of extremism.
  • A new strategy must be unveiled for cooperation among European countries for combating terrorism and organised crimes.
  • This strategy must also ensure prevention and detection of hybrid threats like cybercrimes.
  • Enabling law-enforcement capabilities, tools and cross-border cooperation as per the requirements of the digital age is a need of the hour.
  • This will ensure the security of all individuals in Europe, irrespective of background.

Accommodating diversity:

  • Religion is one the toughest challenges facing modern secular societies in their search for identity, equality and cohesion.
  • This is because religion has become a stronger source of identity than nationality or ethnicity for minorities and migrants.
  • The paradigms of republicanism, as practised in France or multiculturalism implemented by western democracies like the UK and the US are all in crisis.
  • This crisis is especially seen in the banning of Islamic clothing, kosher or halal meals and burkinis in France.
  • Opposition for the migrant cause is one of the major reasons for BREXIT.
  • These instances show that Europe lacks middle ground on secularism and religion that ensures integration of national and religious identity and coexistence of religious minority groups and state institutions.
  • It is finding it difficult to accommodate minorities as well as defusing the growing instances of Islamophobia within Europe.
  • Most western governments focus on the drawbacks of their own version of secular republicanism or multiculturalism.
  • These provide little long-term benefits for the overall growth of the western society.
  • Perhaps the answer to these issues can be found beyond secularism, such as those found in large multi-religious and multi-ethnic democracies of Asia.
  • India is a case in point as the country has faced several religious challenges following the partition in 1947.
  • Bringing people together under those tense situations required more than just the promise of state neutrality.
  • Apart from the commitment to secularism, India made space for the plurality of religious observances and cultural practices.
  • For members of different communities to have a sense of equality, the government needs to create a public culture that is hospitable to religious difference.
  • In this context, the Indian constitution gives each individual the right to observe religion and gave minorities the right to set up religious and minorities school.
  • The government, for its part, provided funding for such schools while also ensuring public holidays for almost all religious festivals.
  • This ensures greater tolerance towards religion by the society.
  • In addition, India’s Supreme Court has prohibited appeals to religion and caste during elections.
  • These aspects provide excellent examples of how to ensure secularism that enables the coexistence of all regardless of their religious practices.
  • They address the issues of stigmatisation and alienation of minorities.
  • France’s new anti-radicalisation strategy is a step in the right direction as it ensures secularism while also accommodating the needs of French Muslims.


No state has succeeded in perfecting its approach towards creating a balance between freedom of speech and the issue of blasphemy. For secularism to prevail, there is a need for integration of religious differences and support for minority causes. For this, the government should ensure that religious freedom goes hand-in-hand with an understanding of the nature of religious commitments and the creation of a pluralised public spheres.

Practice question for mains:

Is France’s new anti-radicalisation strategy against its principle of secularism? Elaborate your argument. (250 words)

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