When militants loyal to the Islamic State group (I.S.) seek to inflict pain on Europe, France is their preferred target, a grim reality borne out yet again with Tuesday’s knife slaughter of a Catholic priest.
Since January 2015, I.S.-inspired attackers have killed at least 235 people in France, by far the largest casualty rate of any Western country. French citizens or French-speaking residents have committed the overwhelming majority of strikes, often employing suicide tactics alongside command of their home surroundings.
President François Hollande argues that France is their top enemy on the continent because of his homeland’s reputation as a cradle of human rights and democracy.
“If terrorists strike us, it is because they know what France represents,” Hollande said after this month’s Bastille Day truck attack that killed 84 people on Nice’s crowded waterfront.
Analysts agree that I.S. propagandists particularly target France as a land anchored in secular values, liberal freedoms and life’s pleasures. But its colonial history, demographic tensions and interventionist policies against militant Muslims abroad point to deeper reasons why anti-Western killers seek so ruthlessly to bring grief to France’s door.
France has the largest population of Muslims in Europe, more than five million in a nation of 66 million, a legacy of its colonial domination of large swathes of Africa and the Middle East. Most have grown up speaking French alongside Arabic and are disproportionately represented in France’s poorest, most alienated districts.
French soldiers and special forces remain committed today in predominantly Muslim corners of former overseas possessions, fighting I.S.-linked extremists in Africa and fueling calls for retaliation on French soil. French air power is strengthening the nearly two-year-old coalition offensive against suspected I.S. targets in Iraq and Syria, too.
France’s exceptional public focus on promoting integration into a secular society has fueled chronic tension with its Muslim minority, exemplified by a 2010 ban on wearing face-covering veils and a 2004 ban on Islamic headscarves in the classroom.
“France’s model of integration is generous in its principles but too rigid in its practice,” Farhad Khosrokhavar, a sociologist who is an expert on the Muslim experience in French life, wrote in an analysis for The New York Times.
“Although France has managed to integrate many immigrants and their descendants, those it has left on the sidelines are more embittered than their British or German peers, and many feel insulted in their Muslim or Arab identity,” he wrote, noting that alienation can run particularly deep among those from France’s nearest Muslim neighbors: Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria across the Mediterranean Sea.
France has suffered terrorism incubated in Algeria since the late 1950s as the French fought an ultimately doomed war to retain their major North African possession. France withdrew from Morocco in 1955, Tunisia in 1956 and Algeria in 1962.
But just as in West Africa, where French finance and military might continue to shore up friendly governments, France has never fully withdrawn its influence, maintaining a far more hands-on role than the British do in their former empire.
In the mid-1990s, the Armed Islamic Group of Algeria — which decapitated citizens and slaughtered foreigners on home soil as it sought to overthrow a French-backed government — mobilized supporters in France to commit train bombings and other violence that claimed more than 20 lives.
The French military footprint in former African colonies threatened by Islamic extremists has grown markedly under Hollande. French forces intervened in Mali in 2013 and today are present through much of West Africa.
It’s no surprise, analysts say, that the majority of today’s attackers in France have family ties to North and West Africa, not the Middle East.
Sons and daughters of these African immigrants now seek to answer I.S. recruitment call at rates unseen in other European nations. An estimated 1,000 French citizens and residents mostly of African Muslim background have traveled to Syria, or been caught trying to join I.S. forces ever since the nation — another former French possession — started to unravel five years ago.
The French recruiting influence in the I.S. power base of Raqqa reflects the common languages spoken there, Arabic and French. This, in turn, spurs the production of slick Francophone propaganda tailored specifically to insult and intimidate French eyes and ears. I.S. has directly threatened France, using native French speakers, in nine communiques over the past three months.
One video released this month features an a cappella song in French titled “My Vengeance” alongside footage of November’s attacks on Paris nightspots that killed 130 people. Its lyrics advise France-based followers to “shed the blood of the pigs … destroy their souls. Make France quake.”
France’s response to the Nice carnage was to call up several thousand police and army reservists to join more than 100,000 security personnel already patrolling the streets and borders. Hollande also pledged to send more military advisers and artillery for the U.S.-led fight against I.S. in Iraq and Syria.
Some analysts doubt whether France’s military commitments play the critical role in spurring resident Muslims to answer I.S.’s call. They say France’s fundamental challenge is that it hosts the greatest concentration of marginalized Muslims on the continent, many of whom view their adopted homeland as sinful and disrespectful toward Islamic traditions.
“Whether the guy who rented a truck in Nice was frightfully interested that Raqqa is being bombed, I don’t know,” said Francois Heisbourg, an analyst at a French think tank called the Foundation for Strategic Research.
He said targeting French population centers using homegrown militants offered the opportunity for “surefire results” against a land that represents, in the eyes of I.S. leaders, “a target of unbelief, of heresy, of apostasy.”