If France is “at war”, as President Hollande announced after the horrific attacks in Paris last week, then it is an unjust war between reactionary forces equally disdainful of human life, neither of them less deliberately and consciously cruel in the pursuit of reactionary political objectives. Supporting either France or the Islamists will only worsen the dynamic between two unacceptable alternatives.
The 13 November bombings and shootings in Paris murdered 129 innocent people. Many of them in their twenties and thirties, they happened to be attending a rock concert, eating out in a lively neighbourhood, watching football in a sports bar or just walking by. The attacks took lives at random, devastating families irreparably and leaving most ordinary French people in pain and profound shock.
The attacks were part of a wave of deliberate massacres of civilians claimed by Daesh (Islamic State), including blasts that cut down dozens of people in a Shia neighbourhood in Beirut just the day before, and the blowing up of a Russian airliner with 224 tourists aboard over Egypt's Sinai desert in October. These were all acts of murder, though on a much smaller scale than the Western powers, France among them, have inflicted on the peoples of the world for more than a century, in the Middle East and elsewhere. Need we mention as many as a million victims of France's war to prevent Algerian independence (1952-62)?
Almost immediately, French President Francois Hollande declared war. He stated that his country faced not just attacks by individuals as it has in the past, but now "a terrorist army". "We are at war," he told the French parliament a few days after the Paris attack, when it met to give him wartime powers. He claimed this was self-defence, although his government had stepped up military operations in Syria – surveillance flights, air strikes and, according to Le Monde, special forces – in the weeks and days before the Paris killings.
If this is a war, it is an unjust war between reactionary forces equally disdainful of human life, neither of them less deliberately and consciously cruel in the pursuit of reactionary political objectives. Supporting either side will only worsen the dynamic between two unacceptable alternatives. People need to step forward and politically oppose both sides and all their horrors and work to break free of this ghastly logic.
Daesh poses as the only force that can challenge the power, ideology and hypocrisy of the imperialist ruling classes of the handful of countries that control or seek to control so many nations and bring so much misery to so many people. They mount this challenge inspired by a reactionary ideology and vision of society that would bring to power rising new exploiters and thwarted old ones. The goal of their jihad is to preserve, sanctify and systematize existing forms of oppression of the people in the Middle East and elsewhere, including the supremacy of men over women, a subjugation that persists in old and new forms throughout all of today's world, along with other oppressive social divisions that crush the lives and potentials of whole populations. Thousands of youth from France and elsewhere have joined their ranks in Syria and other countries because they believe Islamism offers them a future denied them in their societies. Some of them are said to have been involved in the Paris attacks.
France has been deeply involved in Syria since the First World War was fought to re-divide the world among the imperialist powers. Even before that war was over, the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement split the Ottoman empire's possessions between Britain and France. France tore Syria apart to create the state of Lebanon, basing itself on its allies among the Christian minority there, and more generally worked to exacerbate religious and ethnic contradictions. The Daesh communiqué issued after the Paris massacres specifically called France "the guardian of the Sykes-Picot temple," meaning not only the old colonial order but the region's economic and political subjugation that has persisted and in some ways intensified.
France has sought to advance its interests in Syria and the region in many ways over the years, sometimes in concert with other powers such as the U.S. and often in rivalry with them. Probably more than any other Western power, France has historic ties and influence among sectors of the Syrian ruling class, once with the Assad family and now among leading regime defectors portrayed as the "moderate" (pro-Western) opposition. Ironically, it was France, not the U.S., that was most eager to open a bombing campaign against the Assad regime in 2013. Since then, with the U.S. and then Russia conducting their operations in Syria under the banner of confronting Daesh, French President Hollande has seen an increasing need to do the same, this time in the name of opposing not Assad but Daesh. The tactics, manoeuvres and justifications vary, but the imperialist interests remain the same – he who does not have armed forces involved is not going to sit at the table when the spoils are divided.
It should be understood that what France has and hopes to do in Syria is no different from what it has been doing with its 3,500 troops in Chad, Mali and elsewhere in former French colonies in Western and Central Africa: they are not looking to re-establish colonial set-ups that are no longer possible or necessarily desirable from the point of view of French imperialism, but they are working to bring peoples more tightly into the networks of capital accumulation in Paris and keeping imperialist rivals at bay.
Just as Hollande had already stepped up French operations in Syria before the Paris attacks, his government had already begun to adopt sweeping new government powers in the name of combating Islamist terrorism. These powers were also directed at France's considerable population of immigrant origin, largely from predominantly Moslem countries that were once French colonies and remain within its sphere of influence. These repressive measures range from legislation allowing the political police to operate more freely of judicial oversight (not heralding new surveillance practices but giving them a more solid legal cover) to banning tinted glass in cars (justified as necessary for police to see whether drivers are texting or wearing seatbelts, but also, of course, allowing them to more easily spot people's ethnicity).
After the attacks, Hollande declared a state of emergency that allowed almost 300 police to conduct home invasions without search warrants over two nights. Parents, siblings and other family members of people suspected of implication in the attacks were jailed without charges – an act considered revenge and hostage-taking when carried out by some other countries.
In fact, as French journalists have pointed out, that hypocritical slogan "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity" has been drowned out by the singing of the national anthem, La Marseillaise, with emphasis on the verse, "Citizens, to arms". Unlike after the Charlie Hebdo massacres last January, there are fewer warnings from within the establishment against confusing Islamists with people of Islamic backgrounds. The keynote in Hollande's discourse is that the state will be "merciless" abroad and at home.
Not coincidently, Hollande has taken up the far right National Front proposal to give the government the power to strip even French-born people (meaning from immigrant backgrounds) of their citizenship. He confined the threat to people holding dual nationality, since leaving people stateless is problematic under international law, but the symbolic value of this power is enormous, as is its potential as a weapon to terrorize families with the possibility of being torn apart. Many millions of immigrants are dual nationals.
Speaking before both chambers of parliament, an extremely rare occasion, he called for legislation that would allow the state of emergency he declared to be extended for 90 days. He also called for changing the country's 1958 constitution to give this extended state of emergency a stronger legal foundation, and for modifying a constitutional clause that currently allows the president to assume sweeping powers only in the event of an armed insurrection or foreign invasion. He announced the hiring of thousands of new police, border guards and prison guards.
The vagueness of Hollande's intentions leaves open all kinds of possibilities. There is a general uproar in France's ruling circles about the risks and opportunities posed by different approaches the country could adopt on a national and international level.
But there is much unity among the French ruling class in terms of repressive measures. For instance, when a leader of the Republicans (the new name of the mainstream right wing party) called for the internment of everyone with an "S" on their police file (meaning that they are under special surveillance, now usually for suspected Islamist connections, estimated to be between 4,000 and 10,000 people, according to Le Monde and the New York Times respectively), Hollande's Prime Minister Manuel Valls refused to discard that possibility, saying that the government would consider "all necessary weapons".
When the French president declares "We are at war," what comes to mind is not just World War II but the Algerian war, when the powers Hollande is evoking were established. They were aimed especially at Algerians in France and also meant to settle disputes in the ruling class by force.
France may be "at war", but with what realistic war aims remains unclear. At the same time, France cannot stand aside from this conflict, because it needs to maintain and expand its status as a great power, and ultimately as one of the handful of monopoly capitalist countries able to extract super-profits from its place in the workings of the world imperialist system. That is a very dangerous situation, for the French ruling class, the people of France and the world.
The risks are also very high on the domestic front. Stripping people of their French nationality would mean formally acknowledging the inequality of French citizens, a fact already experienced in the daily lives of people in the suburban housing estates where a section of the lower classes already feels confined. It is likely that one of Daesh's political goals behind these ghastly attacks was to accentuate the dynamic in which large sections of people from France's so-called "underclass" are pushed in the direction of Islamism by their marginalized position in society and especially by state repression against them.
Both sides are stepping up the polarization between Islamism and the French ruling class and its ideology. That is exactly the problem, the way the clash between these two reactionary sides defines the situation today. A refusal to recognize this dynamic – this reality – can only lead to being pulled into the wake of one side or the other despite protestations to the contrary. In the imperialist countries especially, but not only, this usually means helping the imperialists. Everywhere, supporting either side means strengthening the underlying reactionary dynamic and strengthening both.
It is hard for people to resist the attraction of these two poles without some understanding of why these are not the only choices. In the oppressed and oppressor countries alike, they need a long-term perspective of how a revolutionary alternative could arise. After the 11 September 2001 attacks in the U.S., despite a strong tendency of people to seek protection from the government, with the participation of revolutionary communists a "Not in our name" movement emerged that was able to contest the Bush regime's attempts to take the moral high ground as a representative of the victims and use this to legitimate even more massive crimes.
Today, a serious, courageous and growing opposition to the past, present and future crimes of imperialist rulers could provide political aid to those who hate both imperialism and Islamism in the Middle East and be part of beginning to change today's unfavourable political landscape worldwide.
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