During a White House press conference last week in the wake of the Paris terror attacks, U.S President Barack Obama took the opportunity to school France on how to fight terrorism through social assimilation and approaches that don't involve the military or law enforcement. Ironically, he lectured the French while standing just a few miles away from Anacostia, the Washington, D.C., neighborhood for which the French government issued a travel warning in 2013 for its citizens to avoid, day or night.
The problem in both France and the U.S. is the nonstop lip service to nice-sounding but ineffective ideas that are favored over tougher policies enacted during windows of political opportunity.
"Our biggest advantage ... is that our Muslim populations feel themselves to be Americans and there is this incredible process of immigration and assimilation that is part of our tradition," Obama said.
What assimilation process is that, exactly? Is there some kind of Office of Immigration and Integration tasked with ensuring that adult immigrants take courses in civic responsibility and the English language from the moment they apply for a visa? France has had such a process in place since 2007. Immigrants who fail to comply risk the non-renewal of their visas. The only adults exempted from signing this integration pact with the state are professionals deemed to have extraordinary abilities; independent, non-salaried professionals; seasonal workers; and immigrants with years of education in French schools.
It's a start -- and it's much more than the U.S. has in place, despite Obama's condescending remarks about the smooth assimilation of immigrants in America -- but the standards could be even tighter. French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said in 2013, when he was interior minister, that "for 75 percent of signatories, [the integration pact] is limited to a few hours of training on 'Living in France' and a skills assessment. It's not up to par." He's right. The most obvious solution is to limit immigration to those who fall into the merit-based categories listed above.
Still, no amount of effort to integrate new immigrants can solve the problem of ethnic balkanization that has long existed within France. But addressing that underlying problem constitutes political kryptonite for any French politician.
In 2005, when former French President Nicolas Sarkozy was serving as interior minister and had a zero-tolerance policy toward violence in ethnic enclaves, French leftists and even members of Sarkozy's own party denounced his rhetoric without providing any viable alternatives. They offered no more practical help than Obama provided last week with his reaction to the despicable acts of young homegrown French hoodlums who turned to jihadism.
"It's important for Europe not to simply respond with a hammer and law enforcement and military approaches to these problems," Obama said.
Good luck resolving an ugly problem with little more than benign language.
Where to start? Prison time and hard manual labor akin to a military boot camp would be nice. France's hooligan jihadists all seem to want to go to jihadist military camps abroad. Perhaps they should instead get their fill during a stint in a French prison. Import some French drill sergeants to give them a taste of the military lifestyle. One of the Paris terrorists' friends told the media that he was obsessed with combat. Great -- get the combat enthusiasts into prison as soon as possible so they get a taste of it. Otherwise, they'll take off to Yemen for combat training.
Some might respond, "Yes, but what about the jihadist indoctrination they'll get while in prison?" We've been hearing this in France for years: politicians, sociologists and psychologists wringing their hands over how to deal with jihadism inside prisons. Why are we still talking about it? Prison jihadism should have been forcibly snuffed out from the start. What are the drawbacks to clamping down on it? That a jihadist might complain about the state infringing on his right to advocate for religious extremism?
If a state can't even control extremism inside prison, where the public is most likely to accept the state's discretion in such matters, how can it expect to begin eradicating it in the public domain?
There's no better time for France to take aim at the root problems of domestic terrorism with smart but tough pragmatism.