Paris Uprising: The risk of French military involvement in North Africa

France must be prepared for domestic instability if its operations in Africa continue.

By Matt Moir
January 28, 2013

If the bombing campaign to root out Islamists in Mali continues to spill across the Algerian border, France can expect homegrown terrorist attacks on its own soil. It will just be a matter of time.

France’s military intervention in the Sahel region has provoked a litany of protests and threats from Islamic extremist groups. In response, French authorities have increased security around busy and sensitive areas in Paris, including airports, railway stations and public buildings. The precaution is both wise and necessary.

France has the highest proportion of Muslims in Europe; it is believed that nearly ten percent of the population identify themselves as Muslims. The mere presence of a significant Muslim population isn’t, of course, threatening or cause for concern. What complicates this situation, however, is the relationship—both throughout history and today—between Muslims and non-Muslims in France. It is one that is taut with antipathy and mistrust.

Due to its colonial history in the Maghreb, most of France’s approximately five million Muslim citizens are of North African descent. Of those, the majority are of Algerian origin. After the Second World War, France uncompromisingly refused to grant independence to the Maghreb countries, and so Algerians, Tunisians, and Moroccans were forced to fight for their freedom. After a decade of conflict marked by torture, terror, and mass bloodshed, the colonies were liberated from French rule.

France experienced an economic boom in the 1960s, and thousands of workers were required to satisfy its growing economy. Immigrants flooded in from North Africa to supply cheap labor. Though the French government initially envisioned guest workers staying only for a short time, they eventually settled in France because of the country’s continued economic needs. In 1976, France passed family reunification legislation that resulted in a second wave of immigration from North Africa comprised primarily of women and children.

Though born and raised on French soil, many of the descendants of those who originally immigrated to France from North Africa in the 1960s and 70s have been prevented from integrating into mainstream French society. Unemployment among Muslim youth in France is far above the national average, and the proportion of Muslim prisoners in French jails has ballooned to 70 percent.

The economically disadvantaged banlieues, or suburbs, that surround Paris and other large cities throughout the country—home to huge swaths of France’s Muslim community—have emerged as hotbeds of hostility towards the French state. Occasionally, this hostility has turned violent. One need only look back at the havoc inflicted upon the city of Toulouse in March 2012 to comprehend the seriousness of a homegrown terrorist threat born out of this environment. The perpetrator, Mohamed Merah, was born and raised in a Toulouse banlieue in which grinding poverty was the norm. After embracing radical Islam in prison, Merah, a Frenchman of Algerian origin, shot and killed three soldiers and four Jewish people before being shot dead by police.

By all accounts, Merah’s rage was of nebulous origins. He claimed that his actions were in response to France’s involvement in Afghanistan, the government’s decision to ban the burqa, and the plight of the Palestinians. Though the burqa issue was solely French, France’s involvement and responsibility for the very real suffering of Afghans and Palestinians was and continues to be relatively minimal. Many young Muslims in France may identify with the bitterness Merah felt, but none have so far been willing to follow in his bloody footsteps. A French military operation on Algerian soil, however, would focus that amorphous rage in a way that anger over victims of drone strikes in rural Afghanistan never could.

France should consider what lies ahead if the military campaign in Mali drags on much longer. Just as rural Pashtuns refuse to recognize the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb considers the entire swath of North Africa its domain. As such, if the hostage crisis that unfolded in the Algerian Sahara is merely a foreshadowing of this conflict’s future, France is in trouble. If the Islamists “retreat” north and wreak havoc in Algeria, for example, and the French do not pursue, President Hollande’s promise that France “will play her full role” in putting “an end” to terrorist networks in Africa will ring utterly hollow. But if France does follow the extremists with warplanes, Algerian civilians will inadvertently be killed.

If that were to happen, it is hard to believe that a ferocious response from angry, disenfranchised French youth of Algerian descent won’t become a reality. And France should be prepared. Historically disenfranchised neighborhoods in Paris, Toulouse, and Marseille might literally explode.

Matt Moir received a bachelor’s degree in History from the University of Guelph, and is currently a graduate student in Journalism at Sheridan College in Toronto. He writes about Canadian foreign policy and international affairs.

This image is being used under Creative Commons licensing. The original source can be found here.


I think you need to study the Maghreb and French geo-politics and history more before writing and posting. Maybe go spend some time in Paris. Read French articles...gasp! France would never ever get involved militarily in Algeria, for a million reasons beyond the scope of this comment. If I have to explain this to a graduate, I pity what Canadian academia has become! Also, Algeria fought a war of Independence, Morocco and Tunisia did not - you incorrectly stated Morocco and Tunisia did. Furthermore, French North Africans are not only relegated to the banlieus, they are in every strata of society in France, intermarried, and a large portion are completely irreligious. But of course that would'nt fit the tired old stereotypes repeatedly spouted by the uninformed.

Give it time and this portion of the population will eventually have enough political power to rule the country, as this is the long term war that they are waging on the west. As western countries slow down their birth rates and increase their spending on social welfare programs this portion of our societies is increasing its numbers and spreading its single minded view of the world that has no room for other view points.

About Us

The International Affairs Review is a graduate student-run publication of the George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs in Washington, D.C.

Follow us on:

Submission Guidelines

The International Affairs Review is currently accepting article submissions. Submissions for the website are accepted on a weekly basis with a deadline of 5 p.m. Eastern Standard Time each Thursday. Submissions for the print journal are accepted continuously, with article selection occurring at the beginning of each semester.

Click here for more information


Opinions expressed in International Affairs Review are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of International Affairs Review, The Elliott School of International Affairs, The George Washington University, or any other person or organization formally associated with International Affairs Review.

Click here for more information

Contact Us

Please feel free to contact our team with any questions or concerns.

Print Journal:

The Elliott School of International Affairs
George Washington University
1957 E Street, NW
Room 303-K
Washington, DC 20052