French far-right’s call for death penalty mere politicking: experts

Capital punishment is unlikely to make a return, even with the French public shocked by the most deadly attacks witnessed in the last half-century

Paul Crompton

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A French far-right leader’s renewed call last week for the re-instatement of the death penalty after the deadly Charlie Hebdo attack has been dismissed by analysts as a “mere political move.”

In the aftermath of the attack on the French satirical magazine in Paris by radical Islamist gunmen that left 12 people dead, National Front leader Marine Le Pen said she “believe[d] that the death penalty should exist in our legal arsenal.”

“I always said that I would offer French citizens the possibility to express themselves on the topic through a referendum,” Le Pen told television channel France 2.

Yet the notion of capital punishment, which was practiced in France from medieval times until the late 1970s, is unlikely to make a return, even with much of the French public shocked by the most deadly attack on their soil in the last half-century, said Remi Piet, a French public policy academic at Qatar University.

“The abandoning of the death penalty is widely seen as a progress and supported by the population,” Piet said.

“Le Pen is only trying to ensure a place in media and on the political stage, so far even if she has had some limited electoral local victories, she is still not considered a mainstream party leader,” he added.

Mathieu Guidere, who teaches Islamic studies at Toulouse University, said that even despite the attacks, there is still not enough public support for capital punishment.

“People know that even if the death penalty was applied, this will not stop the type of suicidal terrorists who hit France and who were anyway ready to die. So it is just a mere political move from the National Front,” Guidere added.

And with several of the militants in the Paris attacks seeking to be martyred for their cause, the concept of a death penalty – historically intended as a strong deterrent – is weakened, said Hilal Khashan, a political science professor at the American University of Beirut.

“The reinstitution of the death penalty will not change anything since the terrorists are seeking ‘martyrdom,’” said Khashan, adding: “France is bound by the EU stipulations that frown at the death penalty. I think French democracy will triumph.”

No longer on the fringe

Although the far-right party spent years far on the fringes of France’s political spectrum, Le Pen’s party made record gains in elections last May. After garnering nearly a quarter of the vote, the party gained control of two senate seats, 11 local councils and 23 of the 74 French seats in the EU Parliament.

“If the National Front came to power… with the possible election of Marine Le Pen in the next presidential election, in this case, yes, there will probably be a discussion about it,” said Raphael Liogier, a sociologist and director of the Aix-en-Provence-based Observatoire du Religieux research center.

But currently, by “playing on the collective fear” of radicalized minorities and the possibility of future militant attacks, Le Pen will be able to continue exploiting the state of anxiety in France, he added.

On the watch-list

On Friday, reports surfaced that the militants responsible for both the attack on the office of Charlie Hebdo and a parallel incident of hostage taking at a kosher supermarket in Paris had been known by French authorities for years.

U.S. officials also claimed that Said and Chérif Kouachi, the two gunmen who carried out the Charlie Hebdo attack, had been on their terrorist watch-list for years.

In addition, Hayat Boumeddiene, suspected to be an accomplice in the Paris supermarket attack which left four people dead, was questioned by police in 2010, according to French daily Le Monde.

Societal issues

However, some experts believe that France’s societal issues that are less pronounced in many other Western countries – including poor economic conditions, lack of opportunities, and prejudice by the local population – make the problem larger than enforcement and anti-terror legislation.

“The terrorism problem for France is mainly socioeconomic. Home-bred terrorists come from depressed and slummy areas. It is essentially a problem of maladaptation to life in a secular and forward-looking society,” said Khashan.

Paul Sullivan, a Middle East security expert at Georgetown University, said: “France has far less economic and social opportunity for the average Muslim than one would find in the U.S.”

“It also has many banlieues or slums that are filled with angry Muslim young men who have little job prospects. Prejudice against Muslims seems far harsher in France than in the U.S. All this adds up to a degree of difficult inter-religious stress that do not exist in the U.S.”

French security services also face a lack of resources to follow-up with the number of potential threats, according to Chris Chivvis, a political scientist at the U.S.-based RAND Corporation policy think-tank.

“The French security services are under-resourced for the challenge they face. There is a large and, unfortunately, growing number of individuals to track, and a limited number of staff for the task,” said Chivvis.

France’s anti-terror legislation, where those who publish content encouraging or defending terrorism face a prison sentence of up to seven years, could also be used to stifle free speech in the future, said Sahar Aziz, an academic at Texas A&M’s law school.

“Once the laws are on the books it is only a matter of time before they are applied to silence dissent. Moreover, in light of the terrorists’ aims to quash free speech by murdering the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists, the provisions that censor the Internet are problematic,” she said.