Soldiers on the streets of Paris, November 2015. Thibault Camus/AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.
For two years now, the world has been watching as France is subjected to the most vicious jihadi attacks of any European country. From the murder of the staff of Charlie Hebdo, to the massacre of partying twenty-somethings at the Bataclan, to the driving of a truck into the crowds celebrating Bastille Day, the most obvious question is – why France? Why are such a disproportionate number of their own citizens behaving this way?
Last year, I travelled around France, to research an additional chapter for the French edition of my book Chasing The Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs. There are many complex reasons why France is facing more home-grown jihadism than any other western country – but on my journey, it was explained to me by many people that there is one key reason that is barely being debated. France has the most extreme and intense ‘war on drugs’ in western Europe – and there is growing evidence that there is a connecting line from that fact, to this wider crisis.
“We have the power to kill you”
One afternoon, in the late 1980s, a 12-year-old boy was playing in the street with his friends. They all lived in the notorious district of Paris known as 93; but it was peaceful that day. If you had seen these boys playing together, you might have noticed that Fabrice Olivet looked a little different. They were all white, while Fabrice’s father came from Benin, a former French colony, so he was black. To these kids, it made no difference – they all played together, as French children, in the French capital, on a summer day.
Suddenly, the police approached the boys. A bike had been stolen, they said. They looked past the white kids, ignoring them, and immediately went to Fabrice. He, they believed, must have done it.
Most of the non-white French citizens I spoke with had a story like this in their adolescence – a moment when they realised the officials of the French state were going to treat them differently to their white friends. And for most of them, it centred around the drug laws.
As Fabrice got older, he started – like most French teenagers – to smoke cannabis. French teens have some of the highest levels of cannabis use in Europe, and I noticed that my white, middle-class friends in France seemed to think drugs were already effectively decriminalised. The police don’t bother them about it; it’s no big deal. By contrast, the French people of Arab or African descent I got to know told a different story.
When Fabrice was sixteen, the police stopped him on the street – as they do routinely to non-white kids, and very rarely to white kids – and they found a small bag of cannabis in his shoe. They took him to the local police station, and there, they started to mock and insult him. They said he had drugs because he was black, and he should go back to his own country.
Then – as Fabrice recalls – they took out a gun, and put it to his head, and said: “We are going to kill you! We have the power to kill you.”
All over the world, the ‘war on drugs’ has been waged largely against minority groups who the society already wanted – consciously or unconsciously – to keep out, or keep down. In the US, the National Survey on Household Drug Abuse found that African-Americans are no more likely to sell or use drugs than any other ethnic group – yet they make up the overwhelming majority of people punished for it. At any given time, 40% of African-American men between the ages of 15 and 35 are in prison, on probation, or have a warrant out for their arrest – and the majority are for drug-related offences.
The war on drugs is targeted on people of colour.
Fabrice and I sat outside a café in Saint-Denis, in Paris, drinking coffee and looking out over high-rise apartment blocks. Fabrice is a tall man, with long limbs, and an air of distant sadness.
In France, he told me, “the war on drugs is targeted on people of colour,” just as much as in the US. “When you ask ordinary people about drugs, they always talk about Arabs, and the suburbs, and say – ‘Arabs are selling drugs. This is the problem.’ And in fact, Michelle Alexander [who wrote a book about the racism of the drug war in the US called The New Jim Crow] showed very clearly that this problem is always used as a weapon for racism. It is exactly the same in France.”
“All these problems we have – including this problem of Charlie [Hebdo] – are connected to this problem,” he explained to me. “The relationship between police and the people of colour of this country is very bad. The question of drug policy is a secret story of this big mess.”
Tracing a pattern
There are many ways, I learned, in which the drug war bleeds into jihadism.
The first is that the ‘war on drugs’ has given the police a pretext to constantly harass non-white French citizens, on the street, and in their homes – to go after them almost constantly. France’s drug laws are the most severe in western Europe. This is one of the only democratic countries where drug use – as opposed to possession – is a crime, and people can be sent to prison for it. You can be sent to prison for a year for a single joint, and five years for a single plant.
The result is that many of the banlieues – the ugly concrete suburbs of poverty that donut French cities – often look like they are under military occupation. I walked around the battered city of Sevran with Jean-Luc Garcia, a big, bulky former member of the French gendarmerie, who belonged for many years to a unit whose job is to keep public order. When violence broke out, he was one of the first people sent, to restore order. It’s the kind of work that people on the French right really admire, and he looks and sounds, at first glance, like a typical voter for the UMP – or maybe even the Front National.
As we paced the streets, Jean-Luc began to tell me about how he realised something about France’s drug war. Since he was 17, he has smoked cannabis every now and then. He is a typical French citizen. It helps him to relax, he says, and doesn’t seem to cause him any problems. His job was physically demanding – he was often attacked – and he never under-performed.
Yet as a police officer, he was being sent into places that he felt were being attacked and destroyed, just to suppress drug use just like his own. One day, he had to supervise a young prisoner who had been arrested, and get him to court. The young man had been found with 200 grams of cannabis. Jean-Luc stood in the court-room and watched as the judge refused every request for mercy. He was sent to prison. “We have a law that is very harsh,” he tells me, “but it’s not efficient.” And Jean-Luc wondered: was the boy being treated especially brutally because he was brown-skinned? Why did they only ever seem to go to non-white neighbourhoods to do drug busts?
The more he watched France’s ‘war on drugs’, the more he began to worry about this question, although his concern became deeper and more complex. “It’s not only about racism,” he tells me. “It’s mostly about a kind of class war – a war against people who are in poor conditions. Mostly if you are white, brown or black skinned – if you are living in those places where social conditions are not good, then you are confronted more by law enforcement.”
Fabrice had explained to me what it does to your head, to be subjected to this from when you hit puberty. It makes many young Arab and Muslim kids feel the French state is persecuting them. “When you see such a mess, people are going to Islam to be protected,” he says. “Because they feel it is the only way to be recognised as what they are – people of colour, living in France, people from originally a different culture. They want just to be recognised for what they are.”
This was a core part of their formative experience as French citizens.
Fabrice has seen it happen to many people. The constant police harassment makes the messages of fundamentalist groups – you’ll never be French; they’ll never accept you; a democratic society is a con; white people get to use and sell drugs with impunity, while you get condemned for it – seem more plausible.
For almost all the people who have carried out murderous attacks in the past two years, this was a core part of their formative experience as French citizens. Sharif and Said Kouachi – who committed the murders at Charlie Hebdo – had been drug users and dealers. Amedy Coulibaly, who murdered Jewish people in a supermarket on the day of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, had been picked up by the police for drug offences. The Bataclan killers, the Nice murderer – the pattern runs across almost all of them.
The unusual intensity of the French drug war – and its racist focus – has led to more disaffection and rage from its targets. Nobody is suggesting this is the only or even the main factor; but it is a significant one. It’s a key reason why Fabrice set up Auto-Support Des Usagers De Drogues (ASUD), the Association of Drug Users, to fight for a more honest debate.
A ‘war for drugs’
But this is only the first way in which this relationship between the drug war and jihadi attacks plays out.
As we walked through Sevran, the former gendarmerie officer Jean-Luc Garcia explained to me: “There is no other way to describe the consequences of these anti-drugs laws, than by comparing it to US alcohol prohibition. We have the same consequences, with the same process,” he says.
When you ban drugs, they don’t vanish. Instead, they are transferred from legal, licensed businesses, to armed criminal gangs. Legal businesses have recourse to the law to protect their property – so they don’t commit acts of violence. An illegal trader obviously can’t go to the police to protect their property – so they have to establish their trade, and maintain their trade, through violence. They have to fight. As the American writer Charles Bowden put it, the ‘war on drugs’ creates a ‘war for drugs’.
That’s why in many parts of France, Jean-Luc explained, “when you have the prohibitionist system, then after you have criminal gangs that are ruling the streets and part of the society.” He continued: “There is a logic here. If you see people who are willing to use Kalashnikovs to save their business – that’s part of the deal. It’s not for pleasure that they are using Kalashnikovs,” he tells me, shaking his head. The more you crack down on drugs, the more their power grows, he adds: “Prohibition as a system is a way to promote and help criminals.”
This relates to fundamentalist violence in several ways. It means that these young men who later become jihadis grow up in an environment where carrying out acts of systematic violence is normalised. It’s part of growing up. You get your early training in violence – and the internal deadening you need in order to carry it out – by fighting rival dealers.
And it means they grow up in an environment where it’s not hard to get hold of guns, through the same criminal distribution networks that bring them drugs, and not hard to learn how to use them. The German defector from Isis, Harry Sarfo, recently explained that a key concern for Isis is getting guns to their supporters in Europe. The ‘war for drugs’ makes that far easier. These are cities and banlieues awash with guns, for that very reason.
To understand how normalised this violence has become, I went to see Stéphane Gatignon, the mayor of Sevran. In the year leading up to our conversation, he had to tell eight mothers that their sons have been killed in the ‘war for drugs’. He knows the number will only grow. “It’s unbearable. To have to tell a mother that her son has been shot dead. It’s awful,” he said, and looked away.
When you ban drugs, they don’t vanish.
Sevran is a city to the north-east of Paris, with nearly 50,000 residents, and it’s notorious as a hub for the prohibited drug trade. Stéphane has been the mayor since 2001 – and it has given him an education in what the ‘war on drugs’ really means. He knows that most people in France believe the drug war is something that happens somewhere else – a problem for the Americans and Mexicans, maybe. “That’s quite typical French thinking – that we have our own [very different] problems, but it’s nonsensical,” he tells me. “France has been a little bit blind. We should try to open our eyes and look at the real origins of the problems.”
In fact, far from being absent, he believes this is an urgent crisis for France. He says: “This question of the current drug laws is something that’s of deep concern when you look at the situation in France – with a society that is quite close to exploding.”
A local mayor can’t be removed from the reality on the ground, in the way that national politicians can. He talked about the drug-map of Sevran – and what it means for ordinary residents – with forensic detail. “When you have a mother in such places that are pressured by dealers, who want to buy her silence, or want to use her flat as a place to stash their stuff, that’s an increase in violence that pushes the people to madness. When you have to show your ID card when you want to enter your own home, because the entrance is owned by the dealers, then there is a level of violence that’s massive – and it can drive people crazy.”
The former head of the French drug squad, Olivier Foll, has noted that there are 843 “no-go zones run by drug gangs,” creating “a state inside the state.”
There is so much chaos in the city, and drug prohibition makes it so impossible to establish control, that Stéphane Gatignon even appealed for the UN to send blue helmet peace-keepers to Sevran.
“We know that the fatal shootings are a result of our drug prohibition policy,” Stéphane said to me. “That’s a fact.”
When you have significant parts of your country flooded by guns, and where young people are being trained to commit violence and regard it as normal, and where the police are regarded as a despised occupying force that nobody will co-operate with, that will empower people who want to carry out violence in other causes. That’s a key reason why the pool of violence caused by drug prohibition overlaps so tightly with the pool of violence caused by jihadism.
A field of flowers
There is an alternative. It is playing out in France now.
All across France, there are fields, where opium poppies grow. These poppies are used to make heroin. There is no violence associated with these poppies, or the heroin they produce. Nobody fights or dies for them.
The people who use the heroin do not become sick. They do not develop abscesses, or have to have their limbs amputated.
This is because these poppies – and the resulting heroin – are part of a legal trade. France is one of a handful of countries that has been granted permission by the United Nations to grow opiates legally, for the global pain relief market. (The others are Turkey, India, Australia, Spain, and Hungary). They go to make the heroin that is used in hospitals across the developed world.
The problems associated with the ‘heroin trade’ follow these flowers, or the factories where they are refined, or the users who feel it run through their veins.
That is because these problems are not, in fact, problems caused by the drug itself. They are caused by the prohibition of the drug.
When a drug is legal, nobody goes to war for it. Just as there are no violent alcohol dealers in Chicago today, there are now no violent heroin dealers in Switzerland – just across the border with France – where they have legalised heroin for addicts. (They have also had literally no fatal overdoses on legal heroin in Switzerland since the policy change was introduced over a decade ago.)
One day soon, when you are driving through the French countryside, you may see these poppy fields. Try to picture them as a vision of what France can be – if it chooses a different path.
Yet only a handful of public figures are ready to see this. The US has a horrific drug war – but it also has a vibrant debate about it, and real progress, with four states now fully legalising cannabis, and more likely to follow. In France, the debate is shrouded in silence at best, and crude moralism at worst. There is – in particular – a remarkable blindness to the racism of this war. Today, there are 210,000 people arrested for drug offences in France every year, and 60% are just for using drugs a single time. In any other European country, we would know what proportion of those arrests are of non-white people. These figures would be gathered as a matter of course by the government. I suspect we would find it is the vast majority.
But Olivier Maguet, who works for l’Association Française Pour La Réduction des Risques Liés à l’Usage Des Drogues (AFR), explained to me: “It’s forbidden in this country to have a database including the race of people.” It is literally illegal for the government to gather these statistics. You don’t know how much more likely non-white citizens are to be victimised by the drug war, because it is against the law to count.
There is a remarkable blindness to the racism of this war.
Whenever I asked others why this was the case, I would be given long and abstract lectures about how France has a concept of citizenship, derived from their revolution, that believes all citizens should be treated equally before the law. I admire that tradition, strongly. It is the right approach. But the way to uphold the idea of equal citizenship, and equality before the law, is to check whether you live up to it in practice – not to cover your eyes and ears and declare your abstract purity. To use the fact that no statistics are gathered as evidence that France’s drug war is not racist would be like banning HIV tests, and then announcing that there is no AIDS in France. Yet that is the position of the government.
In fact, it goes further: the debate about the drug war is officially suppressed. In France, it is a crime to talk about illegal drug use in “a positive light.” The Body Shop was even prosecuted a few years ago for selling cream to treat dry skin, made in part from hemp, because it had a cannabis leaf on its label.
In the nation of Voltaire, in the country that rallied so inspiringly to defend free speech in light of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, this has a significant chilling effect on the debate, and it may be one reason why France has the smallest legalisation movement of any European country I know. It certainly makes people afraid to promote safer ways of using drugs, like testing ecstasy tablets for any contaminants they might contain. Activists who would like to do that work told me they are too frightened to do it.
Dr Anne Coppell – one of the bravest voices for change in France – explained to me: “That’s our main contradiction. We have a discourse of the rights of man, democracy – but…” She laughed sadly, and waves her hand though the air. “In Germany, they are more pragmatic. Their cities had a problem in the 80s, so they tried to solve it. They asked Amsterdam – how did you solve it? And they followed. The same for Switzerland. In France, it’s not a pragmatic approach – it’s an ideological debate… We are not pragmatic. That is a very big problem we have.”
The French approach, I said to her, sounds remarkably like the US approach. “In Europe, I think France is very near the States… But [French] politicians follow the American policy – except they don’t understand that the Americans are changing. So they follow a policy that has no chief any more.”
And – not coincidentally – the country with the harshest drug war in western Europe also has one of the highest levels of drug use in the European Union – and the worst rate of teenagers using drugs. More than half a million French people use a prohibited drug every day; 1.2 million use regularly; and a further 3.8 million use occasionally. These figures are considerably worse than in countries where full decriminalisation has happened. For example: 39% of French 15- and 16-year-olds have smoked cannabis, compared to 19% in Portugal, where all drugs were decriminalised in 2001. This means a 15-year-old in Portugal, where it has been legal to use cannabis for her whole life, is half as likely to use cannabis as her equivalent in France, where there has been a drug war raging for her whole life.
All this, then, is for nothing.
“We know the solution”
How could things be different from France, if they took their success in legalising and regulating the market for opium poppies, and broadened it to include other drugs?
For Chasing The Scream, I went to the countries that have adopted the most severe possible drug policies, and the countries that have adopted the most compassionate possible drug policies. In the countries that had chosen compassion and regulation – from Portugal, where all drugs have been decriminalised, to Switzerland, where heroin was legalised for addicts – I noticed a pattern in the evidence.
Everywhere that has moved away from strict prohibition has seen a fall in hostility between the police, and marginalised groups. And where they have chosen a system of legal regulation, they have seen a significant decline in violence, and in criminal networks.
These are, of course, long-term trends. Nobody thinks they’re a simple (or sole) answer to a very complex question. But if France moved towards regulating its drug trade, it would – over time – see several changes. The police would not have a license to harass and militarise communities where non-white people live. Those communities would become less hostile and traumatised. There would be significantly less violence in those communities: professor Jeffrey Miron has shown how the murder rate in the US plummeted dramatically when alcohol prohibition ended. With violence less normalised, this violence would spill over into other causes less. And the networks that distribute deadly weapons – which at the moment are simply a sub-set of the drug trade – would be much easier to break up.
If somebody came from space, from another planet, he would think – how is this possible?
“We know the solution” to France’s drug crisis, Fabrice Olivet, whose harassment by the police began when he was 12-years-old, told me. “If somebody came from space, from another planet, he would think – how is this possible? Because it’s very easy to solve it… But you have a lot of difficulty to explain very simple things to ordinary people, because prohibition is a big propaganda [success] – the most efficient propaganda I had ever seen.” The challenge today, he says, is “to get ordinary people out of their beliefs that drugs exist by themselves – that drugs are some kind of ghost that arrive in a place and take people over, and you have to fight this ghost with the military, and weapons.”
Not long after cannabis was legalised in Colorado, Jean-Luc Garcia, the gendarmerie officer who turned against France’s drug war, flew there, to see what it looked like. He went into a legal store on the streets of Denver. He noticed a few things at once. There was no criminality involved with the trade any more. There were no crack-downs. There was no chaos. There were no Kalashnikovs. All the violence had been taken out of the trade. People were paying taxes on the cannabis they bought, and “this money will be used in a normal way,” he says, not to fund more crime.
He noticed that on the wall of the legal cannabis store, there was a map of the world, where visitors could stick a pin to show where they were from, and where they would like to see this model of safer, regulated drug use spread.
Jean-Luc took out a pin, and he pressed it into the little dot that represented Paris. If he’s right, Paris would become a place where – in time – these vicious jihadi attacks became less likely.
Johann Hari’s New York Times-bestselling book Chasing The Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs is available in paperback now. This article draws on the French edition of the book, La Brimade Des Stups, published by Slatkine.
Listen to a recorded audio version of this article courtesy of curio.io.
This article is published as part of an editorial partnership between openDemocracy and CELS, an Argentine human rights organisation with a broad agenda that includes advocating for drug policies respectful of human rights.
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