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07 November 2005
Is France entering the post-modern age?
The rioting in France has now lasted almost a fortnight with no sign of a lessening of the violence. The nightly bouts have spread to other cities and the government in Paris appears at a loss to know what to do. Will the French state be able to quickly reasert it authority, or has France now entered a downward spiral of fourth generation warfare (4GW) that has no end in site?

The concept of 4GW is not new. It was coined by a group of American intellectuals in a paper for the Marine Corp Gazette in 1989 called The Changing Face of War: Into the Fourth Generation. Since I am neither a military strategist nor a war junkie, I shall only note that the first three generations of warfare involved recognisable militaries doing recognisable military things to each other. Their actions were legitimised by the claim that they were acting as agents of their respective sovereign states. 4GW, by way of contrast, is both very new and the oldest form of warfare on the planet. Basically, it is a throwback to the way that wars were fought prior to the growth of the modern state. As I argued in this essay, all sorts of groups and peoples used to fight wars. They ranged from families, clans and tribes, to cities regions and religions. Often a military man was nothing more than a civilian who had grabbed a weapon and gone off and fought a battle or campaign. Thus the line between what was military and what was civilian was at best blurred, and at worst it was non-existant.

The actual fighting will involve all the tactics of guerrilla warfare that we saw developed in the Twentieth Century, with some added refinements of nastiness thrown in. Some groups will operate as classical urban guerrillas, other will be more like street gangs as they shoot or stab their enemies. The bulk of the involved population will be engaged in rioting and looting. . . Assuming that some sort of state still exists, then its army and police will add yet more violence to the mix as they try to control the situation, only to find that their efforts only make things worse.

The point here is that 4GW exists when a state has collapsed, as I stated in that earlier essay, but it can also exist when a state has lost legitimacy in the eyes of some of its population. Which brings us, finally, to France. The country has a population of about sixty million, of whom roughly five or six million are Muslims. It is this ten per cent of mainly North African Muslims who have become insurrectionists (*) during the past two weeks. The question now is, can the French state conciliate, coerce, or use a mixture of both against these insurrectionists that will be suficient to ensure social peace in the country?

Conciliation creates several problems of its own. It may very well be that the rioters, having tasted blood, find that they quite like it and don't want to stop. Even if some do, one of the key themes of 4GW theory is that it is leaderless at a national level. We are talking about groups, war bands if you will, who may very well have a local leader, but no national coordination at all. Thus getting one group to agree is all very well, but what about all the others? Finally, even though the root causes of this insurrection may very well lie in the failure of the French economy to provide decent jobs for the Muslim population, the simple fact is that the response to this has been religious: put bluntly the Muslims are rejecting the values of secular France. Is France willing to go so far as to allow some alteration to the secular, anti-clerical way that the state operates in a desire to concilate Islamic insurrectionists? If the answer is no, then conciliation may not work.

Repression may not work either. As Martin Van Creveld points out ". . .an armed force that keeps beating down on a weaker opponent will be seen as committing a series of crimes; therefore it will end up by losing the support of its allies, its own people, and its own troops." He was writing with Iraq in mind, but his comments contain a general truth: repression only breeds resistence.

It was so much easier in the ancient world, and the Romans had few problems with stroppy populations. They basically sent a legion to massacre them and any who survived were sold off into slavery to defray the costs of the operation. If guerrillas are like fish swimming in the sea, then draining the water is one way to deal with them. However, if this tactic cannot be used for whatever reason, then lesser repressions will probably only make a bad situation worse.

What is likely to happen is that the French state will move its forces into the riot hit areas as the rioters finally tire of the fighting and as things settle down of their own accord. An uneasy peace will probably descend and the state will start offering the usual inducements of investigations into past misdeeds coupled with promises of job creations to try to keep a lid on the situation.

It may work, but it may not. What could happen is that these areas will descend into a fourth generation chaos as armed gangs use acts of urban terrorism to try and achieve what the rioting had failed to do. If that happens then the state will probably use repression, which brings us back to Van Ceveld's point about the strong hitting the weak.

It is also possible that at this point, the secular French majority may decide that neither the political leadership nor the armed forces and police are upholding the values of the French Republic that they believe in. They may decide to take matters into their own hands and if this happens then the state will have been by-passed by just about everyone. The country that in 1789 heralded the modern age in Europe will have become the first European state to enter the post-modern age.

(*) I thought long and hard about the word "insurrectionist" and could not decide whether it was right to use it or not. I decided that it probably was, if only because the rioting had lasted for almost two weeks. Had it been merely a gang of criminals it would have ended long before as they got tired or found something else to occupy themselves with. Having decided that it was probably correct, I then came across this article in Time Magazine and saw a quote from an unamed interior ministry official who said: "If these things continue and spread to places like Lyon, Toulouse and Strasbourg, we'll have a state of insurrection." Well, they have, ergo the term is now most certainly the correct one to use.

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