After the January terror attacks, Manuel Valls drew praise for his staunch defense of French Jews. His use of the word "apartheid" to describe discrimination against French Muslims was more controversial but still useful as a way of dramatizing one of the besetting ills of French society. But the praise Valls received for his forthrightness seems to have gone to his head. Yesterday he chose to borrow the bellicose rhetoric of the Bush era by asserting that the latest terror incidents indicate that France and the West are engaged in a "war of civilization."
I won't belabor the long history of abuse of the word "civilization." Is it necessary to recall that the mindless slaughter of World War I was cast as a war of German Kultur against French civilisation? Is it necessary to rehearse all the critiques of Samuel Huntington's "clash of civilizations" thesis, or to point out that, for all its flaws, Huntington's book was a model of subtlety compared to the crude way in which Valls has distorted its central concept?
What exactly Valls intends to achieve by his use of the war metaphor is unclear. France has already instituted a Patriot Act of its own to tighten its security. No one doubts that radical Islam is a danger that must be confronted, but the secret of how to do so successfully remains unbroken, and verbal excess is not the way to decipher it. Self-restraint is not Valls' long suit, but his job is to formulate policy, not to flail and fulminate.