The November 13 carnage in Paris leaves France in a state of shock, mired in anguish, grief, and anger. These new terrorist attacks should come as no surprise, though; they were largely predictable and predicted, almost expected. For jihadists around the world, France has indeed become the Western world’s weakest link, and hence the number one target.
The terrorist attacks that took place in Paris on Friday the 13th, the most deadly in France’s history, leave an appalling death toll and a country understandably traumatized.
These attacks were claimed by the so-called ‘Islamic State’ (IS), the terrorist organization that controls parts of Iraq and Syria and that is rapidly overtaking Al Qaeda for the leadership of global jihad. As president François Hollande said, France was the victim of an “act of war” carried out by a “terrorist army.” Using unequivocally martial rhetoric, he vowed to lead a “merciless” war against the country’s enemies. France, he assured, is “a nation that knows how to defend itself, how to mobilize its forces, and that once again will defeat the terrorists.”
In the wake of the attacks, president Hollande announced his intention to join forces with both the US and Russia to “destroy” IS in Syria and ordered French fighter jets to carry out heavy airstrikes against the IS stronghold of Raqqa. But France’s war on terrorism is also being waged on the home front. Mr. Hollande declared a nationwide ‘state of emergency’, something no French president had done since the early 1960s during the Algerian War of Independence. He also restored border controls and deployed the military across the capital and beyond. 10,000 soldiers are being deployed throughout the country this week, of which between 4,000 and 5,000 in Paris alone. This comes on top of the 7,000 troops that have already been patrolling the streets of French cities since the terrorist attacks of last January, when gunmen stormed the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket in Paris, killing 17 people.
In the last couple of days, French police forces have been conducting numerous raids across the country, arresting or placing under house arrest dozens of people. In a solemn address to both houses of Parliament, Mr. Hollande requested lawmakers to extend the state of emergency for three months and announced his intention to strengthen the country’s security policies and anti-terrorism arsenal. He also vowed to change the country’s constitution in order to update and potentially expand executive powers to fight terrorism. “This war of a different type requires a new constitutional regime,” Hollande said, asking prime minister Manuel Valls to prepare the reforms quickly.
A nation at war
As they observe three days of national mourning, French citizens are coming to terms with what being ‘at war’ will mean for them, and how it will affect their lives. The country, some say, has actually been ‘at war’ for some time already. Its troops played a leading role in the disastrous Western intervention in Libya in 2011, which transformed the country into an uncontrollable powder keg. In early 2013 they were sent to fight the jihadists in Mali, where they managed to prevent the formation of a terrorist safe haven in the Sahel region. Since September of this year, they have been taking part in the Western air strikes on Syria, which have so far failed to significantly weaken IS.
France, however, is not the United States, which can wage war in the Middle East for years while being protected from the consequences of its actions by distance, wide oceans and relatively enforceable borders. France does not have that luxury, and its military interventions against jihadists abroad leave it exposed to the risk of counter strikes on its own soil. According to some witnesses, the men who attacked Paris on Friday night claimed to be acting in retaliation to France’s intervention in Syria.
It would be wrong to believe, though, that these terrorists merely wanted to ‘punish’ France for its participation in Western military operations in the Middle East, just as Spain had been punished in 2004 or the UK in 2005 for their participation in the Iraq war. For the jihadists, the Syrian conflict is essentially a pretext. Even if it could be swiftly brought to an end, the terrorist tumor would probably rapidly spread to other trouble spots in the Arab and Muslim world. And even if they would be willing to renounce their ill-thought-out interventions and ill-advised interferences, Western powers would, one way or another, end up being sucked into new conflicts. For the jihadists, the positions and actions of Western nations in current and future conflicts only have an instrumental and circumstantial value. The instinct that guides them is an instinct of death, and the war they are waging is, as they see it, global and eternal. The nasty Islamist genie is not going back in its bottle anytime soon.
Striking France, again
IS has made it very clear that it is working towards the distant goal of a worldwide ‘caliphate’, and it has repeatedly vowed to bring its ‘holy war’ to the West. The jihadists could have targeted a number of European countries, though, and they probably will at some point in the future. This time, however, they decided to strike France once again, just a few months after the Charlie Hebdo attacks. The French Republic, it seems, has become the jihadists’ preferred target. Why is that? Could France be singled out for special treatment?
As deluded as they may be, the jihadists know that terrorist attacks, even as gruesome as those of last Friday, are unlikely to constrain France into military retreat in Syria or anywhere else. Their real motives for striking Paris once again are probably others, and they might be even more concerning. IS, it seems, has understood that France represents the West’s weakest link, the country where the ratio between the ‘costs’ of waging terrorism and the ‘benefits’ that can be obtained from it is potentially the most favorable to the jihadist enterprise.
An easy target
France is a relatively easy target for IS, not only due to its geographical proximity with the Muslim world, but because of the human and material support from which it can benefit in the country. The November 13 attacks were most likely organized and planned outside of France, but the operation nevertheless received significant logistical support within the country, and several French citizens took part in its execution. According to some witnesses, the terrorists could speak fluent French without any accent. They were apparently young, calm and determined, “normal blokes with kalashnikovs”, said one.
The November 13 tragedy thus sheds a disturbing light, once again, on the fractures that run through French society, which have been growing ever wider over the past decades. France had in the first half of the 20th century developed a strong and original assimilation model, which had proved to be very effective when the country’s economy was still relatively closed and administered and when its immigrants were mostly of European origin. However, it has so far largely failed to build a functioning integration model fit for the globalization era. There are multiple reasons for this, including: a rigid, hierarchical, over-centralized and outdated political system, unable to integrate the new components of a changing society while also being unfit to govern the country’s affairs in an effective and efficient way; an economic and social system that tends to favor renters over entrepreneurs, established positions over new ventures, protection over risk-taking, security over opportunity, and which has been stifling growth and jobs for decades; cultural foundations and traditions that value territorial rooting and attachment rather than openness, exchange and commerce; a colonial history marked by bitter tensions and conflicts; and also a national psyche racked with self-doubt, sometimes even self-loathing. The French, one may say, never really got over the humiliation of the 1940 defeat and of the subsequent Nazi occupation. Their illusions of renewed ‘grandeur’ that followed World War II did not survive president Charles de Gaulle, who left power in 1969. And the attempted ‘sublimation’ of the French nation through the European project failed to give birth to the type of political construction that France was yearning for.
For all these reasons, France was probably not the European country most capable of successfully managing a significant diversification of its ethnic and cultural make-up in the era of globalization. A nation that’s haunted by the idea and consciousness of its own decline, doubtful of its identity and destiny, economically challenged and socially blocked, but fiercely attached to conserving its acquired status, seldom provides fertile ground for growing a happy melting-pot. Yet, France is the Western European country whose population diversified the most, and the most rapidly, in recent decades as a result of extra-European immigration. Not surprisingly, such diversification progressively ended up making French society less harmonious and cohesive.
A sort of ‘counter-society’ gradually emerged in parts of the country, which slowly drifted away from prevailing values and customs. Blinded by its confidence in its integration capacity and the universality of its republican values, France failed to notice that they were being increasingly challenged on its own territory. Its promises of equality and fraternity became increasingly incantatory, and its dreams of diversity and harmonious coexistence got progressively eroded as various communities were drifting apart from each other. Due to a mix of cowardice, shortsightedness, opportunism and clientelism, politicians at national and local level failed to prevent this evolution and in some cases even favored it, unwisely accepting ever-increasing ‘reasonable accommodations’ and turning a blind eye to the mounting risks for the nation’s cohesion. After four decades of this slow drifting, France has become a country where parallel societies operate in virtually separate spaces – what Prime Minister Manuel Valls called “a geographic, social, and ethnic apartheid” – and coexist in an increasingly problematic way. Whole territories have gradually escaped the control of the state and been ‘lost’ by the Republic. Territories where the frontier between criminality and religious extremism is becoming more and more porous, and where scores of disenfranchised young people get lured into one or the other, sometimes both. Territories where a growing number of those young citizens are becoming easy recruits for the ‘holy war’, in Syria or at home.
Some observers talk of a ‘fifth column’ or of an ‘interior enemy’, which may sound like an exaggeration. However, the fact remains that France now tends to produce, almost structurally, an increasing number of citizens who, when having to make the choice between ‘us’ and ‘them’ that a long-term war inevitably ends up imposing, choose to turn against their own country. How many are they? No one knows exactly, but undoubtedly enough to represent a growing threat to the country’s security.
Faced with this threat, France seems to be increasingly helpless. Its judiciary has seen its resources reduced in recent years, and its specialized investigating judges are struggling to cope with the ever-growing number of cases they have to handle. Meanwhile, the choice that was made in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks to concentrate resources on intelligence services and electronic surveillance is so far mostly leading to a weakening and dispersion of prevention efforts. The constant and visible presence of the police and military in the country’s cities, which is meant to be reassuring for the population, is stretching security forces and cannot provide effective protection for an ever-increasing number of potential targets. The country’s whole anti-terrorism arsenal seems to be under-dimensioned and overwhelmed by the magnitude of the threat. Massive and deadly attacks are becoming increasingly likely as a result.
A number of intelligence and terrorism experts had been sounding the alarm bell for several months before the November 13 attacks. Last September, Marc Trévidic, a prominent former anti-terrorism magistrate had clearly articulated what was to be expected. “Dark days are coming. The real war that IS intends to wage on our soil has not yet begun,” he said. “We are no longer able to deter attacks as we were in the past. We cannot prevent them. There is something inevitable. (…) The French will not have to get used to the threat of terrorist attacks, but to the reality of those attacks, which will inevitably occur. We should not bury our heads in the sand. We are now in the eye of the storm. The worst is ahead of us,” he warned.
The big prize
Yet if France seems to have become the number one target for international jihadists, it is not only because it constitutes a relatively easy target – several other European countries could probably be easily struck as well. It is also and probably mostly because the benefits that the terrorists can expect to derive from attacking France are far greater than what they could obtain anywhere else.
They may hope, for instance, to inflict damage on the French economy, with possible knock-on effects on the whole of the Eurozone. The economic impact of the November 13 attacks could be significant in terms of lost tourism revenues and retail sales during the holiday season, and the timid economic recovery that seemed to be gaining steam in recent months may wither as a result. It may also be significant in terms of the growing costs incurred by the need to beef up security at home and fight the jihadists abroad. President Hollande already indicated that the French ‘security pact’ was now taking precedence over the European stability pact, which sets the rules aimed at ensuring that countries in the European Union (EU) pursue sound public finances and coordinate their fiscal policies. France’s pubic deficit and debt may rapidly swell as a result, undermining fiscal consolidation efforts in the Eurozone.
The terrorists may also hope to damage France’s reputation as a safe destination for leisure and business. Already, a number of countries have updated their travel advisory, urging their citizens to be vigilant or even to avoid travelling to France. The Paris Climate Conference (COP21) in December, as well as upcoming international events such as the 2016 European football championship, will represent significant security challenges for the host country, with considerable reputational and economic risks in case of security breach.
The main benefits that jihadists may obtain from striking France, however, derive from the political and social consequences that repeated terrorist actions might end up having in the country. Decades of denial, hypocrisy and short-termism have indeed left French society deeply fractured and divided. Part of its youth has been slowly drifting away from a country that they have come to despise or even hate, in a sort of psychological and to some extent geographic secession. At the same time, and in a parallel movement, the far-right National Front was making steady gains in the political arena. The party’s rise has been picking up steam in recent years, and it now represents between a quarter and a third of the electorate. There are several reasons for this, including a change of leadership and the persistence of the economic crisis, but the main root cause seems to be growing unease among voters with the effects of the rapid and massive change in the country’s ethnic and cultural make-up. In particular, an increasing number of French people appear to be concerned about the perceived ‘islamization’ of society – resulting maybe not so much from the growing proportion of Muslims in the population than from the increasing visibility and assertiveness of Islam in a country that had largely relegated religion to the private realm.
Islam has become in recent years a defining feature of the French public debate and collective consciousness, to the point of growing almost into an obsession. As controversial novelist Michel Houellebecq pointed out a few months ago, “it’s impossible to increase the proportion already given to Islam in the news. We’re already nearly at 100%.” This unhealthy fixation is perceived by some as a sign that France deliberately oppresses or represses its large Muslim community. It certainly denotes rising fear or even outward hostility towards a religion that, despite having become the second most important in the country – or maybe because of this – continues to be perceived by many as fundamentally alien. According to a study published a few months ago by the Jean Jaurès Foundation, a left-wing think thank, the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January have been seen by many as a confirmation of the reality and dangers of islamization. An ‘ideology of islamization’ has emerged, which feeds a general suspicion towards the Muslim community and benefits the National Front, even if it is developing and growing independently from the party.
The National Front, whose rise already seemed almost inexorable prior to the November 13 attacks, is thus now likely to make further gains. This might actually be exactly what the terrorists want. They know that by repeatedly striking France they are pounding a society and a polity that are heavily fractured and that may be brought to the point of rupture. They have understood that, in the French Republic, ‘civil peace’ no longer seems to be a natural state of affairs, but rather a precarious situation that is only maintained through ‘forced solidarity’ between parallel societies that are otherwise drifting apart from each other. Massive social transfers are made, at great cost to the public purse. These transfers tend to weigh more and more on the country’s productive capacity and shrinking taxpayer population, even as they are failing to prevent the country’s fractures from growing further. This arrangement is becoming increasingly unsustainable, and is only just being maintained through piling up ever more public debt. France, in other words, is somehow borrowing its way out of looming civil unrest.
Like in January after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, political leaders are now calling for the French people to stand united in the face of terror, regardless of their beliefs and origins. It is vital for France, they say, to avoid falling into the trap of division and fear that has been set by the terrorists. This time, though, national unity may start fraying much more quickly, and fear may be settling in far more widely. Not only because the terrorist attacks were more deadly than back in January, or because they were totally indiscriminate and killed people who just happened to be in various public places at the wrong time. But also and primarily because these attacks highlight the vulnerability of the country in this war that it cannot choose to escape. The French seem to sense that their country’s fractures could become irreparable, and that there is a real danger that it could drift towards radicalism and violence, driven by hatred and intolerance.
By battering this fractured society, the terrorists may be intending to bring its underlying tensions to the breaking point, with a view to ultimately tip the country over the edge. This is why Paris has been attacked again, even more savagely than in January. And this is why it is likely to suffer further attacks in the near future, possibly even more shocking and deadly. After each new attack, tensions will continue to build up and calls for national unity will probably lose some of their traction. France, then, could end up sinking into civil unrest and even violence and chaos, which would then be likely to propagate to other countries across the continent. This would accelerate the disintegration of the EU – arguably already underway – and potentially also put at risk the Atlantic Alliance. It is the very real possibility of triggering such a fateful sequence of events that is making France the West’s weakest link and the number one target for international terrorism. For France and its people, very testing times lie ahead.