The Bastille Day terrorist attack in Nice leaves France, once again, in a state of shock. This new attack, however, doesn’t come as a surprise. It marks a new step in an escalation of horror for the country and its people, but it does not reveal anything that was not already known. It only confirms, in a chilling way, that France is now unable to prevent what is yet largely predictable.
The terrorist attack of 14 July on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice leaves, once more, France and the French people stunned. A truck launched at full speed on a crowd gathered to watch fireworks on the evening of Bastille Day. A deadly race over almost two kilometres. 84 people killed including many children, dozens injured including a significant number in a critical condition. Tens of stolen or broken lives, scores or families bereaved and traumatised forever, a city permanently scarred.
After the initial shock, however, what is most striking is how little this new massacre actually surprises us. The method is certainly unprecedented, the profile and background of the perpetrator may astonish, but the occurrence of a new and deadly terrorist attack was widely expected – and its consequences were largely predictable.
It comes as no surprise, in fact, that France gets struck again. Indeed, it has for some time already become the prime target for jihadists. Probably less for the reasons or pretexts they generally tend to invoke to “justify” their actions – France’s military interventions in Syria or in the Sahel, its past or present support to governments opposed by Islamists in the Middle East or Africa, its violent colonial past, its supposed “racism” or rampant “Islamophobia” – than because it has become the West’s “weakest link”, i.e. the Western country for which the ratio between the “cost” of terrorist action and its potential “benefits” in terms of impact is the most favourable to the jihadist enterprise. France is in fact relatively easy and inexpensive to hit, due to the growing material and human support for the Islamist cause in the country. It is also, more fundamentally, the Western country where terrorist strikes are likely to achieve the greatest political and social impact. Jihadist networks in fact perfectly know what the effect of repeated attacks may be on a deeply fractured and divided French society. After the January and November 2015 attacks in Paris, another major action was entirely predictable, almost expected. It did not take place during the European Football Championship as one could have feared – something President François Hollande was congratulating himself about just hours before the tragedy in Nice – but it finally happened. As surely as the next one will happen in the relatively near future.
It also comes as no surprise that the “measures” adopted since early 2015 failed to prevent the new tragedy. The French air strikes on the so-called “Islamic State” (IS) in Syria, the massive military and police deployment decided in the wake of the January 2015 attacks (“Operation Sentinelle”), or the “state of emergency” that is supposed to prevail in the country since those of November may have helped thwart several planned attacks in recent months, but they have failed to prevent a single man from taking advantage of apparently lax security to perpetrate a massacre, on a highly symbolic date and in a highly symbolic place. Hours before the attack, President Hollande had actually announced the upcoming lifting of the state of emergency and a winding down of Operation Sentinelle – announcements that got obviously immediately binned after the tragic events on the Promenade des Anglais. New air strikes are since then taking place against IS in Syria, Operation Sentinelle will continue and be “rebalanced” to protect large summer gatherings (many of which are actually being cancelled), and the state of emergency will be extended for another six months, probably more. This time, in addition, the French government decided to call upon the “operational reserve” that voluntary “patriots” are invited to join to reinforce the army and security forces. Gradually, attack after attack, shock after shock, a gradual “militarisation” of French society is taking place, which will no more prevent the next attack than it prevented the one in Nice, but which will no doubt accelerate in its aftermath.
It is equally without surprise that the “national unity” that seemed to prevail in the wake of the previous attacks is now gone for good. The massive demonstration of 11 January 2015, in which many French people had wished to see a sort of national rebirth, may in fact have marked the swan song of the French republican project. Presented during a few months as an almost sacred symbol of a possible republican refoundation, it will probably be remembered as the last totem of a moribund republic. Already, the atmosphere had fundamentally changed after the November 2015 attacks in the Paris region. There had been only few citizen gatherings then, no mass mobilisation, as the country had been left dazed and confused. The Nice tragedy marks a new step change as confusion gives way to exasperation and anger. Government officials are now received with boos and insults during commemoration ceremonies. Unable to prevent the tragedy, the socialist government has lost what little credibility it had left, and it is unlikely to benefit from any popularity boost as it did after the previous attacks. The centre-right opposition, for its part, has definitively buried the spirit of “sacred union” that was still barely alive and is now showering the government with harsh criticism – which the socialist party obviously calls unfounded, shameful and outrageous. The French right certainly has its share of responsibility in the country’s transformation into the jihadists’ favourite Western target, but it now has no other choice than to promise a sharp security crackdown if it is to avoid a massive loss of voters to the far right.
It is indeed no more of a surprise that the National Front is likely to be the tragedy’s main political beneficiary. Its leader Marine Le Pen, who was already almost assured to come first in the first round of the 2017 presidential election, may now be able to widen the gap as tension further builds up across the country. Even more than the effects of the economic crisis and the failure of successive governments to significantly reduce mass unemployment, even more also than the increasing migratory pressure at the borders of a disintegrating Europe, the terrorist threat and the fractures it reveals and accentuates in French society play into the hands of the far-right party and its leader. After each new attack, and as the authorities appear to be increasingly powerless to prevent the next one, new voters get lured towards the National Front, a choice from which there is usually no way back. The outcry of those who accuse the far right of trying to unscrupulously “capitalise” on these dramatic events – as if it could be otherwise – will change nothing. For a number of fundamental reasons that largely escape the control of the country’s ruling elites, the Le Pen battleship now benefits from a growing tailwind, which is likely to further strengthen during the long months that will lead to the presidential election. So much so that a victory of the National Front candidate in the second round, even if still unlikely, can no longer be ruled out.
“Just one or two more attacks, and…”
Beyond the rise of the National Front, the French intelligence services are apparently worried about a possible radicalisation of some extreme right groups, which might be preparing to engage in clashes with the country’s Muslim community, or even to provoke them. A few weeks ago, the head of the Directorate General for Internal Security (DGSI), Patrick Calvar, warned a parliamentary committee about the growing risk of “confrontation” between the “ultra-right” and the Muslim community, and even of the possible risk of a “civil war”. “Just one or two more attacks,” he said, and the confrontation will occur. Many nevertheless believe that ultra-right groups will probably choose to remain in the shadows until after the 2017 presidential election, whatever may happen by then. They will indeed probably refrain from doing anything that could harm the chances of Marine Le Pen. If she fails to enter the Elysée palace, however, part of the French far right could probably be tempted to give up on the democratic process and to opt for a more violent path instead. The French intelligence services therefore consider it their duty to identify and neutralise those who might be intent on provoking ethnic or religious confrontation. And they are probably more likely to succeed in doing so than in defusing the terrorist threat…
The Nice attack in fact once again exposes France’s extreme vulnerability to Islamist terrorism. Obviously, many continue to claim that this has “nothing to do with Islam,” but they are becoming less and less audible in a society that is getting closer to breaking point with every attack. This time, some insist that the “truck terrorist” was probably more of a madman than of a real terrorist. The man was known to be violent and was leading a dissolute private life. He was apparently not religious and was eating pork and drinking alcohol. He had committed petty crime, but was unknown from intelligence services and apparently had no established connection with jihadist networks. According to some, his act could therefore be due to deep psychiatric disorders rather than to religious beliefs. He probably had more in common, they say, with this German pilot who last year deliberately flew his jet airliner and all its passengers into a mountain, than with actual jihadists. The tragedy thus has little to do with Islam, especially as a third of the Nice victims were Muslims. Many actually consider that Daesh only claimed responsibility for the attack opportunistically, without having actually commissioned or organised it in any way.
This interpretation may seem somehow comforting, but it probably misses the main point, which is precisely that jihadist networks no longer need to really commission or mastermind terror attacks from their bases in the Middle East. They no longer need to train terrorist apprentices in their camps. They no longer need to mobilise substantial resources to carry out mass murder. There are now some individuals in Europe, and particularly in France, who have already received enough of a message from the “Caliphate” to “radicalise” themselves on their own, in a matter of days or weeks, without attending Salafist mosques, without spending time in dreadful and overcrowded prisons, without even being in contact with the Daesh operatives. Individuals who can plan and execute a massacre with rudimentary means – and there are actually many “low tech” means to kill a multitude of people. Individuals who are not afraid of death, but who on the contrary welcome it, as some sort of redemption for themselves and as a deserved punishment for their “infidel” victims, even and especially if those victims are Muslim. How many of these individuals are there around? It is impossible to know, of course, but the Nice tragedy confirms that they exist and that they can plan and carry out atrocities without being stopped. This makes it increasingly difficult or even impossible to detect signs of “radicalisation” among members of the Muslim community, and the only factor that remains perceived as “suspicious” by a growing part of the French population is hence the Islamic faith itself.
Without surprise, the Nice tragedy is thus likely to further increase the “generalised suspicion” of Muslims that has developed in recent years in France. Terrorism is actually only one of the factors that feed this suspicion, which also and maybe more fundamentally results from the growing demographic weight of Muslims in the country and from the increasingly demonstrative visibility of Islam in a society that perceives itself as having become largely “non-religious” or even “non-spiritual”. For a growing number of French people, the country’s major political, economic and social problems are now being overshadowed by a perceived phenomenon of “Islamisation” that seems to be confirmed by empirical facts – including deadly terrorist attacks that the country is unable to prevent. This “ideology of Islamisation” is developing independently from the National Front, but it nevertheless benefits the party and feeds its progression.
Some see this development as resulting from the “racist” speech of the far right and from a supposed “Lepenisation” of French minds. But these are in fact symptoms of the problem France is confronted with rather than their cause. This cause is fundamentally linked to the fact that France, like other European nations, is facing an exceptional historic challenge: the establishment and rapid expansion on its territory of a new religion, previously considered as foreign – something that had not happened since the fall of the Roman Empire and the spreading of Christianity. Such establishment and expansion cannot take place without friction and tensions.
The “friction” phenomenon is all the more acute that the new religion in question is not only a cult, but also a civilisation that in many fundamental aspects diverges significantly from the Western one. In addition to a faith, Islam is indeed also a way of life. It codifies all aspects of human life – private and public, personal and collective – around the worship of God and the submission to his will. It prescribes the social, cultural and relational norms that need to be observed in order to comply with God’s will. No aspect of the faithful’s life can escape its reach, meaning that it is, by essence, of a “political” nature. The term “political Islam”, which is often used in the West, is thus a tautology.
In addition, Islam is not considered by its followers as a religion among others, but as “the” religion, the only “true” religion, which was literally “revealed” by God to men through Prophet Muhammad. Unlike the Christian Bible, the sacred book of the Muslims is not a story told by men, but the revealed word of an almighty and omniscient God. No selective acceptance is possible, no deviation is tolerated, and the scope for interpretation is limited: one cannot be at the same time a submitted soul and a free and critical thinker. Of course, this “true” religion revealed by God to Muhammad is meant to be embraced by humans, by all humans. Muhammad is the last prophet sent to mankind, Islam is its ultimate and definitive religion, by essence excellent, universal and unsurpassable. The gradual conversion of all humans is natural and legitimate, and proselytism is an integrant part of the Muslim faith. Whether they are “moderate”, “radical”, or anything in between, all Muslims are somehow imbued with this belief in the perfection of their religion, in its intrinsic superiority over other faiths, and in its natural vocation to prevail everywhere. Even if they may differ on the methods to be used to get there, they all tend to consider that other religions are destined to eventually give way to the religion of truth, which will rule over the world when Judgment Day comes.
The geographical expansion of Islam was mainly achieved, over its 1,400 years of existence, by force. From its cradle in the Arabian Peninsula, it expanded to the entire Middle East and then to Africa and Asia as well as to southern Europe, where its advance was stopped and then rolled back militarily. Historically, its expansion never took place peacefully. Wherever it set foot, Islam gradually supplanted other religions and extended its grip on society, including at political level, or in some few cases entered into a continuous and bloody confrontation with other faiths. There is no historical example of a peaceful coexistence between Islam and any other religion or civilisation over a sustained period of time and on an equal basis, not even in the much mythologized “Al-Andalus” of ancient times or in the supposedly secular modern Turkey. Not a single one.
The contemporary period is the first in which Islam is spreading not primarily by force but through the effects of mass immigration and demographics. An expansion through peaceful means then, or so it seems, but which is not without causing “friction”. Many in Western Europe have chosen to ignore the lessons of history and to see Islam as a religion “just like any other”, which could seamlessly be added to those already present on European soil. In France in particular, widespread belief in the universality of the country’s republican values led many to believe that a “French Islam” would emerge, which would be nothing more than a community of belief that would naturally find its place in a “patchwork” of religious cults living harmoniously side by side within the secular French republic. Islamic terrorism – as well as all the others and many manifestations of the increasing “friction” between Islam and the rest of the French society – exposes this illusion.
The harmonious integration into a largely secularised society with Judeo-Christian roots of a new religion that perceives itself as holding a universal truth, and whose civilisational foundations contradict some of the fundamental principles of democracy and secularism, is proving to be a challenge that even the “homeland of human rights” seems to be unable to meet. It obviously failed to meet it in recent decades, when its pledges of “equality” and “fraternity” largely became mere incantations, and when its dreams of “living together” gradually broke down against the rise of communitarianism and the development of a de facto ethno-cultural “apartheid”. It is unlikely to meet it in the future, as the mounting terrorist threat weakens its foundations, as its political system becomes increasingly dysfunctional and as its economy keeps underperforming: a society that is haunted by the idea and consciousness of its own decline seldom provides fertile ground for the restoration and improvement of civil harmony. France is actually all the more unlikely to meet this challenge that the ongoing battle for the heart of Islam extends far beyond its borders and its reach. The entire Muslim world is today subject to an upsurge of radicalism, which feeds itself from the multiple and repeated political and economic failures of Muslim countries, combined in many cases with their dramatic population overshoot. The battle is waged mainly in Muslim countries themselves, but it “overflows” wherever a Muslim community is present. The only countries that can thus consider themselves immune from the jihadist terrorist threat are countries from which Islam is absent.
This does not mean, of course, that all Muslims should be considered or treated as potential terrorists. The immense majority of Muslims are peaceful, and the immense majority of victims of Islamic terrorism around the world are Muslims. But the fact remains that jihadists are Muslims, that they commit their crimes in the name of Allah, and that it becomes increasingly difficult to detect and prevent radicalisation among members of the Muslim community. Whether the jihadists act in a way that is consistent with the teachings of Islam or on the contrary hijack “a religion of love, peace and compassion” that is somehow their main victim, is and will remain debatable. One can probably find in the Quran a multitude of arguments in favour of one or the other thesis. But that does not change the fact that the sources of the terrorist problem – as well as of most of the other manifestations of the growing “friction” between Islam and Western societies – are to be found in Islam.
In France, where the Muslim community represents about 10% of the population and is rapidly growing, repeated terrorist attacks generate an increasing risk of social disintegration. They could in particular push part of the French society to reject even more its Muslim component, which in turn would be subject to an increased risk of radicalisation. This vicious circle, obviously, is already underway. Terrorism is indeed a slow poison that feeds suspicion and undermines the foundations of civil harmony, just as the jihadists want. This poison is spreading across France, where the state seems increasingly incapable of ensuring the protection of citizens across the country. The terrorist threat is now constant, proteiform and diffuse, and it is likely to last for years, or even decades.
Faced with this threat to its future, it his highly likely that the country’s political response will unfortunately mostly consist in the continuous build up of a growing security apparatus. As long as the terrorist threat looms, any other course of action would probably condemn those in power to be voted out by an exasperated population, and would pave the way to those advocating a stronger response. This could trigger a sort of “Israeli-type” evolution of the French society, which would learn to live with a constant danger and respond to it through generalised regimentation and mounting restrictions on civil liberties. The French actually seem to be increasingly in favour of such evolution. Requests already seem to be flocking to join the operational reserve, possibly announcing the coming constitution of a French “National Guard.” And an opinion poll published after the Nice attack shows that half respondents now consider that the country is at war and that 81% are willing to accept increased controls and some limitation of their freedoms in order to serve the fight against terrorism.
An “Israeli-type” evolution of French society would inevitably lead to building walls between communities, as the Jewish state has done. It would not eradicate terrorism, on the contrary, but would only contain it enough to maintain a semblance of normality, at least for some time. Such evolution is however rather doubtful, as contemporary French society clearly lacks the strength, resilience or cohesion of its Israeli counterpart, engaged since its foundation in a fight for its survival. A perhaps more likely scenario would see terrorist attacks continue despite an escalating security build up, triggering sooner or later serious civil unrest and clashes between “nativist” groups and Muslims, and potentially leading – as intelligence services seem to fear – to a “civil war” which outcome would be unpredictable. A sort of “Lebanese-type” evolution, in a way, which is not as impossible as it may sound: human societies that are unable to resolve the essential problems they face through peaceful means indeed eventually tend to resort to violence. Alternatively, French society could also fail to react in any meaningful way to the terrorist strikes, and on the contrary drift away towards some sort of “submission” to Islam, as imagined by writer Michel Houellebecq. This submission would consist in the gradual acceptance of accommodations – less and les reasonable – with the proponents of radical Islam, eventually followed by a more or less conscious and voluntary acceptance of the political and social domination of Islam as a condition for the return of a semblance of civil peace. A “Houellebecq-type” evolution, for lack of a better term.
In view of these possible scenarios, an “Israeli-type” evolution of French society could actually represent a somewhat lesser evil. It is obviously impossible to know whether or not this is the way the country will effectively take. Apart from the terrorist threat, a variety of factors are indeed likely to influence the evolution of French society in the months and years ahead. The only certainty at this stage, however, is that the “Sweet France” of the past is only now a distant memory, and that it will take a long, very long time before the French feel like singing “the ballad of the happy people” again. But this, of course, doesn’t really come as a surprise.