France is 'at war' with terrorists, but the government faces the prospect of being rhetorically outgunned by the opposition
The two attacks in Paris in January and November 2015 are still fresh in France’s memory. Even before the March 2016 attacks in Brussels, terrorism had jumped once more to become a top priority for the French public, on a par with unemployment. In spite of France having been a target for international terrorism for decades, these attacks have unleashed a vivid and at times contentious debate.
Politically speaking, the French authorities responded on a martial footing. After “acts of war” were perpetrated on French soil, the government not only engaged in a rhetoric to make it clear that “we are at war”, but also acted the part too, extending military air strikes against the Islamic State group (IS) from Iraq to Syria. They have also proclaimed and extended the “state of emergency”, have reinforced military patrols in sensitive locations, and broadened legal authority in order to expand electronic surveillance. Police authorities have also seized the opportunity to request heavier weaponry and more liberal rules of engagement for using fire.
After the Brussels attacks, Paris renewed its vehement calls for the sort of united European action it has been pursuing for quite some time. One of France’s prime concerns now is for the European Parliament to adopt a Passenger Name Record (PNR) system, to share airline passengers’ data. But it has also advocated for setting-up a Task Force against fake identities and documents, for stronger measures against arms trafficking and for European databases to be interconnected in order to step-up systematic checks at our external borders. On this last point, security is indeed a major French concern when dealing with the refugee crisis in all its aspects.
Most of these developments have found strong support, although human rights groups have expressed concerns about warrantless raids and house arrests now permitted under the state of emergency. What’s more, security experts have questioned the effectiveness of such measures. But politically speaking, the opposition is rather trying to outbid the government. After the Brussels attacks, it has been pushing for even more drastic security measures such as preventive detention, real lifelong imprisonment or criminalisation of those who consult jihadist websites – measures that would all face legal obstacles at the national and/or European level.
Yet, all is far from being unanimous. The most visible case in point is the heated debate about President François Hollande’s attempt to amend the constitution on two points, including the possibility of more easily stripping convicted terrorists of their French nationality. This initiative caused much disarray within the presidential majority ranks while failing to satisfy the opposition. The disagreement over the initiative has recently forced the president to drop it from the agenda.
Experts have criticised the government’s war-like rhetoric and pointed to an over-reliance on military tools to fight terrorism the effectiveness of military operations as a singular solution remaining very much in doubt. In the meantime, the resources and organisation of police and intelligence services appear to be overstretched, and voices have called for a national commission to investigate French preparedness for any new attacks and the immediate response to the 2015 attacks.
On a different topic, after his minister for urban affairs spoke about “100 existing Molenbeeks” in France, Prime Minister Manuel Valls agreed that “a process of seclusion, communitarianism and radicalisation does indeed exist” in some suburbs. While voices in his party have added nuance to this statement, the opposition insists that the government should act more boldly, mostly on security grounds, and including against political Islam. Without challenging the risk associated with the accumulation of poverty, unemployment and the political vacuum in some neighbourhoods, experts rather point to the diversity of home-grown terrorists: some coming from suburbs, but also from small towns or peri-urban middle class families, following a logic of peers, crime or family networks, rather than a distinctly territorial one.
“Radicalisation” as such is one of the key discussions now. The word itself is most often criticised as bringing more confusion than clarity. But what is at play that brings a minority to this kind of violence? Some insist that it is more about an islamisation of radicalism than the other way round, as the number of recent converts would seem to evidence. Others, on the contrary, point to the supply-side, and in particular to the impact of Salafi movements that are able to turn disenfranchisement and frustration into violence. Others again insist that French and Western foreign policies have played a role in unleashing those forces, by supporting dictators, failing to assist Arab revolutions and denying space to political Islam movements, not to mention sustaining wars rather than succeeding in making peace.
On this last point, public support for French military action currently taking place against terrorist groups in the Sahel or in the Middle-East remains high. But this support does not shield President Hollande’s ratings anymore. On foreign policy, a traditional area of strength for the French executive branch, criticism is now mounting. Opposition voices have pointed to the ambivalence of diplomatic ties to Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Others have insisted that the French position on Syria should evolve to an IS-first strategy, and include more direct cooperation with Russia, including at the price of lifting the sanctions put into place after the events in Crimea and the Donbas. This insistence comes as much from the side of Les Républicains as from the Front National.
All of this should obviously be looked at in the light of the upcoming presidential elections in 2017. President Hollande’s ratings are incredibly low, and his attempt to capitalise on national unity after the terrorist attacks has vanished with the failure of his constitutional amendment initiative. This clear sign of his political weakness and the failure of his triangulation politics have renewed questions about his candidacy. The mainstream opposition, Les Républicains, are already engaged in their primary campaign, and outbidding the others is clearly the strategy of choice for some of the candidates. In spite of the post-November 13 context, the Front National did not manage to turn the situation to its advantage at the last regional elections, which were held in December. Nevertheless, the current situation cannot do it much harm.
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The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.