In January, the French thought they seen the worst after the Charlie Hebdo and Hyper Cacher killings. The success of the 11 January mass solidarity march gave hope that the country – and the world – would stand united and overcome the sorrow with dignity. A number of measures were announced – and quickly adopted – to strengthen online surveillance, to improve cooperation between different intelligence services, and to prevent radicalisation.
A world seems to separate the 13 November attacks and the debates that have followed them from 10 months ago. Horror reached a level that no one beyond informed circles dared imagine. While the January shootings were planned by a loose network of lone wolves claiming allegiance to a waning al-Qaida, the recent attacks were organised and planed by a terrorist organisation claiming state status. While the former targeted specific groups (journalists, police and Jews), the latter killed indiscriminately. This explains François Hollande’s martial reaction: the country was hit from abroad; it must fight back.
Like after Charlie, besides a brief moment of national unity, criticism has emerged in France and other countries, and not only from the right. In January, French leftwing intellectuals like Emmanuel Todd, Edwy Plenel, Le Monde’s cartoonist Plantu stressed that the renewed emphasis on ‘laicité’ (France’s rigorous version of secularism) and freedom of expression would alienate Muslims further. Today, critics argue that talk of war will only fuel jihadism and they denounce the restriction of civil liberties. We hear from the Stop the War coalition that Hollande, by seeking the adoption of exceptional measures at home and mounting pressure for an international coalition against Islamic State, is falling into the trap. We are warned of civilian casualties, post-intervention chaos and a backlash among the Syrian population if an international coalition keeps Bashar al-Assad in power.
These warnings are based on plausible observations, but Hollande and other western leaders are not stupid to the point of ignoring the risks and difficulties. Politics and international relations impose prioritisation. There is a time for military action, which does not preclude more long-term diplomatic engagement, security measures and prevention of radicalisation at home. In the short term, France, Europe and all the nations threatened by Isis need to act swiftly to avoid another mass killing and destroy their capacity to expand, accumulate resources and plan new attacks. Taking Isis at their word of mass destruction (and at their deeds of enslavement and genocide) matters. Above all, the prospect of heroism which they represent for too many young people must disappear.
Mocking François « Homeland » (the nickname he has earned since his decision to intervene in Mali in 2013) and dubbing his set of measures as a ‘French Patriotic Act’ is therefore unhelpful. In his speech before the French parliament, the president stressed that France would remain itself and faithful to its values and principles of freedom, openness and fundamental rights. He is calling for reinforced common controls at the external borders of the Schengen area, not for the permanent restoration of national borders. Like Barack Obama, he seeks to avoid the confusion between the refugee crisis and terrorists while Nicolas Sarkozy, Marine Le Pen, and the new Polish government have unashamedly used the Paris events to question European Union free movement again.
There is no doubt that progressives in France and Europe will find themselves under heavy pressure from the right in the next few months and years. They will face systematic suspicion of not doing enough for the security of their citizens and of being too accommodating with immigration and Muslim minorities. Prospects for the French regional elections in December look particularly grim, with Marine and Marion Le Pen both tipped to win in the North and Provence regions respectively. In this testing context the centre-left will need to tread a fine line between simplistic military and security narratives on the one hand, and the no less simplistic tale that jihadism is a western creation. Only a combination of military, diplomatic, security, urban planning, social, educational and civic engagement measures can defeat alienation, radicalisation and terrorism. This will take time and cost money – but it presents the opportunity to restore faith in our open, multicultural societies.
Renaud Thillaye is deputy director of Policy Network. He tweets @RThillaye
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