France’s Response to Terror

Following the terror attack in Nice, the French President Hollande has responded to mounting criticism by sharpening both his rhetoric and the country’s proposed reactions to terror. But no society can be protected against all risks, and anti-terror efforts do not always have the intended effects.

Photo: Benjamin Boccas, via Flickr

Within a split second, in the afternoon of 14 July, the beach promenade in Nice turned into a scene of terror . The weapon was an ordinary truck. The perpetrator was a petty criminal, a Tunisian citizen, with no known extremist propensities. It is not yet clear whether he carried out the attack alone, or if he had any accomplices. At least 84 people have lost their lives, and many are seriously injured. The Islamic State (IS) – or Daesh, as it is commonly referred to in France – has taken credit .

The immediate question that springs to mind is how a state can best protect its citizens, given that a single person with an ordinary truck can cause such enormous damage. Yet, different questions seem to dominate the French public debate in the immediate aftermath of the attack: How could this happen? Why were the security services not able to prevent this? How was it possible for the perpetrator to drive for two kilometers, through the crowd, before being shot?

It is impossible, writes Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg in the Norwegian daily Dagens Næringsliv, to issue a guarantee that terror will not strike again. President François Hollande, however, leaves the impression that any instance of terror means the security system has failed. He declares that France is at war with IS. The terror attack in Paris in November was immediately met by French aerial bombardment of IS positions in Syria. With that, a continuity is established between the terror scenes in Paris and the battlegrounds in Syria and Iraq, just like IS would desire. Hollande’s response ultimately gives the impression that the very existence of the French state is at stake.

Even though IS should not be seen as an existential threat, it remains clear that France is exposed . Historically, the brutal warfare conducted by France in North Africa in the aftermath of the Second World War, a region from which many of its immigrants stem, remains a source of tension. The French social contract, with a principled secularism by which all questions of a religious nature are seen as a private matter, may also contribute to a sense of exclusion.

Following the terror in Nice, former President Sarkozy has commented that France now needs to leave behind the model in which one seeks integration, based on respect for cultural differences, in favour of full assimilation, where everybody is expected to embrace the full spectre of French values. Here Sarkozy is at fault for misrepresenting the current state of affairs, as probably no other Western country has been as principled as France in pursuing an assimilation model. The French approach is one where citizenship is unrelated to national background or ethnic identity. Now we see more and more people feeling excluded – socially, economically and politically – and this raises serious concerns as to whether the assimilation model has already failed.

President Hollande faces low levels of support in polls, and is considered a weak president. The space for xenophobia is increasing in French politics. When the president sees any terror attack as a sign of systemic failure, he is also placing himself in a situation where he himself is doomed to fail. Hollande has historically been fairly careful with adopting the sharpest means in his anti-terror efforts, and when he now declares war on IS, that can only be understood as an attempt to pre-empt his critics. This way, however, there is a grave risk that he will put in motion a number of unwise – even counterproductive – anti-terror measures, further strengthening the self-image of the IS, while contributing to further polarization in the French society.

There is clearly a need to expand the toolkit, which must contain a range of measures, from preventing radicalization to strengthening intelligence cooperation and using targeted campaigns in order to undermine IS both politically and militarily. It is equally clear that terror will strike again, in ways which we cannot offer any vaccines against. Ultimately, we must rely on a resilient society , characterized by mutual trust and commonly agreed rules, where citizens are confident that the state is there to secure their freedom and wellbeing. Preaching for societal resilience – in a time of regular terror attacks, mounting xenophobia, and increasing political polarization – is challenging. That is exactly why we need political leaders that speak honestly about the threats, while also avoiding unfounded alarmism. Europe has lived through periods of terror in the past, and we have every reason to assume that terror will not threaten our way of life unless we pave the way for exactly that to happen.

The responsibility for terror lies with the perpetrators and their supporters. We know that there will be new acts of terror, in France and elsewhere. We should expect from our politicians, as well as from the security apparatus and other parts of the government system, that everything humanly possible is done to prevent and fight terror. Yet, the dilemmas are real: Many measures have a high price tag, other measures are worthless, while some can contribute towards making things worse. The development in the French discourse is discomforting. The best vaccine lies in a well-informed public debate.

  • This text was first published as an op.ed. in the Norwegian daily, Dagens Næringsliv, on 19 July 2016.
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