The war with Islamic State
Paris under attack
In the first of four articles about the Islamic State murders in Paris and their aftermath, we look at France’s response to an assault on its way of life
GIANT black-and-white graffiti, bearing a Latin inscription, appeared in the Place de la République in the days after the terrorist attacks that shook Paris on November 13th. Fluctuat nec mergitur, a maritime dictum meaning “tossed about but not sunk”, is the little-known motto of the city. It captured the mood of horror and defiance. Soon, the inscription was lined by candles in glass jars; the phrase spread on social media and was projected onto the Eiffel tower.
Just ten months after the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attacks, a second bloodbath is sorely testing the capital’s reputation for joie de vivre—and its resolution not to become Tel Aviv-sur-Seine.
In January the killings at Charlie Hebdo, a satirical magazine that caricatured the Prophet, and of four shoppers in a kosher supermarket, touched the world. They symbolised a calculated assault on freedom of expression and religion. “Je suis Charlie” became a global badge of defiant sympathy. The latest attacks shocked because of their indiscriminate assault on convivialité and youth: drinkers at a pavement café; people watching a rock concert or cheering a football match. In the words of Islamic State (IS), which claimed responsibility, their target was the “capital of abomination and perversion”.
This attack was the deadliest on French soil and Europe’s worst since the Madrid bombing in 2004. Yet in April an Algerian man was arrested for preparing an assault on two churches in Villejuif. In June a businessman was decapitated near Lyon by an employee of north African origin. And in August a heavily armed Moroccan was overwhelmed on a high-speed train. Since the summer, says Manuel Valls, the prime minister, five attacks have been thwarted. The country, he said, recalling words he used after the Charlie Hebdo murders, would have to get used to living with terrorism.
What this means, and how France goes about curbing the menace, has deep implications for the way it, and Europe, hold themselves together.
Shocked and grieving, Parisians picked up their lives. “You can’t just stay in an apartment when you have small children,” says one mother who has started to take them to the park again. Others are more defiant: “We need to defend what Paris stands for,” says a young office worker, referring to its culture of outdoor life in public spaces. Charlie Hebdo’s front-cover cartoon captured this spirit: “They’ve got the weapons: Screw them, we’ve got the champagne!” But it was symptomatic of underlying edginess that a gathering to honour the dead turned to panic when firecrackers were mistaken for gunfire.
France is again debating where to draw the line between security and freedom, as are other countries. Demands for new limits on encryption are being heard. In France, the attacks have strengthened the hand of those on the right, as well as the security-minded left, who have been battling a governing Socialist Party reluctant to infringe civil liberties further. A state of emergency was imposed on November 13th, giving the police sweeping powers to carry out raids and make arrests; Mr Hollande has asked parliament to extend it for three months.
Most striking of all is Mr Hollande’s new martial lexicon. “France is at war” were his opening words before a joint session of parliament, in a speech laced with belligerence. He vowed to “destroy” IS, which he blamed for the attacks, and combat “the enemy” with “merciless” determination. He is tripling France’s capacity for air strikes on Syria and Iraq, having dispatched the Charles de Gaulle, an aircraft-carrier, to the eastern Mediterranean. On top of his decision to send troops into Mali in 2013, and to bomb IS in Iraq in 2014, this is part of a startling transformation from an unassuming consensus-seeker into a hard-headed war leader.
Mr Hollande acknowledged the “cruel truth” that “it was Frenchmen who killed other Frenchmen” in his address. But he avoided talking explicitly about the extent of home-grown Islamism. Of the eight terrorists thought to have carried out the attacks, five have been formally identified and all are French: Omar Ismail Mostefai, Brahim Abdeslam, Samy Amimour and Bilal Hadfi all died. A manhunt continued for Salah Abdeslam, who fled to Belgium, where he and his brother lived, after slipping past police checkpoints. Two remain unidentified. A Syrian passport one of them may have used was probably a fake.
France’s vulnerability to Islamist terrorism seems to stem from an unusual mix of factors. “France is not the only target,” says Camille Grand, director of the Foundation for Strategic Research, a think-tank, “but it is top of the list as a highly symbolic one.” This is partly due to its robust foreign policy to counter jihadism. France is America’s main ally in air strikes against Syria, as well as the main guarantor of security in the Sahel. Mr Grand also points to French secularism, a strict creed that seeks to prohibit public displays of religiosity, and which has led to the outlawing of face-covering veils in public places.
Yet to describe the attacks as retaliation is to misunderstand the nature of IS. It is not engaged in a strategy of reprisals but wants “to unleash civil war” and provoke a backlash against Muslims in Europe, as a means of drawing further recruits to its cause, argues Gilles Kepel, author of a forthcoming book on terrorism in France. As home to Europe’s biggest Muslim minority, some 5m-6m strong, France is an inviting target. The vast majority are law-abiding. But there is a disaffected fringe, particularly in the heavily immigrant banlieues, which ring most cities.
In the days after Charlie Hebdo, there was a remarkable moment of defiant national unity. But it was difficult to sustain. In some parts of the banlieues there was an angry rumbling by those who called themselves “not Charlie”, and refused to observe a minute’s silence in schools. This time, managing the aftermath will be more difficult, not least because Europe is trying to cope with both a terrorist threat and a great migrant influx.
Putting the two together plays into the hands of a resurgent European far right, from Poland to Switzerland. France’s Marine Le Pen, leader of the National Front, has taken care not to strike too inflammatory a note, but said: “Our fears and warnings about the possible presence of jihadists among migrants have unfortunately now been turned into tangible reality.” In the run-up to the presidential election in 2017, the political fallout from the attacks is likely to benefit her more than anyone else.
For Europe, France’s vulnerability to terrorism is a source of extreme concern, not least because the links behind the latest attack cross many borders. Mr Hollande has set the tone for Europe’s response by hinting at a new diplomatic approach to Syria and invoking the EU’s mutual-assistance defence clause.
European countries agreed in principle to help. But no other leader has used the word “war”. Germany has been noticeably silent. Britain’s parliament has yet to authorise strikes on Syria. The French understand these constraints. Their appeal to European solidarity can be seen as a call for urgent progress on a broader fight against terrorism, including better intelligence-sharing and police co-operation, as Europe confronts the aftermath of its bloodiest terror attack in over a decade.