Why France is the jihadis’ prime western target
Rather, a concatenation of several factors helps to explain why France remains the jihadis’ favourite target. To start with, the bombing of Isis bases inevitably attracts a response. This is the price of the firm action that Mr Hollande has espoused but which has not slowed down the pace of terrorist attacks on French soil.
Then there are the radicals of north African descent who have left France for Syria and Iraq, and are reliably reported to hold important positions in the Isis command structure. They are said to have maintained links with the “soldiers” who went to the Middle East and then returned to France to perpetrate the attacks in Paris last year.
Isis planners also appear to see an opportunity to drive a wedge between those in France, like Mr Hollande, who reject the most hardline security policies in the name of republican values, and those who call for Israeli-style measures. The potential for fostering political, ideological and indeed ethno-religious conflict ahead of next year’s presidential election is considerable.
As a result, the gap between the France that holds itself up as a shining light for the rest of the world and the reality of life on the estates has deepened. The result is a rejection of the republic by young people who feel it is at best irrelevant to them, and at worst actively hostile. This, in turn, creates a climate in which a man like Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, the Nice killer, finds a home for his turbulent instincts in Isis propaganda.
After the Charlie Hebdo attack, Mr Valls spoke of “territorial, social and ethnic apartheid” in France and “unbearable discrimination”. Now he and Mr Hollande strike a more martial tone.
But the drumbeats emanating from the Elysée obscure the fundamental reason France is now in the grip of this reign of terror: the state demands allegiance to its lay republican principles, including the ban on Islamic veils in public places; but a minority of the population rejects that demand, sometimes violently. The tragedy is that, while the problem can be identified, the solution grows ever more elusive.
The writer is author of ‘The History of Modern France’, newly published in paperback