Terrorism and France’s changing face

Sunday 24/07/2016

France is facing a number of tests, not least the ceaseless and shifting threat of terrorism as epito­mised by the Bastille Day attack in Nice.

The Islamic State (ISIS) claimed responsibility, perhaps as a response to defeats it has suffered in its self-proclaimed caliphate in Iraq and Syria. The latest in a series of ISIS-related attacks over the past 18 months, however, could change the face of France with presidential elections set for next year.

There is no easy strategy to deal with terrorism, whether it is preventing radicalisation or using intelligence to foil attacks before they happen or deploying security forces to quickly and competently deal with them after they have been launched. In the aftermath of the July 14th attack, senior French officials, including President François Hollande and Prime Minister Manuel Valls, acknowledged that the country is in a permanent state of war.

“The whole of France is under threat from an Islamic terrorist attack,” Hollande said in an address to the nation following the Nice attack. This was a rare admission from the French head of state, particularly after he had resolutely refused to link ISIS — or Daesh as French official statements call the group by its Arabic acronym — with Islam.

“This is a terrorist group and not a state. I do not recommend using the term ‘Islamic State’ because it blurs the lines between Islam, Muslims and Islamists,” former Foreign Affairs minister Laurent Fabius said in a statement in September 2014. Since then, French officials sought to differentiate between ISIS as a terrorist group and Islam as a religion.

There has been a backlash in France against the government’s insistence on political correctness, with some politicians and journalists preferring to call a spade a spade. The war against terrorism is the war against ISIS, they insist, which, in turn, is the war against Islamic extremism.

Given the terrorist threat facing France, this is not the time for squeamishness in naming things, which can be seen in recent statements from politicians such as centre-right former president Nicolas Sarkozy and far-right Marine Le Pen, both of whom are expected to be at the centre of next year’s presidential elections.

This, of course, only serves ISIS, which seeks to encourage estrangement and conflict between the Islamic world and the West, consecrating the idea of a clash of civilisations, since this narrative gains the group more followers. This clearly demonstrates the effect that terrorism is having on the political debate and the rise of the right wing in Europe and the normalisation of this kind of divisive discourse.

Whenever terrorist attacks take place, politicians are ready to play them to their advantage and get their name out in the media, whether we are talking about Donald Trump in the United States or right-wing figures such as Le Pen in France.

The Bastille Day attack in Nice was a particular blow for Hollande with many questioning whether he is capable of protecting France’s security.

Hollande has clearly failed to protect France from the threat of terrorism, inciting political tensions and public fears, which could change France’s secular and tolerant nature and result in the rise of the forces of extremism and nationalism. This could also result in change in France’s traditional geopolitical position as a country that has always been friendly and sympathetic towards Arab causes.

France is at a crossroads. Which road will it take?