Vive La France. But Keep Calm, and Carry On

The Paris terrorist attacks will impact on France’s electoral politics and on the country’s counter-terrorism legislation. But the impact need not be as great as currently expected. The best weapon with which French politicians can arm themselves is sang-froid.

On Monday French President François Hollande will address a joint session of his country’s parliamentary chambers at Versailles; such meetings take place very rarely, only when France is facing a crisis that might lead to historic choices or substantial constitutional amendments.

Tragic as they are, the terrorist attacks on Paris do not represent this kind of crisis. Nonetheless, President Hollande and the leaders of France’s major political parties are holding such a dramatic meeting in order to emphasise their unity.

That’s admirable, although as proved to be the case with the deadly machine-gun spree that left seventeen people dead in Paris in January, the unity won’t last long, for it is not supported by a political consensus. Soon after French flags go back to full mast on Wednesday, the bickering will restart, on everything from the message that politicians convey to their electorate to the measures that the French state needs to enact in the wake of the most recent terrorist attacks.

The media commentariat seems to agree with the proposition that the bloodshed in Paris will boost the vote for France’s National Front: the anti-immigrant populist movement has argued all along that foreigners – and particularly those of the Islamic faith – are a ‘menace’, and that contention was, allegedly, proved right.

Political campaigning for the impending regional elections in December is now suspended, but when it resumes, the conventional wisdom is that Marine Le Pen, the National Front’s leader, will extend her electoral lead and ultimately win the leadership of the Nord-Pas-de-Calais-Picardie region. Furthermore, her niece Marion Maréchal-Le Pen is predicted to triumph in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region, providing the party with the national breakthrough it has dreamt of for years.

But one should be wary of conventional wisdoms, for precisely the same prediction was made soon after the Charlie Hebdo massacres in Paris in January. When the French departmental elections took place just two months later, the National Front failed to gain control of a single French department.

Of course, circumstances are different this time; the cumulative effect of terrorist outrages and the sheer scale of the bloodshed may swing some voters to the Front. Nonetheless, it is just possible that French voters who consider Muslims a menace have already swung behind the Front, while those who take a broader view will never be tempted by Le Pen’s strident message. In short, there is no automatic reason to believe that French politics will head towards a fundamental populist meltdown.

Still, the language of politicians in France will get more authoritarian, at least in the short term. President Hollande is now talking about ’preventive arrests’ for terrorist suspects and ‘quick expulsions’ of radical imams. In equally martial tones, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls has promised to ’examine all policy options, even if they come from the Right’, in order to fight what he claims is ‘a war on our national territory and abroad, in Syria’.

The debate over the need for new legislation will also get far noisier, despite the fact that a great deal has already been enacted in France to deal with terrorism. Just consider the following:

  • A new law against ‘lone wolf’ terrorists was adopted last year, replacing the curious old French provision which defined a ‘criminal conspiracy’ as one involving at least two people. New powers now allow the authorities to track single violent conspirators
  • New legislation also strengthened the powers of the French state to order the closure of websites, ban foreigners from entering France for life and ban French citizens from leaving France if there are reasonable suspicions that they may be volunteering for terrorism
  • The intelligence services, and particularly the Direction générale de la sécurité intérieure (DGSI), France’s equivalent of MI5, has been authorised to recruit 432 additional agents by the end of this decade
  • France’s broader intelligence community is also getting new resources: overall, a total of 2,680 new posts have been created for all the security services over the past three years, with roughly half of them being language or computer specialists
  • French state prosecutors’ offices are getting new training and expertise in compiling criminal files of terrorists and in safeguarding intelligence information
  • Finally, a new law governing electronic intercepts passed through parliament in June.

Altogether, this is an impressive record. Still, there will be areas which will attract contentious debate. The interception legislation adopted by parliament in June hit a snag in an unexpected area: over the powers French spying agencies should have to intercept communications outside their country.

The French controversy on external spying was also fuelled by revelations in Le Monde, one of France’s top dailies, about the existence of the awkwardly-named ‘National Pole of Encryption Analysis and Decryption’ (or PNCD), a coordinating centre which collects all the foreign electronic data intercepted by French agencies.

French ministers initially tried to convince parliamentarians that the specific procedures for handling intercepted communications would be spelt out in a future decree and should not be included in a law. But France’s Constitutional Council, the country’s ultimate legal arbiter, ruled that this was unacceptable, claiming that lawmakers had ‘abandoned their role as protectors of the public’s liberties’. The government will now have no problem in settling this matter to its satisfaction, but may still be forced to reopen the debate about both domestic and foreign interceptions.

A different issue is preventing the radicalisation which takes place in French prisons. The debate over this issue is unlikely to produce quick results. France is home to Europe’s biggest Muslim community, who comprise 10 per cent of the total population. Yet Muslims account for an astounding 70 per cent of France’s prison population.

The overwhelming majority of France’s prison inmates are not behind bars for terrorist activities, but for other crimes, such as theft, drug-dealing or robbery. Still, the prisons are now breeding grounds for radicalisation.

Mohamed Merah, the gunman on a scooter who filmed himself giggling while machine-gunning seven people including young children in the French city of Toulouse in 2012, began adult life as a small-time delinquent, was sent to prison, and emerged a jihadi.

Mehdi Nemmouche, awaiting trial for the May 2014 murder of four people in Brussels, was also radicalised in a French prison.

Cherif Kouachi and Amedy Coulibaly, two of the terrorists responsible for the January murders in Paris, were persuaded of their ‘vocation’ to kill people while serving prison terms.

And early indications are that at least some of the murderers in the latest Paris attacks were former prison inmates.

Politicians have discussed setting up small secluded detention centres for those convicted of terrorism offences, but readily admit that this is only a partial answer to a broader question. Yet the demand for new provisions to prevent radicalisation in jails is likely to increase.

All these are serious challenges. So is the information released over the weekend by France’s Interior Ministry, suggesting that up to 1,800 French citizens may be fighting for terrorist organisations in the Middle East, and that ‘over 11,000’ are on the lists of the security services as potential terrorist supporters.

Be that as it may, it still does not justify alarmist conclusions, such as those drawn by Thibault de Montbrial, one of France’s most respected security analysts, who claimed over the weekend that France is ‘leaving behind seventy years of peace‘. One can understand the shock which the Paris carnage has generated. But one should not exaggerate their strategic impact.

For the French Republic is strong. And it already has many of the powers required to defend itself, including that of national determination. As Alexis Brézet, the editor of Le Figaro, aptly put it over the weekend: ‘against brutality there is only one principle: force. And against savagery, there is only one law: efficiency.’


Jonathan Eyal

Associate Director, Strategic Research Partnerships

RUSI International

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