France’s Forever War

After Nov. 13, France may feel the worst is over. But Islamist terrorist attacks are the country's new normal.

French President Francois Hollande (R) and French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian (L) review a military honour guard as they attend the inauguration of a Voluntary Military Service in Montigny-lès-Metz, eastern France on October 29, 2015. The centre that is particularly aimed at young people in difficulty opened its doors on October 15, 2015. AFP PHOTO / FREDERICK FLORIN        (Photo credit should read FREDERICK FLORIN/AFP/Getty Images)
French President Francois Hollande (R) and French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian (L) review a military honour guard as they attend the inauguration of a Voluntary Military Service in Montigny-lès-Metz, eastern France on October 29, 2015. The centre that is particularly aimed at young people in difficulty opened its doors on October 15, 2015. AFP PHOTO / FREDERICK FLORIN (Photo credit should read FREDERICK FLORIN/AFP/Getty Images)

Residents of Paris awoke on Nov. 14, the day after terrorists killed some 130 people and injured hundreds more, to find the words of their city motto, “Fluctuat nec mergitur,” Latin for “Tossed but not sunk,” written in large block letters across the Place de la République. The phrase is meant to convey the city’s resolve in the face of tragedy. But the metaphor at work is slightly misleading. It’s true that France has withstood last week’s encounter with Islamist terrorism. But the storm has not yet passed — not nearly. France is only at the beginning of what will be a very long war.

The French government has already assumed a war footing. In his remarks in front of an extraordinary session of Parliament on Monday, President François Hollande vowed to wage war against the Islamic State. He also placed France under a state of emergency — a rarely invoked legal mechanism that grants sweeping powers to the executive branch, including the ability to limit the movement of people and vehicles and ban certain gatherings — for an unprecedented three months. (Hollande proposed to change the French Constitution to integrate some of these measures into permanent law.) Meanwhile, in recent days, France launched airstrikes on the Syrian city of Raqqa, the Islamic State’s self-proclaimed capital.

Yet, the word “war” does not fully encompass the complexity, durability, and multifaceted nature of the threat that France now faces. Some people seem to have concluded that France has already survived the worst and all that remains is to exact retribution in Syria and elsewhere. But it is instructive, and ominous, to note that this is exactly how much of the country reacted to the terrorist attack against the magazine Charlie Hebdo in January. As Arnaud Danjean, a former intelligence official now serving in the European Parliament, put it: “The legitimate emotion that followed the Charlie Hebdo attacks led us, too quickly, to conclude it was a French 9/11” — that is to say, a one-off event, rather than a new normal.

But this belief, Danjean argued, “minimized both the scope of the threat against our country and the gravity of precedents, in Europe and elsewhere.” Intelligence experts I have spoken to off the record now compare France, as well as its European neighbors, to Israel, which has accommodated itself to a perpetual battle with radical adversaries. French society, similarly, may have to brace for future attacks.

In many ways, it is France’s distinct character — its liberal and secular values, its diversity — that makes it a target. “We are targets because of our universality — the universality of our message, our secularism, the republican principles that were attacked in the Charlie Hebdo strikes,” one French intelligence source told me. The details of last week’s attacks — the victims, Paris’s diverse urban youth scene, a popular concert hall — attest to this. The Islamic State’s message claiming credit for the attacks, in which it accused Paris of being the capital of “prostitution and obscenity,” suggests no less.

Intelligence sources are keen to add that France’s security and diplomatic efforts against Islamists — initially reluctant, now assertive — also make it a target. France is currently fighting Islamists beyond its borders on multiple fronts. In the Sahel, 3,000 French soldiers are deployed in Operation Barkhane, battling jihadi groups like al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. In Syria, France began hitting Islamic State positions in September as an act of “self-defense,” while insisting on President Bashar al-Assad’s removal.

France has called for an international coalition to step up the current operations in Syria and Iraq and destroy the Islamic State. But even if France successfully weakens the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq or even ends Syria’s civil war entirely, that will not eliminate the threat of attacks of the sort we saw last week.

It’s true that some of the already identified shooters in the Nov. 13 attacks are believed to have trained in Syria. And there’s no doubt that the war there acts as both vacuum and inspiration for young radicals. But Syria’s conflict does not explain why France, along with Belgium and other European countries, have become such fertile breeding grounds for radicalization. Most of the identified terrorists involved in the attacks were French and Belgian nationals. As Hollande put it on Monday, “The attacks were planned in Syria, organized in Belgium, and carried out in France with homegrown complicity.”

Previous attacks in France underscore the ubiquity of homegrown terrorism threats. Mohammed Merah, a Franco-Algerian raised in France who murdered soldiers and Jewish children in Toulouse in 2012, had been radicalized in prison before trying to join radical groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Kouachi brothers and Amedy Coulibaly, the perpetrators of the Charlie Hebdo and Hyper Cacher attacks in January, were radicalized in Paris during the Iraq War and had not traveled to Syria. (The Kouachi brothers had received terrorism training in Yemen.)

French intelligence has gradually shifted its approach to meet this quickly increasing challenge. Even before the Charlie Hebdo attack, French intelligence was redirecting its resources to cope with French combatants returning from Syria and Iraq. This past April, Prime Minister Manuel Valls estimated that some 1,550 French citizens and residents were involved with Syrian and Iraqi extremist networks, with almost 500 of them already in Syria. In January, Valls announced the recruitment of 1,100 new agents, including 500 specifically to bolster the ranks of France’s domestic intelligence agency over the next three years. Moreover, a controversial law passed in the spring gave agencies extended authority to tap phone calls and emails. The law also allows intelligence services to stock metadata and requires Internet providers to install an algorithm to detect suspicious behavior online.

Yet, as the interior minister himself noted, security agencies are overwhelmed by the challenge before them. This problem is reinforced by the fact that radical organizations are easier to implant in France because of its large Muslim communities with disaffected youth. Up to 11,000 people are said to have been flagged on a top-secret list of people associated with radical groups, including Muslim extremists. Previous attacks, like the one on Charlie Hebdo, were perpetrated by radicals already on the list, who slipped through surveillance, leading to current controversies over preventive measures to constrain them.

Metadata and a fresh crop of security agents , while useful, do not make up for cultural expertise, intricate knowledge of jihadi networks, or the human intelligence necessary to infiltrate radical groups — things France has historically been good at acquiring but is still sorely lacking in Europe’s new age of terrorism. Last week’s attacks come after months of warnings of potential attacks against France and narrowly foiled attempts. On Aug. 21, a shooting on an Amsterdam-Paris train was barely averted by two American soldiers and a number of civilians on board. Another attack in April against a church in Villejuif was luckily prevented by the terrorist’s own clumsiness. Aside from France’s own intelligence weaknesses, these recent attacks have shown the shortcomings of intelligence cooperation at the European level. (Belgium’s security services seem especially overwhelmed by the challenge they face.)

A prolonged conflict will test the patience of the French public, as well as the resilience and openness of the country’s political institutions. Marine Le Pen’s National Front, a populist far-right party that has won favor with an anti-EU and anti-immigration platform, is already poised to make gains in December’s regional elections. She might even win the presidency of the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region, which would be an unprecedented victory. A national presidential election will be held in the spring of 2017, and Le Pen could make a strong showing. Elsewhere in Europe, populist rhetoric is likely to continue fueling opposition to refugees, immigrants, and the Schengen Area, the European Union’s 26-nation free-movement zone.

This is when the limits of Washington’s hands-off approach to France’s situation will become obvious. Beyond the Middle East, Europe is becoming a new front for the war against radicalism, and the resilience of Europe’s liberal societies should be a major concern to U.S. policymakers. They must ask themselves what kind of interlocutors they want to face in Europe, and France in particular, in the coming years and decades. Amid instability in the Middle East and an absence of U.S. leadership, French conservative policymakers will be tempted to turn to populism at home and Russian President Vladimir Putin abroad. Former President Nicolas Sarkozy, who plans to run for office again in 2017, is already calling for increased cooperation with Russia against the Islamic State.

U.S. President Barack Obama would be wise to recognize that his allies in France need help in their prolonged battle against radicalism, even if they won’t admit it. “Tossed but not sunk” is a fine motto. But even the most resolute sailors shouldn’t be expected to endure the most violent storms on their own.


Benjamin Haddad is the director of the Future Europe Initiative at the Atlantic Council in Washington, D.C. He is the author of Le Paradis Perdu: l’Amérique de Trump et la fin des illusions européennes.

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