The attacker could not have chosen a more symbolic or opportune moment. A beautiful summer evening on the French Riviera town of Nice, home to the rich and famous; the end of a national holiday with fireworks and dancing in the streets.
Jumping police barriers to enter pedestrian zones, driving at break-neck speed on the pavement, tearing down the Promenade des Anglais, a beautiful seafront avenue in Nice, 31-year-old Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, ploughed through crowds gathered to witness the fireworks display, crushing 84 men, women and children under his tyres. What was a celebratory holiday evening turned into a terrifying nightmare.
For many French citizens this Bastille Day marked a reprieve from the horrific 2015 terrorist attacks that claimed 147 lives, holding out the promise of a fresh start. Bastille Day celebrates the 1789 revolution that put an end to the monarchy (for a while at least) and severely curtailed the power of the Catholic Church, making way for the concept of Laicite or the absolute separation of Church and State. It also heralded the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen that enshrined individual rights and liberties and gave shape and consistency to the idea of the Republic, which in France is far from being a hollow concept.
La Republique Francaise is dear to practically every French citizen, a mantra spouted by politicians whatever their political stripe. But what happens when the republic falters, when it fails to respect its own tenets of liberty, equality, fraternity? Many of France’s five million or so Muslims feel hard done by. The republic has failed them, they say, treated them in step-motherly fashion.
Terrorist attacks in France since 2012 – and there have been many, have almost exclusively been carried out by disenchanted Muslim youth, for the most part French citizens, whose ideology is at sharp variance with the professed secular tenets of the State.
If this latest act of terrorism is a nightmare for those who lived or witnessed it, it is proving equally nightmarish for President Hollande and his government. The State of Emergency imposed last November was immediately extended for another three months. Confidence in this politician, whose popularity ratings stand at an abysmal 13 per cent has now all but evaporated. The government is staring failure in the face. For several years many things have been going wrong in France and successive governments, whether from the Left or from the Right, have been unable to reverse the downslide. Social unrest, unemployment and racism are all on the rise and the country’s marginalised population feels threatened. With the xenophobic, anti-Muslim right making spectacular gains in election after election, France is struggling to live up to its own high ideals.
Many failures have gone into the making of the most recent series of killings: the unwieldy nature of France’s security apparatus, the failure to create a truly cohesive society, persistent unemployment that has hit under-qualified, under-privileged and non-white people the hardest and a hardening of the racism and elitism that has always existed in French society but which has been sharpened and made bold by economic and social woes.
A recent parliamentary commission on the Paris attacks of November 2015 slammed France’s security services, pointing to avoidable intelligence failure in the Charlie Hebdo and Bataclan attacks. The famous or rather infamous Deuxième Bureau that now goes under another, far less fascinating name, has not been up to the task of keeping French citizens safe, the commission said. There have been a total of about ten terrorist attacks in France between the January 2015 attack on Charlie Hebdo that wiped out the satirical weekly’s editorial board and the latest carnage in Nice. Many of these attacks were under-reported, at the request of the authorities, essentially because the police did not wish to cause panic and paranoia.
DGSE, DGSI, DRM, DPSD, BRGE, ANSSI–France has six intelligence agencies, often identified solely by their acronyms. They work on counter espionage, internal security, defence security, military intelligence, electronic warfare or the security of information and report to three separate ministries, interior defence and economy. However, as Georges Fenech, the President of the parliamentary commission pointed out, they do not always work in unison or share information. French anti-terrorism operations have “lead in their boots”, Fenech said, so hampered are they by heavy bureaucratic structures.
The commission suggested the merging of various agencies into a single entity along the lines of the US National Security Agency so that three elite security units namely the GIGN, Raid and BRI (acronyms again), are brought under a single cohesive command. The attack on the Bataclan concert hall could have been avoided if police and counter terrorism experts had pooled their information, the commission noted. Convicted criminals who had been radicalised in prison, like Amady Coulibaly or the Kouachi brothers, all involved in the Charlie Hebdo attack, were treated like petty thieves and not terrorism threats because of the lack of coordination in the current security and intelligence set-up, it said. Just a couple of weeks ago, the current interior minister Bernard Cazeneuve dismissed the commission’s findings out of hand. Now that a terrifying attack has taken place with several children among the victims, Cazeneuve might be forced out of office.
France is home to Europe’s largest Muslim and Jewish populations. However, unlike the Jews, most Muslims are relatively new immigrants. They came to work in French factories during the post-war economic boom when the Marshall Plan fuelled Western Europe’s reconstruction. Holding down ill-paid manual jobs they were happy to live in the newly constructed factory towns on the periphery of large cities. But the oil crunch of 1973 pushed them into mass unemployment and the housing estates gradually turned into ghettos, with joblessness, poverty, under-education, cultural alienation, criminality and despair becoming the underlying leitmotif. This is what the second and third generations descended from these early migrants have inherited. Increasingly, social envy, bitterness and anger over their continued lack of integration (the blame must surely be shared by the whites and the Maghrebins) have taken a toll, prompting many of these young people to turn to radical faith, particularly Islam, as a means of acquiring self-worth, identity and assertiveness.
France’s decision to introduce legislation that effectively bans the burqa (a garment a majority of the French see as a sign of female subjection) coupled with growing racism, and Islamophobia have made the Muslims feel targeted and vulnerable. Anger, isolation, deprivation, lack of social recognition make a devastating cocktail. The Muslim community in France is not politicised enough to use the vote to get their own elected. Attempts to create a political party, Democratic Union of French Muslims (DUFM) failed and Muslims remain under represented in French institutions whether it be in parliament, diplomacy, the civil service or the military. Yes, there are success stories. But they are rare.
France appears to have been singularly unsuccessful at curbing radicalism and preventing terrorist attacks when compared to neighbouring Britain, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Spain or Holland. True, France has many more Muslims on its soil than any of the above and its the relations with people from the Maghreb – Algeria, Tunisia Morocco — remain tainted by memories of a painful colonial past. The love-hate relationship France shares with its former, predominantly Muslim colonies in North Africa adds to the identity tensions Islam in general is experiencing.
Evidently, the problem of terrorism is not that of France alone. But given that France appears particularly incapable of identifying and pre-empting terrorist intentions, it has to ponder the particular mix of factors that are creating the social conditions in which desperate terrorist acts can be committed. Security solutions cannot resolve the problem and no amount of policing can prevent a determined terrorist from dodging surveillance. Like water, a dogged terrorist will always find his way through the cracks.
Now the country appears to be tilting increasingly towards the extreme right and political pundits say it is almost certain that the Socialist candidate, whether it is Hollande, his Prime Minister Manuel Valls or any other left wing presidential hopeful will not make it to the 2017 second ballot run off. It will be a duel between the right and the extreme right. If that happens, the vast majority of France’s Muslims, caught between radical extremist elements and extreme right wing Islamophobes will end up paying the heaviest price.