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France at War

CRS anti-riot police near the French National Assembly, Paris, France, July 5, 2016
Philippe Lopez/AFP/Getty Images
CRS anti-riot police near the French National Assembly, Paris, France, July 5, 2016

Among the many questions raised by last week’s terrorist attack in Nice, one of the most crucial is how it might affect the coming presidential election. A chilling, early answer was provided by Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s National Front, in a seventeen-minute speech to the media on July 16. Excoriating the French government, which is already using state-of-emergency powers, for inaction, and calling for a sweeping new security apparatus to eradicate “Islamic fundamentalism,” the statement was a sign that French politics has shifted toward militarism, xenophobia, and the all-powerful state—toward fascism.

Of the four national figures who are serious contenders for the presidency when the French go to the polls next April, Le Pen is the only one who cannot be blamed for any administrative shortcomings that may have contributed to the jihadist attacks that have killed some 250 innocents since the beginning of 2015. In contrast to President François Hollande, a Socialist, and the two main rivals for the center-right nomination, former President Nicolas Sarkozy and Alain Juppé (who was Jacques Chirac’s prime minister between 1995 and 1997, and is currently mayor of Bordeaux), Le Pen has never been in power. She has never controlled the army budget, supervised police recruitment, or appointed intelligence chiefs.

On July 16 she sent a plague on all who have held these sensitive levers—who have, as she sees it, slept on the job; “in any other country in the world,” she said, the interior minister (Bernard Cazeneuve) would have resigned after such an attack on his watch. And while France’s smug, inept, and well-heeled political class may have deserved a lambasting, the fact that it was Le Pen who administered it, and the National Front that stands to benefit, comes as a stark warning to those who think the far-right can be contained by appeals for unity and good sense.

Praised after last November’s even more costly attacks in Paris for his dignity and coolheadedness, Hollande is now the most unpopular president in the history of the Fifth Republic. Recent polls suggest that Le Pen will make it into the run-off in April, but be beaten into second place by whoever—Juppé, Sarkozy, or (less likely) Hollande—joins her there. But the easiest—and perhaps most influential—place for Marine Le Pen to be is in opposition; when it comes to actually winning power, the forty-seven-year-old is playing a long game.

In her speech, Le Pen didn’t just accuse her opponents of incompetence; she called into question their will to fight, let alone defeat, the scourge of Islamic fundamentalism. The French people, she said, had been lulled into “fatalism” by a state that prefers excuse-making to action, indulges any “community” that feels misunderstood (here she raised her fingers to indicate ironic quotation marks), and accepts anarchy rather than use its “imperious, legitimate authority” and monopoly over the use of force. The prevailing “discourse of abdication,” she went on, “cannot but provoke defeatism, discouragement, and anguish.” Lest Sarkozy think that Le Pen was letting him off, she laid the blame squarely on him, too, for “disarming” the state by cutting police and intelligence personnel during his presidency (2007-2012).

Hollande had gone on television on the morning of Bastille Day to announce the end of the state of emergency that has been in force since Paris; what happened in Nice that evening forced a U-turn. Cazeneuve, the beleaguered interior minister, insists that the government’s security measures have helped avert sixteen attacks, including one before the Euro 2016 soccer tournament, but these successes have been occluded by the failure of the intelligence services to register the threat that was posed by Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, and that of the police to do anything as he steered his nineteen-ton weapon toward the 30,000 people who had gathered on the Promenade des Anglais.

The proposals briskly reeled off by Le Pen include reviving compulsory military service and a national guard (the latter not seen since 1872), revoking the citizenship of jihadists with dual nationality—as the Netherlands parliament voted to do in May—ending free movement within Europe, raising military expenditure, lengthening prison sentences for radicals, and making it much harder for foreigners to acquire French citizenship.

These ideas are not new. But their reiteration two days after Nice, and following an opinion poll commissioned by the Figaro newspaper that found that 67 percent of the population no longer has confidence in the government’s ability to fight terrorism, laid before us the Fortress France that the majority of this bruised, angry nation—again, the opinion polls concur on this—currently want.

For Le Pen the situation is very simple. Bouhlel was a well-known troublemaker who had recently received a suspended prison sentence for affray; how come this “Tunisian terrorist” (he had French residency) was in France in the first place?

Already, Nice has tilted France’s political class rightward. Other politicians are hewing to Le Pen, echoing her proposals, swimming in her outrage. Sarkozy rushed to the TV studios to announce “total war” and demand that thousands of people be placed in “de-radicalization centers,” confined at home or electronically tagged. (That wouldn’t have helped in the case of Bouhlel, who hadn’t been identified as radicalized.) Juppé has raised the possibility of civil conflict. Hollande, to his credit, warns against the “Trumpification” of the spirit. “It’s is necessary to protect France from terrorism,” he reportedly told his cabinet on July 17, “and also against the desire to destroy France from the inside.”

France is hurtling toward a presidential election that will bring more hostility, fear, and division, and be fought against the expectation of further attacks. In the meantime, the racial profiling and frisking of Arabs in the street, the police raids in the middle of the night—these will intensify, contributing to further alienation of French Muslims. Under the state of emergency, prefects have been able to order house searches, confine people to their homes, shut mosques, and ban assemblies without a court order. The results of this expansion of police powers have been thin: five terrorist prosecutions have been launched as a result of 3,500 house searches, while those being searched are stigmatized as suspect outsiders and would-be jihadists. Here is the tension that exists between the short-term imperative of preventing terrorism and reassuring the populace and the long-term need to integrate a large Muslim minority into society. Both the terrorists and Le Pen have made the resolution of this tension increasingly remote.

There are about five million Muslims in France, a large majority of them French citizens. It suffices to step from a mixed-race Paris suburb into its columned prefecture, the basic unit of the “imperious state,” and see all the white-faced, salaried, suited, unionized civil servants, to understand that integration hasn’t gone nearly far enough. Hollande’s appeal for unity is no longer being heard because at the very moment that French voters need to wake up to the disaffection of so many, assuage alienation, and draw Muslims out of their sullen sense of victimhood, the call of “foreigners out” is the most seductive.

So, France is at war. It is hard to define this war of which everyone speaks, let alone imagine how best to wage it. Is it against ISIS, whose territory is now shrinking but whose ideology will survive—and, no doubt, again mutate? Against people like Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, a violent and unstable libertine who discovered jihadism a week before his outrage? Against Islam? Or France itself?