Paris won't be bullied anymore over French hostages

Why the murder of Herve Gourdel will be a game-changer for French policy vis-a-vis terrorists.

    French Mayor Henri Giuge holds a portrait of Herve Gourdel during a tribute in Saint-Martin-Vesubie [Reuters]
    French Mayor Henri Giuge holds a portrait of Herve Gourdel during a tribute in Saint-Martin-Vesubie [Reuters]

    French authorities have confirmed the death of Herve Gourdel, a French tourist hiking in mountains in northeastern Algeria. Gourdel was kidnapped and beheaded by Soldiers of the Caliphate (Jund al-Khilafa), a group that has declared allegiance to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

    The atrocious act was clearly aimed at reducing the support of the French public for President Francois Hollande's decision to strike ISIL positions in Iraq, as proven by footage of the cowardly act labelled "A Message in Blood for the French Government."

    It is very unlikely however that this murder will have any impact on France's participation in the strikes. France became the second western country to attack ISIL militants when Rafale fighter aircraft raided an ammunitions depot near Mosul on September 18. Hollande adamantly confirmed his commitment to the international coalition and his rejection of negotiations with the kidnappers in his speech at the United Nations General Assembly on September 24.

    This approach marks a new development in France's strategy towards its citizens who are taken as hostages. Traditionally, Paris made every effort to protect its citizens kidnapped by terrorist groups. France was recently criticised by US President Barack Obama for paying ransoms in exchange for their release, although Paris vehemently denies this.

    Cynical public relations

    The liberation of hostages has often been used as a cynical public relations tool to boost popularity. In May 1988, four days before the second round of upcoming presidential elections, Prime Minister Jacques Chirac paraded in front of cameras alongside French hostages freed from Lebanon. He did so hoping to edge in front of rival candidate Francois Mitterand in the popular vote.

    Hollande's approval ratings have hit rock bottom, he has not budged from his strong offensive position towards ISIL. His decision to side with Obama gained rare bipartisan support in France.

    Although Hollande's approval ratings have hit rock bottom, he has not budged from his strong offensive position towards ISIL. His decision to side with Obama gained rare bipartisan support in France.

    While David Cameron suffered a "humiliating defeat" in the House of Commons when he asked for support for targeted strikes in Syria last year, the only criticism from the French opposition has been that Hollande is not going far enough.

    Former Prime Minister Francois Fillon objected to limitations on fighting ISIL in Iraq and encouraged Hollande to not shy away from strikes inside Syria.

    There are several reasons for this determination.

    First, Hollande, as well as political leaders from the right, are happy to build on the conflict in the Middle East to snatch back public attention which has turned towards former President Nicolas Sarkozy, who recently announced his political comeback. While the former president has pointed to his successor's lack of leadership, Hollande is attempting to prove Sarkozy wrong.

    Second, France and other European countries have every reason to be on the offensive in their fight against ISIL. The risk of terrorist acts at home is real. Blow to French interests

    Since French gunman Mohammed Merah, a self-styled al-Qaeda jihadist, killed seven people in southwestern France in 2012, terrorist threats have only increased in Europe. Governments have subsequently scrambled to prevent a surge in lone-wolf terrorism.

    French security forces have managed to dismantle several terrorist cells already, but were not able to prevent one of their nationals, Mehdi Nemmouche, from killing three people during an attack at the Jewish Museum in Brussels in May. Nemmouche, who was later arrested in Marseille, served in Syria as a hostage torturer before his return to France with the intent of organising terrorist attacks.

    Finally, France cannot afford propaganda to strengthen the appeal of terrorist groups in West Africa and the Mediterranean. ISIL's presence in Algeria is also a blow to French economic interests in the region, such as oil and telecommunications.

    Compared to the small population of US or British citizens in these countries, more than 40,000 French citizens currently live in Algeria and more than a million Algerian immigrants live in France. If the integration of this community in France has been relatively successful and an asset for Franco-Algerian relations, memories of the dreadful hours of the terrorist attacks in France in the 1990s by the Algerian Groupe Islamique Arme, are still very fresh in French memory.

    This troubled history as well as the importance of French economic interests in Algeria explain the firm tone of the French authorities. The same reasons motivated Hollande's intervention in quashing forces fighting for al-Qaeda in Mali.

    France has much more to lose or risk than any other country and her commitment to reducing ISIL's influence is unlikely to decrease.

    Remi Piet is Assistant Professor of Public Policy, Diplomacy and International Political Economy at Qatar University.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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