Friday’s massacres in Paris have left France’s leadership facing a dilemma familiar to Western governments since 9/11: They need a response at home and abroad that balances the need to express national fury and protect their society from further attacks, with an awareness that overreaction on both fronts risks further perils.
“The agonising challenge in responding to terror is averting the very measures that inadvertently assist violent or anti-democratic forces,” one French counterterrorism official said in an interview earlier this year in the wake of January’s Charlie Hebdo attacks that left 18 victims dead.
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“Provoking that kind of response is one objective of terrorists. That is why extremists constantly try to raise the bar of horror and outrage – to incite stronger reaction, or even retaliation.”
Excessive security moves that impinge on liberties, direct suspicion onto entire communities, or further complicate France’s military involvement in the Middle East could also aid political and religious extremists who rely on upheaval, adversity and fear to advance their agendas and swell their ranks.
In claiming responsibility for the attacks, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group appeared to be goading France, its statement mocking Paris as a “capital of prostitution and obscenity”.
Following the attacks, the usually temperate French President Francois Hollande voiced some of the outrage, fury and sorrow the entire country is experiencing as he declared a state of emergency, tightening security.
“France, because it was shamefully and violently attacked in a cowardly manner, will be unforgiving with the barbarians,” Hollande said, calling the attacks “an act of war that was prepared, organised and directed from abroad, with help from the inside”.
But the parameters of that “unforgiving” response are a matter of some debate in French policy circles.
Hollande’s centre-left government, in the wake of last January’s attacks, passed new legislation increasing the powers of intelligence services, police and the judiciary – but the new measures, some of Europe’s strictest, were criticised by some as diminishing France’s prized individual liberties.
That debate will be sharply rejoined now amid calls to escalate domestic surveillance measures with laws similar to the Patriot Act in the US.
France is also mindful of the need to coordinate responses across the EU – after all, reports suggest that the Paris attacks may have at least in part been planned and staged from Belgium.
France’s interior minister has called for an emergency summit of EU justice and internal affairs ministers next week in order to rapidly implement new security measures.
Support for Assad
In a text circulated in online media in August under the headline: “Why France Should Support Bashar al-Assad,” three national officials of Nicolas Sarkozy’s Republican party argued that the Syrian leader – who they describe as a democratically elected defender of a secular governing system – must be backed by Paris and its allies as “the last barrier blocking the rise of [ISIL]”.
In October, hard-right politician and former presidential candidate Philippe de Villiers similarly railed against Paris for shunning Damascus and its extremist foes alike, declaring “Vladimir Putin is right to support Bashar al-Assad” as a crucial Western partner against ISIL.
Some old hands warn that a rush to adopt harsh new domestic security measures risks exacerbating the problem.
François Heisbourg, a special adviser to the Foundation for Strategic Research and a doyen of the French national security establishment, warns against hasty and intemperate responses that could actually worsen the security threat.
“The temptation will be strong to concoct rapidly – but poorly conceived exceptional legislation – a Patriot Act a la Français,” Heisbourg wrote in Le Monde on Saturday.
“The decision … to decree a state of emergency demonstrates our [current] legal capacities are substantial, while legislation on terrorism and intelligence have resources have only recently been modernised.”
His call to authorities was to keep a cool head and consider the consequences of all the options on the table.
Besides calls for a new security and intelligence gathering regime at home, politicians and commentators have called on Hollande to escalate France’s involvement in the international air campaign against ISIL in Iraq and Syria.
Some have even urged France to change its policy on Syria by joining Russia in actively backing the Assad regime on the basis of the shared goal of defeating ISIL and other radical armed groups in Syria.
Heisbourg warned that following Putin’s example would also escalate the dangers facing France. Backing Assad would only “reinforce feelings of injustice among the majority of Syrians”, he wrote.
Other observers add that escalating the air war against ISIL also risked further civilian casualties of the type that have boosted ISIL recruitment in the past, without significantly weakening the group’s operational abilities.
“It’s less spectacular to place focus on improving intelligence at home than to scramble Rafale [jet fighters] in the Middle East sky. But that should be our very first priority,” Heisbourg wrote, noting the battle against the likes of ISIL “will be long, difficult, and require internal and external responses”.
But Heisbourg’s call for cool heads to prevail doesn’t address the mounting domestic political pressure on Hollande to take dramatic action.
France, like several other European countries, has witnessed the political rise of the extreme-right, as voters rattled by economic stagnation, high unemployment, the eurozone financial crisis, and inability of European Union members to respond to the refugee crisis have abandoned mainstream political parties.
Reports alleging that one of the Paris attackers had entered Europe among the throng of refugees have been used by anti-immigration politicians to support their claim that absorbing refugees from war zones represents a security threat.
“France and the French are no longer safe,” National Front (FN) leader Marine Le Pen said during a meeting on Saturday, citing a direct link between France’s EU membership and immigrant and security problems.
“It is essential that France recover the control of its national borders, once and for all. Without borders, neither security nor protection is possible.”
Le Pen also called for a domestic crackdown in French Muslim communities, calling on the authorities to “ban Islamist organisations, close radical mosques and kick out foreigners who are preaching hatred on our soil”.
Similar themes have been echoed by more hawkish elements within mainstream conservative ranks – a trend that will probably increase as their parties lose ground to Le Pen’s.
The FN is projected to be the big winner in France’s regional elections next month.
Heisbourg warns against giving in to calls for a domestic crackdown on Muslim communities, insisting that the longer-term health of democracies lies in their protection of founding values.
Citing the responses by authorities in the US – as well as by the British and Spanish authorities to the London and Madrid attacks a decade ago – Heisbourg noted that “the success or failure of terrorists depends less on the number of lives wiped out than it does the manner in which the stricken societies have reacted”.