France’s March to Unity — or Further Fragmentation ?

Les attentats qui ont fait dix-sept morts entre le mercredi 7 et le vendredi 9 janvier à Paris vont modifier la politique intérieure et extérieure française. Mais dans quel sens, se demandent Alexandra de Hoop-Scheffer et Martin Quencez, du bureau parisien du German Marshall Fund.

On Sunday, around 4 million people marched in France to show national unity against the terrorist attacks that killed 17 in Paris last week. These attacks came in the context of increased terrorist threats and communal tensions in France. The estimated 2,000 French citizens fighting in Syria and Iraq constitute the largest group of Europeans there ; about 200 have now returned home. Both al Qaeda and the Islamic State group have called for more terrorist acts in France in response to the interventions in Libya and Mali. Three years after Mohamed Merah’s gun attacks in Toulouse killed seven, and ten months after the murder of four people at the Brussels’ Jewish Museum, which may have involved a French jihadist, the events at the Charlie Hebdo offices and the kosher grocery reinforce the fear that France will be repeatedly targeted by Islamist terrorist attacks in the coming years. In response, the French government is likely to redefine its homeland and foreign security policies, with repercussions for the transatlantic community.

Meanwhile, the national political debate is fixated on the questions of intensifying communal and religious tensions in the French society, social integration of Muslim populations, and the rise of political extremism. The growing influence of the far-right Front National’s ideas on immigration, security issues, and the challenge of radical Islam, and its latest electoral results, also highlight the centrality of such concerns in French politics. This has become a European challenge : homegrown terrorism will continue to be utilized by other far-right, nationalist, and anti-immigration movements in Europe, from the United Kingdom Independence Party to the Sweden Democrats and Germany’s Pegida (Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the West).

The profiles of the Charlie Hebdo attackers bring to light some challenges specific to France, but also some that are relevant to the European and transatlantic fight against terrorism. First, their biographies underline the need to improve our understanding of a new form of post-9/11 terrorism — one that is much more fluid, Internet-driven, and fueled by a rage against Western society — and of the radicalization process that leads young delinquents to Jihadism, often during time served in prison. Second, police and intelligence services should rightfully see their resources increased to address the growing number of threats, but they do not — and will never — have the capabilities to keep track of all radicals. They can only be one part of prevention policies. Third, the revelations by U.S. intelligence regarding the training of one of the perpetrators, Saïd Kouachi, in Yemen emphasize the need for enhanced European and transatlantic intelligence cooperation to improve our ability to recognize potential threats and coordinate counter-terrorist strategies.

After the popular demonstrations all around France, what is at stake for the French government ? At the domestic level, the reactions should be two-fold. On one hand, a strong legislative response is expected to show the ability of the state to effectively fight these threats. The fact that the terrorists were known by the police has triggered a popular demand to investigate the way authorities track such radicals in order to prevent future failures. The government will have to display transparency and rigor in the reinforcement of police and intelligence capabilities. On the other hand, maintaining national unity to avoid any further fragmentation in French society will be important, but remains challenging. Bringing together the entire nation against Islamist terrorism has to be balanced by taking into account specific community concerns. Limiting the risk of Islamophobic incidents should be a priority, as should including Muslim figures in the fight against terrorism. Reassuring the Jewish community will also be necessary. The appointment of a prefect in charge of coordinating the security of the Jewish institutions is part of the urgent measures being taken for that purpose.

On the foreign policy front, these attacks can only reinforce Paris’s determination to take a leading role in the resolution of conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa, and push for a transatlantic response against havens for Islamist terrorists in Syria, Iraq, and the Sahel. The French government will also demand better European coordination on border control, the tracking of European citizens’ activities in the conflict zones in the Middle East, and closer cooperation with Internet companies to monitor and eventually remove material that could encourage terrorism.

The shock of the Paris terrorist attacks will quickly change into political and strategic outcomes. These events will affect French society itself, but it is unclear whether they will foster further tensions or provide an opportunity for renewed national political cohesion and cooperation with France’s transatlantic allies in the fight against terrorism.