By Sophie des Beauvais
On Nov. 13, Paris became the stage of an unprecedented and dreadful chaos. For the first time in the history of France, a coordinated terrorist attack unveiled an imminent, invisible, and multiform threat to the country. And yet, it was hardly a surprise when the French people looked down at their phones, computers, and TV sets on that Friday night to hear the alarmed voice of journalists and politicians to hear the news of yet another terrorist attack.
Yet to the surprise of many outside the country, the French public reacted to these events with anger and unity rather than with fear and paralysis. Almost immediately, “Paris est une fête” (Paris is a party), the French title given to one of Ernest Hemingway’s most acclaimed novels, “A Moveable Feast,” became the slogan of a new kind of French resistance, calling for people to take the streets, the cafés, and bars of Paris to let the world know that life in France will not be paralyzed by fear.
In turn, the French government chose to respond by declaring a ‘state of emergency,’ which grants special powers and attributions to the state and police, normally restricted by the judiciary. Although these measures are certainly necessary to respond to an imminent threat, they jeopardize public and individual liberties in no uncertain terms. Even more unusual is that such a forfeiture represented is being accepted by the French public in a fairly consensual manner. The right and the National Front have been preaching for reinforcement of legislation regarding the surveillance, expulsion, and denaturalization of jihadists. In yet another extraordinary turn of events, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, a leader of the National Front who strongly opposes the ruling party and the current immigration and border control policy, claimed to be surprised, and in a partially positive way, by the actions of François Hollande in the wake of the attacks.
Regional elections will be held in December, and the National Front will indubitably benefit from this rightward political momentum. The party’s political and cultural vision of the world has never been as predominant or as willing to set aside the economic contradictions of its program as it does today. The attacks will only add to the National’s Front recent electoral victories in which it set a record of 11 elected mayors. This includes the last local elections in March 2015, when the National Front scored 62 elected counselors and 23 percent of the total vote. It is not the party’s political moves that represent an immediate threat, but the diffusion of its nationalist and separatist ideology, which has the power to divide the French society and create a climate of confrontation. This is exactly what terrorists are aiming for, and what defines their victories.
The Islamic State is also succeeding in disrupting trust and the sense of community within the European Union. A borderless Europe doesn’t seem appealing to anyone anymore as Europeans now fear that free movement of goods and people, the main pillar of the Schengen Agreement, also implies the free movement of jihadists.
In this context, Bruno Retailleau, president of the Les Républicains faction in the French Senate, has asked to reestablish border controls before the system is revised. Furthermore on Nov. 16, President Hollande stated in his speech in front of Congress that more comprehensive controls over Europe’s external borders is necessary to avoid the destruction of the EU. Due to the vulnerability of the Schengen Agreement and the failure of Europe’s border controls, evidenced by the free movement of Salah Abdelsalam, the mastermind of the Paris attacks, Marine Le Pen’s credo to close French borders has never been so appealing.
The Islamic State has also succeeded in provoking French militarism. President Hollande has declared war on terror and has sent its Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier and 26 fighter jets across the Mediterranean Sea, while actively corralling international support to build a coalition for air strikes in Syria. Former Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, expressed his reservations about this strategy back in September 2014 in an interview that went viral last week. “The war against terrorism cannot be won. The failure is predictable. Why? Because terrorism is an invisible hand—mutating, changing, opportunistic. One doesn’t fight an invisible hand with the weapons of war. We must be able to employ the force of the mind, ruse, and means of peace to destabilize the forces that consolidate around the purveyors of terrorism,” he stated.
The Islamic State is targeting France knowing that its large Muslim community and diversity make it a fragile nation, easy to disunite. In France “there has always been tension between a community based on values. France is seen as a civic nation, and France is seen as a cultural majority. There is this tension about what unifies us and what we have in common with each other,” says Vincent Martigny, professor of political science at the École Polytechnique in Paris. To fight barbarism, the first step could be for the French to reaffirm the values that make us a unified nation, defined by Ernest Renan as “the consent to live together, the desire to continue to invest in the heritage they have jointly received.” It is, indeed, the first thing that unifies France and will succeed in stopping the Islamic State from tearing this society apart.
The French people are ready to respond to the internal and external threat terrorism represents, and Paris hasn’t stopped being a party. Still, the international confrontation, internal national tensions, and disruptions triggered by the attacks could all indicate that the Islamic State is very well achieving its goals. In just a few days, the French people have already incrementally surrendered their values of individual and public liberties, paving the way for the legitimization of a nativist political platform. The country has further responded to violence with even more violence, transforming an abominable ideology into a fight between the Western powers and the oppressed terrorists that see themselves as the ultimate defenders of Islam. Still, it’s not too late to use the force of the mind and the means of peace to fight modern barbarism, as recommended Dominique de Villepin. Restating what defines the French nation is the first step to neutralize the Islamic State’s strategy of destruction through destabilization, and to rescue the true meaning of “Paris est une fête.”
Sophie des Beauvais is a former editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.
[Photo by Jack Gordon]