A year ago today, the world was shaken up by the devastating terrorist attacks in the French capital. Paris was seized by a group of attackers through a chain of shootings and explosions across six locations, killing 130 people and gravely injuring 350. One of the most fatal attacks was conducted at the iconic Bataclan concert hall, in which 89 people were killed. In memorial, a Sting concert reopened the concert hall last night.
The attacks were the deadliest on France since World War II and the deadliest in Europe since the Madrid train bombings in 2004, in which 191 died. The Islamic State soon claimed responsibility, describing the attacks as the “first of the storm” in response to the Western airstrikes against militants in Syria and Iraq.
Following such a devastating day, the police quickly entered into a period of heightened alert and the country remains under a state of emergency until this date. The Paris attacks took place only months after the ISIS gun attack on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in January 2015. To add to the disturbing state of affairs, France was then the victim of another attack on Bastille Day, the 14th July 2016, killing 84 people in Nice, which was also claimed by the terrorist group.
A year on, the French are still trying to comprehend their new norm: terror attacks on their own soil. The attacks on France have been diverse in nature and in scale. Paris was such an alarming affair because it was so coordinated and because of the scale of civilian fatalities. President François Hollande quickly responded by saying “France is at war,” a rhetoric which troubles many. He promised to eradicate terrorism by entering into a state of emergency which would allow a stricter and more centralized command of affairs. He promised that this would be achieved without any cost to his country’s freedom. But has this been the case?
It appears that the gravity of the attacks somewhat muted the international commentary on the French response. The UN warned that the state of emergency imposed by France for an extended three months constituted “excessive and disproportionate restrictions” on fundamental human rights. Under the state of emergency laws, curfews could be imposed and large gatherings or protests were forbidden. The police were able to place anyone deemed to be a security risk under house arrest, carry out searches without a warrant, dissolve groups thought to threaten public order and block any websites that “encourage” terrorist activity. For instance, peaceful climate activists were controversially put under house arrest using the emergency laws in November 2015. In the wake of 9/11, similar provisions were granted to the police under the US’s Patriot Act. Despite the controversy surrounding such considerable government surveillance, its very hard to criticise the provisions such as those of America and France without seeming unpatriotic. Clearly, however, using the guise of anti-terrorism laws to prohibit peaceful demonstrations undermines basic civil liberties.
On a military level, France had been conducting airstrikes against ISIS targets in Syria since 2015 as part of a U.S.-led coalition. Since the Paris and Nice attacks, however, France stepped up their military presence in ISIS stronghold regions. And whilst there is no question that a strong military presence advances a state’s position symbolically by sending a powerful political message, its effectiveness strategically has been contested. As with the Nice attacks, taking out strongholds is not enough to eradicate those acting alone “inspired” by terror groups.
And then there is the question of whether terror can be overcome by war. David Schanzer, for example, the director of the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security, is critical of military action in such a context. He argues that “such an invasion [of Syria and Iraq] will deepen the extremist narrative of clash of civilisation between the West and Muslims, will insert our militaries into a deep, nasty and unwinnable civil war.” In line with this argument, it seems that the Western military presence in ISIS strongholds can in fact play a significant role in attracting recruits.
I’m currently studying on a year abroad in Montpellier and I can say that the atmosphere of fear and unease is far more prevalent than I’ve witnessed in the UK. Armed policemen wearing camouflage frequently roam the streets of my picturesque and seemingly-safe student city. My bags are checked as I enter and leave the main shopping centre and in just two months of being here, I have had to leave two art galleries as a result of terrorist threats. When I speak with French students, they say that they’ve learnt to go about their business as usual, but that’s not enough to relax me.
As Manuel Valls, the French Prime Minister, said a few days ago, the country remains a target of terror. In an interview with Europe 1 radio station he said that “Every day intelligence services, police and gendarmerie thwart attacks and dismantle Iraqi-Syrian networks.” It appears that stories of terrorist plots in France are blurring into the background of everyday news. For instance, the ISIS supporters who abandoned a car filled with gasoline cylinders by Notre Dame in early September passed relatively uncovered in the media.
The fate of the French political scene is left ambiguous. Will the French follow the path of the UK and leave the European Union, for example? Reports claim that if Marine Le Pen wins the country’s presidency in the upcoming 2017 elections, she will give people a ‘Frexit’ vote. The recent election of Donald Trump as U.S. President is likely to add fuel to the fire for terrorist activity across the world. This politically unqualified reality star, and now the man with his finger on the nuclear button, has previously called for a ban on all Muslims entering the U.S. and has hinted at leaving NATO. In a climate in which the West is overwhelmingly threatened by terrorism, the breakdown of intergovernmental organisations such as NATO and the European Union is dangerous, to put it mildly. I’m in no position to propose a clear solution, and very few people are. But what I can say a year on from the Paris attacks is that figures like Le Pen and Trump who are expecting and promising decisive results are either misguided or misleading.