France's War on Terror Reaches Into the Countryside

  • Pollster sees ‘major implications’ for 2017 presidential vote
  • Le Pen vies with Sarkozy to capture new mood among voters

Beauvais, population 55,000, is typical of provincial France. It has a Gothic cathedral, long-closed textile plants and multicultural housing projects from the 1960s ringing a historic center.

Police stand guard at the Rouen Cathedral.
Police stand guard at the Rouen Cathedral.
Photographer: Charly Triballeau/AFP via Getty Images

Since last month’s terror attacks in Nice and rural Normandy, it’s been convulsed by anxiety and suspicion.

“Fear is contagious,” Alain Giblin, a 68-year-old former teacher, said last week after a mass in the town where he’s lived his entire life. “I don’t want to live thinking everyone I see could be an enemy. But that’s the way we seem to be heading.”

The unease in towns like Beauvais has grown as the terrorists’ reach has expanded, switching from the French capital in November to the south and then the north coast within less than two weeks in July. That shift in focus has unsettled the whole population, both provincial and metropolitan, as France’s summer of terror dominates the political debate eight months out from presidential elections.

For more on the reaction to the Nice attacks, click here.

Security and the fight against terrorism is now far and away the top concern for the French public even amid a sluggish economy and near-record joblessness. Whereas unemployment was cited as the over-riding issue among a majority of voters in polls taken in early November, priorities changed after the Bataclan massacre later that month.

In the latest survey, taken after the murder last week of a priest in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray, near Rouen, security and terror was the principal concern for 58 percent of respondents. That’s more than three times the 17 percent who cited unemployment. The poll was conducted by Ifop for Atlantico website and published on Monday.

Threat Everywhere

“It doesn’t matter if you live in a small town or a big city, the threat is everywhere,” said Jerome Fourquet, chief pollster at Paris-based Ifop. “Terrorism and security is on everyone’s minds, but the level of fear and concern has become so overwhelming, so massive that it dwarfs any other concern.”

It’s a sentiment that’s likely to persist, said Fourquet, with “major implications” for how the 2017 presidential contest will be fought as well as its outcome.

After an unprecedented series of killings inspired by Islamic State, 55 percent of voters say they believe Francois Hollande’s repeated assertion that France is now at war. That’s a new reality not lost on opposition politicians as they gear up to challenge the most unpopular president in French history.

Nicolas Sarkozy
Nicolas Sarkozy
Photographer: Francois Nascimbeni/AFP via Getty Images

Republican Nicolas Sarkozy has gone even further than his Socialist successor, saying that if France is at war it has to adopt wartime tactics such as internment. National Front leader Marine Le Pen calls for the deportation of any foreigner “simply suspected of any sort of link with terror.”

An Ifop poll from July shows that Alain Juppe, former prime minister and contender for the Republican party nomination, is the most popular politician in France, with 64 percent of voters saying they have a good opinion of him. Among possible presidential candidates, he is followed by another former prime minister, Francois Fillon, with a 53 percent rating and Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron at 52 percent. Sarkozy registered a rating of 38 percent, with both Le Pen and Hollande on 28 percent.

Climate of Fear

In Beauvais last week, many people were worried about where terrorists could strike next, but they weren’t convinced that the solution lies in ever harsher security measures. Meanwhile, it’s not just more attacks that they’re afraid of; it’s also the way the climate of fear is reshaping their society.

“We just don’t know what to do any more,” said Yasine, a 31-year-old housewife with her two kids in a playground in the town’s St. Jean neighborhood, where public housing projects predominate. “We avoid all large crowds, like I wouldn’t take my kids any more to go watch fireworks.” She said she didn’t know what more the authorities should be doing to prevent attacks.

Beauvais lies about 80 kilometers (50 miles) north of Paris. It’s the same distance east of Rouen, where two supporters of Islamic State murdered 85-year-old priest Jacques Hamel. That killing followed the July 14 massacre in Nice where a Tunisian immigrant ran down 84 people with a truck and the attacks on concertgoers and satirists in Paris last year.

“They used to say that can only happen in Paris or Tunisia,” said Claire Marais-Beuil, a National Front member for Beauvais in the regional legislature. “No longer.”

Priest’s Vigil

Hours after the priest’s murder on July 26, religious leaders in Beauvais organized an impromptu gathering in the flower park of a housing project with about 100 people in attendance. Among those were about 20 Muslims as a nearby mosque canceled evening prayer so that worshipers could join the vigil.

People pay tribute to the slain priest on July 26.
People pay tribute to the slain priest on July 26.
Photographer: Charly Triballeau/AFP via Getty Images

“France gives us all the means to live here together, and the most powerful answer to those who try to divide us is love and fraternity, no matter what our religions,” Florent Mongengo, a priest at nearby St. Jean-Baptiste Catholic church who is originally from Congo, told mourners.

To watch Hollande’s response to the Nice attack, click here.

That’s not enough for National Front representative Marais-Beuil.

“Sure it’s very nice and uplifting, but I don’t think that’s what people are waiting for,” she said in a phone interview. Instead, she says the two men who carried out the Rouen attack should have been behind bars already because of the past attempts to join Islamic State in Syria.

In the first round of regional elections in December, the National Front placed first in Beauvais with 34.2 percent, compared with a country average of 28 percent. In the run-off, the town’s voters switched overwhelmingly to the center-right Republicans, illustrating the Front’s struggle to attract votes outside its core support.

One poll carried out just after the Nice attack found that 65 percent of the French said they had no confidence in Hollande’s ability to confront terrorism. But a total of 75 percent said opposition parties would do just as badly, or worse.

Francois Lootvoer, 48-year-old railroad engineer who volunteers at a local Catholic church, said he fears the far-right could still do better at the presidential elections. The first round is in April.

“There’s a hardening of opinion,” he said. “The terrorists have gone far in the words they use, the politicians have gone far in their words, so people expect the worst. The use of these words just ratchets up the tension.”

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