France Has Had Its 9/11. Now What?
Paris is getting back to life as usual after Friday's attacks, if you discount the armed police on the streets and a general sense of grief. But for France, the question of what President Francois Hollande should do, now that he has declared the nation at war, remains unanswered.
This situation is completely different from the aftermath of the attacks in January on the Charlie Hebdo magazine. Then, Paris was all about unity. The lone voice of Marine Le Pen's nativist National Front, attempting to make political capital out of the tragedy, was ignored. Those attacks weren't directed at the citizenry as a whole, but at a very particular kind of magazine and a Jewish supermarket. Charlie Hebdo was not France's 9/11. Friday's attacks were.
The calls Le Pen made in January to end Europe's open borders are now mainstream. Former President Nicolas Sarkozy is trying to recapture his political relevance by out-toughing Hollande's straight-talking Prime Minister Manuel Valls, as well as Le Pen. He has called for a wholesale change in French foreign policy that would involve a realignment with Russian President Vladimir Putin and his policy in Syria, as well as for forcing 11,500 citizens suspected of extremist sympathies to wear electronic bracelets.
The French media is filled with articles worrying about what the sociologist Jean-Pierre Le Goff called the "angelic and pacifist mentality" of a country that already has fewer restraints on surveillance by its intelligence service than the U.S., and restricts displays of Islamism among its large Muslim minority more than most European countries. Still, France is looking to find an equivalent to the post-9/11 U.S. Patriot Act.
Islamic State must be delighted. It is changing French politics as surely, if not as dramatically, as al-Qaeda changed the politics of Spain through train bombings in 2004 that led to a change of government. What is dangerous is that, despite what Sarkozy and Le Pen may say, there are few effective remedies available to France.
Islamic State might be less happy if the response to Friday's attacks was an effective international military intervention to destroy it in Syria and Iraq. And indeed, Hollande stepped up the pace of French airstrikes against IS in Syria on Sunday night. But he surely knows, as Islamic State does, that an extra 20 bombs dropped on Raqqa will change little.
French security analysts such as Bruno Tertrais say Hollande is weighing whether to ask NATO to invoke Article 5, its collective defense agreement, as Europe offered to do for the U.S. after 9/11. If France, a North Atlantic Treaty Organization member, is at war, as Hollande has said, this would seem be a logical step.
It could have some practical benefits. It would, for example, make it easier for U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron to persuade the British Parliament to join the U.S. and France in the coalition delivering air strikes in Syria. Perhaps other NATO members would contribute some planes or logistics, too. NATO's central command resources would become available.
"It would be a get-out-of-jail-free card for Cameron," says Ian Kearns, director of the European Leadership Network, whose work focuses on European security. "But the whole question of what the strategy is in Syria would still be on the table."
Hollande and his advisers must also know that an Article 5 declaration would change little unless it involved NATO ground troops, which is highly unlikely. The air campaign would still rely overwhelmingly on U.S. resources and the strategic questions would remain. Who provides the ground forces needed to make air strikes effective? How do you combat Sunni radicalization if, like Russia, you rely on the Sunnis’ enemies -- Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Shiite Iran -- to provide those ground troops?
Islamic State must be destroyed in its havens, so those questions need to be answered. In the meantime, the reality for Paris and other European cities is that so long as Islamic State believes it can raise its profile and recruit by staging attacks on Europe, more attacks are almost inevitable. The best defense is to spend more aggressively on intelligence and disrupt jihadist cells across Europe. Policing in Belgium, where France's Interior Minister now believes Friday's attacks were planned, is probably as important to French security as what happens in Syria.
That is something NATO cannot fix. And with Europe in its current, disjointed state, neither can Hollande.
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