The American Interest, November 25, 2015
When the terrorists once again struck France on November 13, the country has shown a different, more authoritarian side than in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo outrage.
The strategy of terrorism, as has often (but not often enough) been remarked, it to trick stronger powers into doing counterproductive things. The terrorist attacks of November 13 in Paris, coming on the heels of the Charlie Hebdo attack in January, has awakened a more authoritarian France. I say “awakened” and not “created” because that authoritarian France has long been there, slumbering away beneath the delightful veneer of café life and the mildly sordid machinations of French politics.
Indeed, French officials for many years have been doing things with respect to intelligence collection and suspect interrogation that are nigh unthinkable in the United States or in today’s Germany. There is no robust equivalent of the American ACLU in France and this, like most everything else in comparative politics, has historical and, for lack of a better term, socio-psychological sources.
The difference matters, because there is a potential in recent French government actions to actually bring down the Fifth Republic, the sturdiest of all French republics—but perhaps not sturdy enough.
When I moved to Paris from London at the turn of the present, prematurely graying century, it was like moving from fire to ashes. I soon learned never to ask for meetings on a Monday or Friday, since many Frenchmen had quietly implemented the four-day workweek. The sense of stagnation was made all the more glaring by the fact that Paris is full of memories of better times, magnificent times. It was in those days that a poll in Le Figaro showed that the foremost ambition for French university students was to find public-sector employment. Such is the enduring draw of the École Normale Supérieure system and the public largesse it produces for the elite; the private sector is a place, most young Frenchmen seem to believe, where one must work more to earn less.
Of course, it is not all bleak. The world’s favorite holiday destination has high productivity, very decent grub, and the trains run on time. And yet the French seem to have lost faith in the future. In 2013, a much-debated Ipsos study found that only 5 percent of those polled believed that “things will get better.” A large majority of viewed globalization as a “threat.” The poll also revealed a broad distrust toward Muslims and a strong sense many Frenchmen feel that their views are not represented by the political system. Some 62 percent reported that they did not feel at home in their own country.
France is proud of its intellectuals. They have long been granted the role of guiding the nation, a position again very different from the social status of intellectuals in the United States (where they are dismissed as eggheads who cannot even tie their own shoelaces), Germany (where discipline-bounded scholars have cachet), and other Western countries. And French thinkers have been ferrymen of a special kind in the transition from the pre-Freudian to the post-Freudian understanding of threat. Before Freud “danger” was out there, in the dark; in the post-Freudian era the darkness is seen to dwell within each of us. This insight is central to understanding the increasingly introverted tendency in French thinking over recent decades. French intellectuals underestimated the extent to which monitoring the finer nuances in one’s moods depended on an absence of external threats. If there really is a killer on the loose in the darkened streets of your town, the labyrinths of mind and language start to quickly seem irrelevant, and by implication that also goes for those who wander those labyrinths.
The sense of decline and the absence of useful intellectual leaders make Frenchmen unpredictable when the external threat now manifests itself in bursts of semi-automatic rifle fire. The French live in the Fifth Republic because the four republics preceding failed to resolve the great questions of their day. While we in the West tend to see France as a strong unitary state, the country is actually deeply divided and politically unstable just below the thin veneer of stagnant stability. In that sense the terrorist attacks of November 13 could not have happened in a worse place, or at a worse time.
The attacks, which left 130 people dead, were the latest in a long series of terrorist attacks in France this year. For a long time France seemed immune to Islamist terror. Some believed it was because the country’s assimilation policies toward immigrants was working, and was often positively contrasted with Britain’s multiculturalist approach. There was also a general confidence in country’s eight different intelligence services with expertise on radical Islam. But the combination of the refugee crisis spawned largely from the Syrian civil war, new communications technologies, and the phenomenon of Islamism-cum-youth-rebellion amid what some see as a hollow materialism have combined to exceed the state’s allocated resources to protect its citizens from a small fraction of the country’s five-million strong Muslim community.
France now finds itself a preferred target in part because Socialist François Hollande has used his presidential powers to initiate a series of military interventions: in Mali and elsewhere in the Sahel, in Syria, and in Iraq. And French forces have inflicted painful defeats on Islamists of various acronyms in Africa and the Middle East. At the same time the economy has left little scope for dashing leadership at home. But what Hollande does abroad and at home are intimately connected, and they would be in the mind of any French leader today. Thus, as the debate in Europe quickly focused on whether NATO should invoke Article V in the face of the November 13 attacks, as the alliance did in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, Hollande wisely declined these overtures. It is not in the NATO’s interest that the Article V, with its iron-studded promise of collective defense, should be once more banalized into an overstated declaration of sympathy.
France has also sought not to wholly “EU-ropeanize” crisis. Yes, it invoked a symbolic EU defense arrangement, but it also reimposed border controls, openly challenging the Schengen zone agreement. Seen from Paris, the EU’s plans to offer visa-free travel for Turkey’s 75 million people and Ukraine’s 45 million starting in 2016 has left an impression of a Union elite utterly divorced from reality. The much too farsighted visionaries in Brussels seem to be the last people in Europe today to understand that it would be politically unwise to increase immigration right now.
France has also so far resisted calls for EU summits to “talk about it.”
Instead, Hollande has chosen the brutal-yet-unbound Russia as his preferred partner in its “war” against the Islamic State, and he has tried to revive the hoary Gaullist tactic of playing mediator between Moscow and Washington. The latter is unlikely to work very well unless the Russians change their minds about local Levantine priorities. The former may bring outright disaster. In the wake of attacks, France has gone into authoritarian high gear: Police and gendarmes are kicking down the doors of known Islamists all over the country. The President has requested a three-month state of emergency in which basic civil rights will remain suspended.
For a mild-mannered social democrat leading an old world democracy, these measures seem somewhat excessive from a security point of view. But politics, ah, that is something else again. Hollande’s radical resolve indicates his tenuous grasp on power; the measures appear to be an attempt to communicate with the country’s alienated citizens, to say to them that the state stands ready to defend them—both against the terrorists and, sotto voce, against Marine Le Pen. Whether the French believe this is entirely contingent on whether the measures work, and they may work in the short term. But suspending the civil rights of an already alienated minority may deepen polarization in the longer run. It may also spark another round of Muslim riots, like those of 2005.
When Islamists massacred the staff of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in January, France responded with a solidarity march. French and Davos elites held hands and the maligned National Front was not invited. When the terrorists once again struck France, the country has shown a different, more authoritarian side, and it has thus succeeded in raising the political stakes all around—the electoral ones that are obvious, and the deeper constitutional ones that no Frenchman so far has dared to speak of in public. If Islamists succeed in bringing terror to the streets of Paris yet again, all bets are off for the longevity of the Fifth Republic.