Paris attacks reflections. Photo by Ian Packer.

Share This

The Fallout from Paris

Paris, November 14, 2015

I’ve been in a daze, along with everyone else here, over what has happened. And having slept fitfully for maybe three hours last night isn’t helping to clear my head. Nor is hearing the accounts of traumatized eyewitnesses on the radio and TV, or watching the mobile phone videos taken from the scenes of the attacks in their immediate aftermath. I can’t wrap my head around this. The terrorist attacks happened in corners of Paris I know well, where I often find myself, and where many people I know often find themselves (and where some live).

And where my wife and I could have found ourselves last night, not to mention our daughter, age twenty-one, had she been in Paris. We’re already learning that there are only two degrees of separation between us and persons who were killed or wounded last night. In the early evening we went to an art expo at the Fondation Cartier, after which we had a drink at a fine café on nearby Rue Daguerre (14th arrondissement), a café much like the ones targeted last night. We were sitting in the enclosed terrace, looking out over the bustling pedestrian street. I had initially thought that we could have dinner at a Mexican restaurant in the 10th arrondissement—some 200 meters from where the first attack took place—but as I had already had a late lunch at a restaurant (Hunan) and thus wasn’t hungry—nor was my wife, who took a dish at the café—we decided to head back to our tranquil banlieue, getting home around 9:00 o’clock, about twenty minutes before the first attack. I watched several minutes of the France-Germany friendly match but missed the explosions, learning about the attacks on the Internet during half time.

In lieu of a lengthy analysis, a few comments. First, where the attacks took place. The 10th and 11th arrondissements were not chosen at random. This part of Paris—and the eastern part of the city more generally—was historically populaire (working class) but has been transformed over the past two decades. It’s become a hip area, with an active nightlife and cool bars and restaurants frequented mainly by young people in their twenties and thirties: hipsters, students, and young professionals, and of all ethnic origins. The evening ambiance in that part of the city is great. And it’s livelier that what I’ve seen in London. The Islamic State terrorists targeted that area precisely because of what it is and symbolizes. As my daughter told me on the phone today, the young people who hang out there—and where she goes with friends on weekend evenings when in town—are the best of France’s generation of the future: politically liberal, open-minded, tolerant, and creative.

Second, though only one of the seven dead terrorists has been formally identified as I write, there can be no doubt that the operation was conceived and led by Frenchmen—by persons who grew up in the Paris area, have an intimate knowledge of the city, and are no doubt French citizens from birth. [UPDATE: There were nine terrorists, seven of whom have been formally identified as of January 20, 2016, all citizens of France and/or Belgium and born and raised in one of the two countries.] Non-French jihadists could have never hatched this plot. One may also safely assume that the terrorists were radicalized not in mosques or by jihadist imams but via the Internet, and that most, if not all of them, have been in Syria or some other Middle East–North Africa war zone. The sale and private possession of assault weapons are, as one knows, illegal in France, though they can be had via traffickers (mainly from the Balkans). But to learn to use them in the way the terrorists did last night involves training and practice that would be difficult to do in France without being detected, but that they could obviously get in Syria. So France and other European states, in protecting themselves from the Islamic State death cult, absolutely need to shut down, to the extent possible, the route to Syria via Turkey, by, among other things, formally telling the Turks to stop admitting EU nationals with national ID cards only (and not passports), to issue visas at their borders, and to agree—in return for the substantial aid Turkey will be receiving from the EU to deal with the refugees there—to a discreet European police presence working with their Turkish counterparts on the Syrian border. This won’t entirely solve the problem but it will help a great deal.

Third, this represents a huge failure on the part of the French intelligence services. For such a complex, coordinated sequence of terrorist attacks—and involving at least eight, and certainly more, persons—to happen in the heart of Paris, less than a year after the Charlie Hebdo–Hyper Cacher attacks and without the police or intelligence apparatus getting wind of it, is a debacle for the French state. And particularly in view of the reinforced Vigipirate deployment [France’s anti-terrorist alert system] since the attacks in January, with ever more soldiers in jungle fatigues with their machine guns—that may or may not be loaded (which would be incredibly stupid either way)—on the streets and transportation hubs. Vigipirate, like the TSA in the United States, is useless security theater almost exclusively designed to reassure the public. And it’s a huge waste of money and of the soldiers’ time and training; and, as we have seen, it can’t thwart a mega terrorist attack. But Vigipirate will, of course, only be reinforced. No president of the republic or prime minister will dare rethink, let alone scrap it.

Fourth, the reaction of the public to this attack is likely to be different from the ones in January of 2015. In the latter, there was a big rally the evening of the 7th at the Place de la République with the banner reading “Not Afraid.” People are now afraid. And then there was the “Je suis Charlie” and that was countered by the “Je ne suis pas Charlie,” by those who did not like Charlie Hebdo or identify with the January 11 marches—and this included a portion of France’s 4-plus million-strong Muslim population. There is no such cleavage now. Viewing the comment threads of two virulent, high-profile “Je ne suis pas Charlie”-type Facebook pages I follow has revealed a markedly different tone from what one normally gets from the fans—French Muslims and/or Maghrebis in their near totality—of those two pages—and particularly after the attacks last January. Even the more alienated, resentful members of that population are genuinely horrified by what happened last night and know that they are eventual targets of terrorism along with everyone else. In other words, Muslims in France must get off the fence and choose their camp. It goes without saying that, if presented with that choice, the huge majority will side with the West. As they say, it’s a no brainer.

As a reminder, on Thursday the Islamic State staged a terrorist attack in Beirut’s southern suburbs—the Dahiya—that killed over forty people. The Dahiya is entirely populated by Shi’ite Muslims and where state power is exercised by Hizbullah, not the Lebanese state. Ergo, the Islamic State death cult is as great a threat—when, concretely speaking, not more of one—to Muslims than it is to non-Muslims.

The fear level in France is going to increase, no doubt about it, as will the repressive capacity of the state (which results axiomatically when a country is “at war” (en guerre), as President Hollande and everyone else is now saying France is. And then I, personally, have to fear for—or at least worry about—how what has happened will affect my own life. I teach in programs for American university students in Paris, but if those students for next semester and beyond cancel their Paris plans en masse, then I will likely be out of a job come January (along with many other colleagues). That would suck. But then, what are my little problems compared with all those who were seriously wounded last night or who lost loved ones?

UPDATE: January 20, 2016

There has been considerable political fallout from the November 13 attacks. The French regional elections, which were held on December 6 and 13 (in two rounds), saw the far right-wing, anti-immigration National Front (FN), led by Marine Le Pen, score historic gains, winning 28 percent of the national vote in the first round (with a 50 percent voter participation rate)—up from the FN’s previous historic high of 25 percent in the 2014 elections to the European Parliament. One prominent academic specialist of French electoral politics attributed the 3 percent spike in the FN’s score to the November 13 attacks.

The first act of the government following the attacks—specifically, on the day after—was to decree a State of Emergency (état d’urgence) for the entire country. A State of Emergency, as spelled out in the law of April 1955—enacted during the Algerian War—may be decreed in the event of “imminent danger resulting from grave infringements to public order, or in the occurrence of events presenting, by their nature and seriousness, the specter of a public cataclysm” (all translations are my own). Article 36 of the constitution specifies that an “état de siège” may be decreed by the Council of Ministers—which is presided by the president of the Republic and prime minister—for a period of twelve days, with extensions subject to a majority vote by Parliament. And the Parliament did indeed vote for a three-month extension, and with near unanimity, on November 20. A State of Emergency allows, among other things, the prefect—the agent of the Ministry of Interior at the level of the département—to decree curfews in particular areas and to designate specific zones where movement of persons may be subjected to restrictions, and from which entry may be banned altogether to anyone “who seeks to hinder the action of the public authorities.” The Ministry of Interior may, moreover, temporarily close theaters, meeting halls, taverns, and other places where gatherings may take place (including places of worship), forbid street demonstrations and other public assemblies, authorize warrantless searches for private residences day and night, and subject the press and other media to control (i.e., censorship) should it so decide. Last but not least, the Minister of Interior may place under house arrest—and with no oversight from the judicial system—any person whose “activity has proven to be dangerous to security and public order.” In the law enacted by Parliament on November 20, this has been extended to any person “for whom there are serious reasons to think that his or her behavior may pose a threat to security or public order”; again, without any intervention from a judge. Indeed, in the ten days following the implementation of the State of Emergency, over one thousand persons were subjected to warrantless searches—with doors broken down by heavily armed SWAT-like teams and homes ransacked—though with almost no one arrested, close to three hundred persons placed under house arrest, and with three mosques shut down.

To call the State of Emergency legislation an infringement of the rule of law would be an understatement, as it would be to observe that President François Hollande and Prime Minister Manuel Valls were perhaps acting with haste and precipitation in the aftermath of the attacks. France was indeed traumatized by what happened on the evening of November 13—this was France’s 9/11—but one expects—or at least hopes—that those making decisions at the summit of the state will act with cool heads. Such has unfortunately not been in the case. On November 16, President Hollande addressed a joint session of Parliament, during which he declared that France was “at war” with “terrorism”—specifying the terrorism to be “jihadist”—which was at war not only with France but the whole world. One was reminded of the United States back in September 2001. Hollande went on to announce that he would request a modification of the constitution on two points, which was formalized by the Council of Ministers on December 23.

The first would be to constitutionalize the State of Emergency, thus rendering this much more difficult to modify via legislation, that is, for a future Parliament—comprised of elected representatives of the people—to circumscribe the powers of the state in the implementation of this exceptional measure—that is presently legislative, and thus open to amendment—and to repeal its liberty-undermining provisions. Hollande’s second proposal is the déchéance de nationalité—the stripping of French citizenship—of dual national French citizens born in France (emphasis added)—that is, natural born French citizens under the principle of jus soli—who are convicted of committing acts of terrorism. The French penal code already allows for the stripping of citizenship for naturalized French citizens who have committed treason and other heinous acts against the nation. But this measure—which has been applied all of three times in the past four decades—concerns those who acquired French citizenship through a voluntary act in the course of their adult lives, and who necessarily still possess their original citizenship (as France has never required that naturalized citizens renounce their citizenship of origin). Hollande is now proposing that it be extended to dual citizens who are French citizens at birth or became so at age eighteen based on jus soli. This has stunned his fellow Socialists, not to mention those further to the political left, as the déchéance proposal for dual citizens has long been an exclusive demand of the far right—of the FN—and which has been demagogically adopted in recent years by Nicolas Sarkozy and the hard-right portion of his Les Républicains (LR) party, as he strives to outflank Marine Le Pen on the immigration and national identity issues in order to lure back defecting right-wing voters. The entire French left, committed to a liberal conception of French citizenship—an integral component of the French republican model and inscribed in law since the late nineteenth century—has always combated far right attempts to undermine it. So the shock on the left is total.

Why has Hollande done this? Though he has said almost nothing about it since his November 16 address, his surrogates—including Prime Minister Valls—have insisted that the measure is purely symbolic, that it will only concern a minuscule number of persons—those convicted of committing terrorist acts—will admittedly not dissuade anyone of engaging in these despicable crimes, and is essentially intended to send a message to ISIS and other terrorists that we, France, mean business and will fight you. The unavowed, but manifestly obvious, audience to which the message is addressed is voters of the right, to appropriate an issue from the FN and hard-right flank of LR with the 2017 presidential campaign in view. Hollande is profiting, in effect, from a moment of intense national emotion and trauma to engage in base political triangulation, and, moreover, on an issue over which he and his advisors in the Elysée palace have not fully thought through, either juridically or politically. As mentioned above, the measure is impossible for many in Hollande’s party to accept (a US analogy would be a Democratic Party president in the United States speaking out against Roe v. Wade, or endorsing the NRA’s interpretation of the Second Amendment).

There are numerous objections to the déchéance measure, of which I will mention but two. One—and the most oft-cited—is that, in undermining a hallowed principle of the French republic, it symbolically—but also juridically—creates two categories of French citizens: those who are “pure” 100% French and those who are of immigrant origin—large numbers of whom, so it happens, from former, mainly Muslim colonies—who may be dual citizens through no doing of their own. The second—and over which less attention has been paid—is the circumstances under which French citizenship would be stripped from dual citizens. Hollande and his surrogates have said that it will only be in the extreme case of convictions for terrorism. The problem is, “terrorism” does not have a legal definition in France. Moreover, this is not the term that will be used in the constitutional amendment. The latter has yet to be formulated but the wording will, so it has been reported, likely be “gravely undermining the life of the nation” (atteinte grave à la vie de la nation).

This is imprecise, to say the least, both juridically speaking and otherwise. What on earth is “the life of the nation”? While the Socialists and other mainstream currents hugging close to the center of the political spectrum—which is precisely where the French Socialists are these days—may interpret this to mean terrorist acts such as the ones committed on November 13, but who is to say that a future government of the hard right, not to mention the FN, would not interpret such a constitutional provision otherwise, for “undermining the life of the nation” to include, say, clashing with police, or not publically singing “La Marseillaise,” or merely holding dual citizenship? The symbolism here is not only terrible but dangerous, and with possibly disastrous consequences for many French citizens in the future, not to mention the cohesion of the French nation, as the entire jus soli principle is undermined.

President Hollande’s proposed constitutional amendments will be formally debated by the Parliament—National Assembly and Senate—early next month. Both chambers will need to adopt the same amendment, which they must then ratify in a joint session and with a three-fifths majority. It is not a done deal. Most of the right will vote for it but there will be major defections on the left, including in Hollande’s camp. France will be riveted to the outcome. Stay tuned.