This year's French National Day celebrations were held under 'haute surveillance'. And yet an Islamist mass murderer succeeded with another atrocity. Why, and what now? Some answers might be valid not only for France.
To be sure, the terrorist act in Nice on the evening of the 'Quatorze Juillet' had some distinct French characteristics. France is, together with the US, the most active member of the international coalition lined up against ISIS and is geographically speaking relatively close. It has a vast hinterland of young and frustrated Muslims, mainly of North-African origin. Its state doctrine of strict separation of church and state represents the antithesis to ISIS's pretense of creating god's kingdom on earth. Also, internal French structures of preventing and combating terrorism are still far from perfect.
However, the Nice attack has highlighted some aspects of Islamist terrorism which go beyond the national context of France. First, the question of how far protective measures of public events can and should go. Attending the different National Day festivities here in Paris, we got the impression of a pretty tight and efficient security blanket. To join one of the popular neighborhood parties, held traditionally on the eve of the Quatorze Juillet, and to access the day-time parade on the Champs Elysées and the evening concert with fireworks under the Eiffel Tower, we repeatedly had to pass through checkpoints where both bodies and belongings were screened as thoroughly as in airports, only less gruffly so.
Should, for example, the temporary pedestrian zones created for such event be secured by blocks of concrete weighing tons instead of the usual steel barriers, even if this would require installing hundreds such blocks and then removing them within hours? What about a truck attack, like the one in Nice, into crowds which invariably form in front of the first 'line of defence'? Celebrations for and with the public cannot be held in cages.
Thus it was with a certain amount of sadness and resignation that the political reactions to Nice were registered here. Contrary to the aftermath of the terrorist raid on Charlie Hebdo, and the 13 November attacks at the end of last year, there was no national joining of hands in France in defence of the Republic, neither physically nor symbolically this time.
The self-appointed head of the main opposition, former (and future?) President Sarkozy, attacked the government immediately and frontally for 'grave security lapses', while the rightist Marine Le Pen called for the immediate dismissal of the Home Minister and the resignation of the President. They may have miscalculated, as the public mood seems to tend more towards resignation than anger. The French Prime Minister's dictum that 'we have to live with terrorism' appears to be pretty much accepted reality, coupled with slowly rising defiance. The leading Anglophone 'Frenchologist' of the present, Simon Kuper, hits all the right notes for me, writing:
The French now live with the constant worry that the sky could fall on their heads. One glorious afternoon during the Euro 2016 football tournament, over a drink in Marseille's Old Port, the friend I was with half-joked: “Shall we go, before this terrace is raked with machinegun fire?”
If such a thing is possible, this might be the lone silver lining in the dark clouds of terrorism. Once they have gone over a certain limit of outrage, renewed acts of terrorism seem to evoke less, not more, public anger. Stiff upper lips are not confined to the British. They can appear in any democracy, regardless of much ballyhooed national traits.
Now, all of this does not amount to national unity, of course. A particularly fierce debate is raging in France as to the origins of radicalisation. Broken down from the Olympic heights of oratory, so cherished by the disciples of Descartes and Voltaire, the question is whether the root of all evil is more evident in sociological (disenfranchised youth turning radical) or in ideological (extremist Islam as a murderous tool) terms. The answer has some practical significance as to the emphasis of a successful fight against Islamic terrorism.
The mass murderer of Nice, however, provides few keys to a clear answer. A 'lone wolf' apparently, but following ISIS's terrorist handbook and having had contacts with Islamic acquaintances just before his terrible deed. No surprise here, so the French, and other governments will have to continue their dual approach: degrade ISIS to a point where any financial, logistical and even digital support for presumptive terrorists ceases, all the while improving the social and educational environment as well as the technological oversight of those who could potentially become homegrown terrorists.
Particular attention must be paid to religious teaching and practice, which will have to be supervised and controlled much more closely in the many European countries with a growing number of Muslim citizens. The aim will have to be the replacement of Islam imported from its heartland and too often tainted by Salafist poison with an Islam taught, practiced and lived according to the custom and the law of the land.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user Selene Verri