“The fear of collapse is something constant within French society,” the historical journalist Emmanuel Laurentin told me, and it is felt that moments of crisis “always create the possibility of regime change.” In addition to the universal tendency among politicians, then, there exists a particular French urgency to the avoidance of criticism.
Thus Bernard Cazeneuve, for instance, who as interior minister oversees France’s principal intelligence services, could insist last week that the November 13 killings had revealed no failure in the French counterterror apparatus, despite the fact that at least nine young extremists, many of them French and many of them known to that apparatus, were able to infiltrate Paris with an arsenal of black-market assault rifles and murder 130 people. “I’d like to ask anyone who’s proceeded sometimes with dicey commentary, or tried to create polemics, to look at the facts,” Cazeneuve said last week. “This attack was prepared and organized by cells which are outside the national territory, and mobilized individuals who were not known to our services.” This statement was intended, apparently, as a defense of those services’ fine work. (Cazeneuve added that, in fact, some of the attackers were known to French authorities, but only for their apparent religious extremism, “not for their involvement in activities of terrorist character.”)
Since March 2012, when a 23-year-old Franco-Algerian jihadist killed seven people in shootings in and around Toulouse, the French have adopted a series of laws meant to bolster a counterterror system that was already, for the extensive powers it afforded investigators, judges, and the intelligence services, the envy of governments the world over; this past summer, following the killings at Charlie Hebdo and a kosher grocery in January, the legislature approved a major expansion in authorized electronic surveillance practices. It is not clear, however, that any of these new powers have been of particular help in preventing terrorism. “Running against all logic, be it economic or industrial, against the most elementary intellectual rigor, we’ve decided to considerably reinforce the means afforded to structures that have been found to be heavily lacking,” Jacques Raillane, a former French diplomat and intelligence specialist, wrote last week in a blog hosted by Le Monde. Cazeneuve, the interior minister, apparently does not intend to see the efficacy of the counterterror system “challenged by facts,” Raillane wrote. “After all, facts are so 20th century, and criticism is such a sign of an anti-national posture.”
About 2,000 French citizens or residents are thought by the French government to be involved in the Syrian jihad in various capacities from recruitment to actual fighting, more than from any other European nation; there seems to be little appetite for an examination of possible reasons for this, or of possible long-term solutions. (It should be noted that France does have what is generally thought to be Western Europe’s largest Muslim population, though France doesn’t keep official numbers.) Many public officials seem to believe that France is just unlucky. The possibility that the country’s particular approach to Islam, or the integration of its post-colonial underclass, or the poor concrete neighborhoods of the banlieues, might contribute in some way to this sad phenomenon has not been the subject of any serious political debate since the start of the Syrian conflict. “We know it, and it’s cruel even just to say it, it was French who killed other French on Friday,” President François Hollande acknowledged before legislators last week. Yet he made no effort to interrogate or explain that reality, saying simply: “We must thus protect ourselves, urgently and in the long-term.” He spoke of police operations, and the state of emergency he’d decreed.