The Fragile French Republic

The country’s politics are beset by a unique anxiety that the entire system could collapse. Why?

Monument à la République, Paris (baraa_kell / Flickr)

PARIS —There was indeed a period of public mournfulness here, but it did not last long. The bars and cafés are filled once again with chatter and cigarettes; subway-riders have returned to unabashed discourtesy. At local bookshops, A Moveable Feast, Hemingway's memoir of a bohemian life in the French capital in the 1920s, is suddenly in great demand. The French title is a declaration: Paris est une fête—“Paris is a feast,” or more colloquially, “Paris is a party.” Among Parisians, one senses a quiet resolve to fall back into routines and social habits, not only because they must, but because they should, and can—because the so-called Islamic State is not, of course, an existential threat to Paris or to France, unless the French choose to give themselves over to hysteria, and to treat it as if it were.

And yet the policy response seems to reflect exactly this, less confident, stance. The choice is unfortunate but unsurprising; any democratic government, trapped by electoral calculus and the felt imperative of immediate action, might be expected to do the same. Yet French authorities have been particularly alarmist, opting for a response that is both notably bellicose and notably heedless of civil rights. They have retaliated with bombing raids in Raqqa, with calls to close French mosques and deport more radical preachers, and with the declaration of a three-month state of emergency that has already allowed for more than 1,000 warrantless police searches, 165 warrantless arrests, and the placement under house arrest, without judicial approval or the possibility of legal recourse of any kind, of more than 250 people. There have been serious calls for the internment of the thousands of people listed by the intelligence services as possible threats; Prime Minister Manuel Valls has declared himself open to the possibility.

Perhaps these choices were truly necessary; unfortunately, unless the government chooses to reveal the intelligence information that motivated them, there will be no way to know. What is certain, however, is that such responses are of precisely the sort the Islamic State sought to provoke. “What IS wants is to set off civil war,” pitting Muslims against their would-be oppressors in the West, said Gilles Kepel, the political scientist and specialist in jihadist thought, in an interview with Le Monde. At worst, France's draconian responses will beget a fresh cohort of alienated, angry French terrorists; at best, they will be propaganda fodder for ISIS's recruiters, who will present them as further evidence of France's hypocrisy, its willingness to apply its fundamental values variably, and its alleged oppression of Muslims.

France is now a top target of international jihad, having perhaps eclipsed even the “Great Satan” of the United States. It is easily accessible to jihadists with European passports—many hundreds of them French—and is a nation-symbol of secular enlightenment, with a notoriously fraught and, some would say, hostile approach to Islam. But its specific political culture and national mythology also make it particularly susceptible to the trap ISIS has laid for it. A history of political upheaval and collapse seems to have instilled in the country’s political leaders the conviction, even in times of political calm, that France’s Republican project is terribly fragile. This alleged fragility can impose a sort of permanent defensiveness, a siege mentality that treats criticism as treachery and the admission of failure as an “anti-Republican” threat to the nation’s very survival. As elsewhere, moments of crisis tend not to bring analysis and adaptation, but retrenchment; in France, that tendency is particularly pronounced, exacerbated and legitimated by a long political tradition.

“Anxiety” over the survival of the Republican model, a collective project that from its start has sought to impose national unity, and uniformity, from on high, is indeed “hard-wired into French Republicanism,” said the historian Emile Chabal. The result, he said, is that “there is a much greater fear in France than elsewhere that people will not toe the line,” that they will not endorse the country’s values and mores unless obliged by law. This fear began at the Revolution, Chabal said, and ran through a tumultuous 19th century: The Republican model was twice jettisoned, twice readopted and constantly under threat, be it from monarchists, the Catholic Church, or leftist insurrection. In the 20th century, the country faced what Chabal deemed “attacks on its own territorial and social identity” of a sort uncommon in Europe; the Nazi occupation and the Vichy regime remain a source of deep shame and political confusion here, as does the brutal Algerian war of independence, in which France’s colonial subjects effectively turned Republicanism against the French, demanding for themselves the freedom and equality it nominally guaranteed. The current constitution, that of what is known as the Fifth Republic, dates from 1958, when an attempted putsch by several French generals in Algiers effectively brought Charles de Gaulle to power and brought down the Fourth. Given this history, modern French politics is informed by the conceit, however far-fetched now, that “there’s something there that can bring down the whole edifice,” Chabal said. When successful, terrorism serves to reveal the weaknesses of that edifice, and can thus be viewed as one such threat.

“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.

Laurentin, the historical journalist, found it striking that the November 13 killings have been so often described by politicians and journalists as “an attack on our way of life,” he said, “as if the way of life of the cafés of the 10th arrondissement represented the way of life of all of France.” This reflex speaks to a Republican “fantasy of unity,” he said, a wish to “recreate, in an almost imaginary way,” a uniformity that has never existed here. The tendency began at the Revolution, with efforts to eradicate the various regional patois and impose French, for instance; the same instincts were at work in January, after the Charlie Hebdo killings, when “being Charlie” became a social responsibility incumbent, it seemed, upon every faithful Frenchman.

Hollande ended his address with a promise to “eradicate” terrorism. “Terrorism will not destroy the Republic,” he declared, “because the Republic will destroy terrorism.” He spoke from the Château de Versailles, amid the seized glories of a king beheaded by the Republicans who deposed him. “French Republicanism has for a very long time had a very martial strain within it,” said Chabal, the historian. He suspected that Hollande’s speech was “necessary hyperbole,” a political calculation intended simply to rally the country. “If the French people actually respond to his rhetoric, then he could have a problem,” Chabal said. Hollande’s choice of dire terms is surely to be understood in the context of a long French political tradition. In matters of jihadist terror, that same tradition has not in recent years served the country particularly well.