In comparison to the murderous years of 2015 and 2016, when terrorists killed more than 200 people in Paris and Nice and wounded hundreds of others, last week’s attack at the French capital’s police headquarters, in which four people died, was almost modest, if grim. The assault lasted all of seven minutes. The city wasn’t put on lockdown. And yet it may turn out to be France’s most dangerous attack yet, because it struck the heart of the French state.
Its perpetrator, a convert to Islam who was shot dead during the attack, was a computer technician with a security clearance and access to the confidential files of high-profile terrorism suspects. He bought a knife, went to his office, and murdered four of his colleagues. It was one act by one man, but it hints at a larger threat from many others.
Above all, the attack has contributed to a latent sense of unease here, a reminder, after years of relative calm, that the terrorist threat is still high; that the country is a semi-dormant volcano, one that could erupt at any time; that the state itself—embodied by the police department, on the Île de la Cité, just steps from Notre-Dame, the very center of Paris—is vulnerable to infiltration by rogue elements.
It’s sometimes easy to forget the spate of terrorism that occurred a few years ago. Restaurants are full; the scars aren’t so visible. Sure, people are less fragile, less vulnerable, maybe also less kind to strangers, the same way they were after the attacks of November 13, 2015, when sitting outside at a sidewalk café seemed like an act of defiance. Yet over the past year, since the “yellow-vest” protest movement began, the conversation has shifted from terrorism to questions of income inequality.
Still, France remains in a state of emergency, with the government warning of the high risk of a terrorist attack. In honoring the victims of the police-headquarters killings yesterday, French President Emmanuel Macron said that security forces had thwarted 59 terrorist attacks in the past six years, and that the country would continue to fight the “Islamist hydra,” a multiheaded monster. Security services have to be right every time, though—terrorists have to be right just once.
On national radio this week, France’s interior minister, Christophe Castaner, said he could not rule out that the attacker, a man whose job was to help protect France from terrorist attacks, had shared some of the confidential information to which he had access. Castaner defended himself against opponents calling for his resignation, and will be questioned by lawmakers this week.
The attack has caused a crisis of confidence in Macron’s government, Le Monde editorialized. The state has been “infected with the cancer of Islamism,” said the conservative daily Le Figaro, which also decried what it called “denial-Islam,” a play on words suggesting the government’s denial of militant Islam’s risks. The left-wing daily Libération wrote that if the attacker “had for several years calmly forwarded data from the Paris Police intelligence office to a nebulous jihadist, we would be facing a major security and political problem.”
The attacker was identified by French media as Mickäel Harpon, 45, born in Martinique, frustrated that his deafness might have hindered his advancement at work. After jihadists murdered 12 people and wounded others in an attack on the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo in January 2015, Harpon apparently told his colleagues that he “understood” the attackers. A complaint was filed against him over the remarks, but apparently nothing came of it. He reportedly frequented a mosque where a Moroccan-born imam routinely preached hate.
France’s police department “should examine its conscience,” Gilles Kepel, one of the country’s most prominent scholars of Islam and terrorism, told Le Figaro. When the attack took place, Kepel said, he was just blocks from the police headquarters, attending the trial of two women who in 2016 recorded a video swearing allegiance to the Islamic State and attempted to blow up a car filled with gas containers on a touristy street facing Notre-Dame—the street that houses Shakespeare and Company, the historic and much-beloved bookstore. Their plot backfired when the car didn’t catch fire, and they were arrested.
That trial, too, has contributed to the disquiet here, to the sense that the terrorist threat has gone underground but could roar back at any time. Right-wing commentators have thrived on this uneasiness. In the public conversation, no one has exploited this feeling of a latent risk—one that troublingly conflates all Muslims with jihadists—more than Éric Zemmour, one of France’s most prominent polemicists. Although French courts have convicted him of hate speech, he has a regular column in Le Figaro.
“Islamic universalism ... very cleverly takes advantage of our religion of human rights to protect its operation to occupy and colonize portions of French territory, which it is gradually transforming, by the sheer force of numbers and religious law, into foreign enclaves,” Zemmour said to rapturous applause last month at a far-right conference organized in honor of Marion Maréchal, the niece of Marine Le Pen, the head of the National Rally, France’s leading opposition party. Zemmour’s critics said he was inciting civil war. On the same day as Harpon’s attack, RTL, one of France’s leading private broadcasters, announced that because of his speech, it was ending its collaboration with Zemmour.
How will Macron handle all of this? Since taking office in the spring of 2017, he has largely been spared a major act of terrorism. But it has been a tumultuous time for the French police. They have been pushed to the limit trying to contain years of terrorist attacks, and more recently were focused on maintaining order during the yellow-vest protests, some of which became violent. (For this, they came under fire for incidents of police-inflicted violence on protesters.) The day of Harpon’s attack, the police were on strike, protesting poor working conditions and calling attention to a spate of suicides by police officers.
Yesterday France honored Harpon’s four victims: Aurélia Trifiro, 39; Brice Le Mescam, 38; Damien Ernest, 50; and Anthony Lancelot, 38. Their coffins lay in a row inside the police headquarters, and all of the victims were posthumously granted the Legion of Honor. There was a driving rain. Macron, looking tired, presided. His two predecessors, François Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy, stood by in silent homage.