France after the Paris attacks

2 décembre 2015
In this interview for European Geostrategy Daniel Fiott talks to Olivier de France, Research Director at the French Institute for International Relations and Strategy (Institut de relations internationales et stratégiques, IRIS), about how various elements of French society are reacting to the 13 November Islamic State attacks on Paris.

Two weeks after the attacks in Paris, what do you make of the reaction of the country?

There was a discernible difference between the reaction of the French public and the reaction of the politicians in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, which has subsided now. The population broadly speaking, including the Parisians, reacted with more unity and dignity than the political class, and frankly with a deeper sense of the actual scale and repercussions of these attacks. The unruly showing of the opposition party (Les Republicains) before Francois Hollande’s speech in the Assemblée nationale on Monday 16 November was a poor political move. They heckled the Justice Minister before she spoke and stayed seated when homage was paid to policemen and teachers. Despite Hollande taking pains to include Nicolas Sarkozy in the discussions in the wake of the attacks on Saturday, the leader of the opposition immediately criticised the President and the Left for being too lax. The former president appears to have lost credit by seeking immediate political gain whereas Alain Juppé, his main political rival in the opposition party, has won some back by remaining calm and measured. The final Marseillaise in Assemblée nationale on Monday 16 partly papered over these divisions, and more unity was shown subsequently, culminating in the ceremony last Friday 27 at Les Invalides.

What about the executive?

Francois Hollande in my mind has been able to navigate the public’s concerns very well. He has found the correct tone and balance between being ‘protective’ and being firm. He was reactive – as he was in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo tragedy – but also calm in his public discourse. He was ‘l’homme d’Etat’, and then he was ‘le president diplomate’ last week. He is ticking all the diplomatic boxes: bilateral (United Kingdom, United States, Russia, Germany last week), United Nations solidarity (UN Security Council resolution) and European Union solidarity (the ‘mutual assistance clause’ or ‘article 42.7’) to build a coalition. He is tapping all the good will he can tap in the current context, and rightly so. It will be precious capital he can use down the road when national interests creep through the current political consensus.
In contrast, Prime Minister Manuel Valls has not quite managed to find his tone – he has remained martial and strident throughout. His mention of potential chemical attacks in Parliament two weeks ago was an unnecessary addition to an already tense debate, as was the way he criticised the EU for accepting too many refugees last week. The Front National has stayed very silent, as in the wake of Charlie, because it does not need to do otherwise. Events are playing right into the hands of Marine Le Pen. It remains to be seen if the upcoming regional elections will show mobilisation around liberal democrat values, including amongst people who would not usually vote, if they produce a further swing to the far-right, or a stalemate. The double act between the President and the Prime Minister on security matters could be the result of an implicit division of labour to square a complicated circle: stemming the swing to the right and far-right, without alienating the moderates attached to the liberal democratic model.

How much public support is there for how France has reacted on the international stage?

French society broadly does not shirk from using military force, and is not quite as jaded by war fatigue as Anglo-Saxon societies have been in recent few years. This makes it easier for the media to demand retaliation as a short-term catharsis, and easier for Francois Hollande to provide it. Naturally, it would have been untenable politically and historically for Hollande to do nothing – increased intervention in Syria fills this vacuum for the time being, and fulfils an expectation from the media and the population.
It is a trifle more difficult to see the long-term consequences. No one has a magic wand for Syria, and the eventuality of a political solution is vague and hypothetical at best. Most people understand this, and also that political leaders do not necessarily have all the tools to solve the problem. Thus short-term intervention is unlikely to drown a longer-term feeling of helplessness with regard to providing a political solution.
Concerns about overreaction have been drowned out for the moment by the scale of the events. There have been concerns voiced about the state of emergency and the ‘bavures’ it has occasioned, about the security state and about a French ‘Patriot Act’. In contrast, the way the President has pitted the ‘security pact’ against the European ‘stability pact’ was unlikely to ruffle any feathers at home, but may spell some trouble further down the line. These will remain subdued until the mood has settled.
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