France and terrorismNo time to heal
It’s just before midnight; this particular 13 November is about to draw to a close. On the Boulevard Voltaire, two young men sit on the pavement in silence, propped up against each other. In front of them, outside the door of the Bataclan club, the candles are burning again. The evening marked the sixth anniversary of the attack on the concert hall, on the Stade de France, on the bars in northeastern Paris. A young woman walks past the men, stops for a moment, searches out their gaze and asks: "Ça va?" They nod. Yes, we’re alright. But in actual fact, this simple "Ça va?" is the big question this autumn: is everything really ok?
During the course of this 13 November 2021, the French Prime Minister and the Mayor of Paris laid wreaths at scenes of the attacks, U.S. Vice-President Kamala Harris brought a bouquet of white roses to the Bar Le Carillon, the chairman of the victims’ association gave a speech. But as night fell, grief was hijacked by a rabble-rousing spirit. Presidential hopeful Eric Zemmour summoned the journalists who had been following him everywhere that day to the doors of the Bataclan.
The last time live pictures from the Bataclan were broadcast on French television, 130 people had just been murdered. Now, six years on, a man who used to be a newspaper columnist and is now a right-wing politician stands there, saying: "Francois Hollande didn’t protect the French and made the criminal decision to leave the borders open."
As survivors of the terror attacks described Zemmour as a "grave desecrator", exploiting the dead for his political ends, things really kicked off. In the place where battles tend to be thrashed out these days, on Twitter. Survivors and the bereaved, reporting on social media from the current Bataclan trial since September, came under massive fire. "Carry on, light your candles, get massacred, you losers." "You leftist victims are just living off our taxes." And: "If anything is unseemly, then it’s not the instrumentalisation of the attacks, but their privatisation by victims’ relatives who presume to turn a belligerent attack into a family matter."
Conservative presidential candidate promises a French Guantanamo
But you don’t need spend much time lurking on Twitter to see that in France, the terror discussion has descended even further into the realms of the crass and the crude. In a television debate last week, Eric Ciotti – another presidential hopeful representing the conservative Republicains – promised a French Guantanamo. Equating terror with migration has become the consensus, even beyond the right-wing political camp. As if such families like that of the well-known jihadist Fabien Clain, born a Catholic in Toulouse and who died as Abou Adam Al-Faransi in Syria, did not exist.
As though the Charlie Hebdo murderers, the Kouachi brothers, hadn’t grown up and attended school in France. The idea that the series of terror attacks afflicting France since 2012 is a complex blend of domestic problems and globally networked Islamism, has been turned into something much simpler. Terrorism has become the problem of others, something dragged in.
If you compare the recently launched election campaign with that of 2017, the first thing you notice is just how much more bitter, hard-nosed and emotional the debates have become. When Emmanuel Macron entered the Elysee Palace in 2017, many saw it as a hopeful sign. After all, the voters’ experience of Macron was a rare one in contemporary France: he exuded confidence. Two years after the traumatic terror attacks of 2015, on Charlie Hebdo and the Bataclan, Macron didn’t talk about danger and isolation, but about innovation and awakening. It was as though he was 'nevertheless' personified, a political version of the determination not to allow issues to be dictated by terror.
And now? The fight against terror and criminality are up there with the most important issues of the campaign, for which there’s only one solution – from the far right to the centre of the spectrum: a more hardline response. Little attention is being given to the matters of unemployment, climate change or structural reforms. There is barely anything left of this nevertheless, of this carrying on, as though the terror attacks were a test that can be overcome, if only we stand firmly together. This past summer, the French regarded the German election campaign with astonishment. Where were the debates on immigration and identity, subjects dominating talk shows every evening west of the Rhine?
There are many reasons why current French debating culture feels like that of pub regulars who are already on their fifth round. We can point to the television landscape, in which rolling news channels always prefer to talk to those who stamp their feet the loudest. Or to social networks, where opinions are formed in battleground mode, somewhere between good and evil. Also, to the fact that people are losing faith in elections, politicians and traditional institutions. But there’s something else wafting through all the usual theories. Something that’s more difficult to grasp. And that is the poison that has seeped into society with every attack.
French society never had time to recover
Opinion pollsters are especially fond of gauging national levels of happiness. In 2017, in the year after the truck attack on the Berlin Christmas market, there was nothing Germans feared more than further attacks. In 2019, before the start of the pandemic, they had overcome this fear: "Germans as carefree as 25 years ago", read one Spiegel Online headline. A society can regain some equilibrium if it is allowed the time to do so.
Terrorists have been denying France that opportunity since 2012. The Paris attacks on Charlie Hebdo and the Bataclan left the deepest scars. But terrorists also struck twice in Nice: 86 dead on the promenade in 2016, in 2020 three murdered Christians in the basilica. Many attacks were quickly forgotten outside France: the murders in Trebes, in Strasbourg, in Marseilles, in Villejuif, in Rambouillet, in Magnanville, in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray, on the Champs-Elysees, at the Paris opera house. And finally, the murder of Samuel Patys on 16 October 2020 – an attack on the heart of the Republic, on its schools.
Sociologist Michel Wieviorka is one of the leading terror specialists in France. "The fact that the attacks haven’t stopped in France means that terror has been able to develop long-term consequences," says Wieviorka. "Terrorism has ramped up the desire for authoritarian measures and a yearning for authoritarian figures. Tolerance has declined."
The huge international solidarity in the wake of the attack on Charlie Hebdo, the massive anti-terror demos in Paris – Wieviorka views these as exceptional moments the impact of which has now faded. "In 2015 there was the illusion of a national unity, infused with sympathy and emotionality. But this unity didn’t last, it was replaced by political discord. And in place of the international solidarity the old geopolitical conflicts reappeared." Wieviorka is careful not to blame the increasingly shrill law-and-order rhetoric on the terror attacks alone. But he believes not enough is being said about the corrosive power that terror can exert on coexistence. Beyond the question of threat level. "The initial resilience of society has developed to the extent that everything is labelled a migration problem," says Wieviorka.
Armed soldiers in downtown areas are now part of the new normal
In Berlin, Jacob Ross observes the French debates for the German Council on Foreign Relations. "The problem is that many of the issues that essentially touch on the roots of terror were neglected for a long time. So now right-wingers can present themselves as taboo breakers and their radical positions sound like a truth that no one dared to speak," says Ross. As a result, questions that should be subjected to rational debate, such as the place of religion in mixed communities, have become trench warfare. "Terror has divided society, giving people like Zemmour the means to consolidate his election campaign."
The French have had to get used to a lot of things since 2015, including bag checks before entering stores or public buildings and the presence of armed soldiers in town and city centres. The French have also grown accustomed to hearing that French soldiers die in Mali as part of the war on terror. And when sweeping generalisations are made, eyeing all Muslims as potential terrorists, the voices of outrage aren’t as frequent or as loud as they once were. Zemmour didn’t need any attacks to become a racist. He’s been claiming for more than 20 years that immigrants – a group that also includes his own parents – will bring about France’s downfall.
The question is not what exactly Zemmour is ranting about again, but why so many are listening. And why last June a left-wing politician like Jean-Luc Melenchon felt he should blather conspiratorially about attacks being conjured out of the hat to exclude Muslims and bring the right to power. As if the Left's only solution to Islamist terror were to play it down.
If you believe Wieviorka, a powerful counter movement to the terror populists has already begun to form. And it’s happening in the courtroom. "The Charlie Hebdo trial last winter and now the Bataclan trial are showing that we can react to terror constructively and as a constitutional state." In both trials, statements from survivors and the bereaved occupied a large space: "Fifty years ago, an acknowledgement of the victims’ suffering would have been inconceivable." And although the trials cannot heal such deep wounds – they can help soften the resulting callouses. By giving society the chance, through information and reconstruction, to understand what happened to it. And what is still happening.
© Suddeutsche Zeitung 2021
Translated from the German by Nina Coon