France’s Phony War on Islamic Terrorism

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Far-right candidate for France’s presidency Marine LePen (Photo: Sylvain Lefevre/Getty Images

In a speech to the French Congress (members of parliament and senators) on November 16, 2015, President François Hollande declared:

“France is at war, the actions committed are acts of war and constitute an aggression against our country.”

A year and a half after this speech, France is still at war and also in the midst of a presidential election campaign. One would expect that during a “wartime election” the main campaign issue would be the war, but this is not the case. In fact, few of the 11 candidates even refer to the fact that France is a country at war.

This is not surprising since there has been no declaration of war and there is no clearly identifiable enemy. France is participating in the international coalition against Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (operation Chammal) and is also fighting jihadist groups in Chad, Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso (operation Barkhane).

But the “war” referred to in Hollande’s address to Congress is not directly related to these military operations as the attacks carried out in France prior to his speech were perpetrated for the most part by French and Belgian citizens, although Islamic State did claim responsibility for some of them.

France’s reaction to the November 2015 attacks was to declare a state of emergency, but no enemy identified, other than the nebulous term “terrorism,” subsequently qualified as “radical Islamic terrorism.” The state of emergency enabled law enforcement to round up potential enemies, some of whom were imprisoned or placed under house arrest.

Such measures seem weak for a nation that has declared it is at war, especially if one compares them to the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, although no attacks had been committed by Japanese-Americans. Internment, or what the French euphemistically call “administrative retention” has been called for by some politicians, but has been ruled out as too extreme.

France is still under a state of emergency with military patrols and draconian security nationwide but the “war” is not a serious subject of debate in the election campaign, although security is. In fact, terrorism was a bigger issue in the 2016 US presidential election despite the fact that the U.S. has seen much fewer attacks in recent years than France.

Here is what the main candidates from left to right have proposed on the issue of terrorism:

  1. Philippe Poutou (New Anticapitalist Party, Trotskyist): Demilitarization of France; eradication of two drivers of terrorism: poverty and racism.
  2. Nathalie Arthaud (Workers’ Struggle, Trotskyist): End the state of emergency; overthrow capitalist imperialism, the root cause of terrorism.
  3. Jean-Luc Melenchon (Unsubjugated France, radical left coalition): End state of emergency by parliamentary vote; discontinue military patrols and replace with police patrols; increase anti-terrorist judiciary budget; restore national and local intelligence services (merged under Sarkozy administration); strip individuals responsible for funding terrorism of their civic rights.
  4. Benoît Hamon (Socialist Party): Set up an intelligence coordinator attached to the prime minister’s office; reinforce national intelligence resources.
  5. Emmanuel Macron (On the March, left of center): Set up a centralized agency to process intelligence data; set up dedicated prisons for foreign fighters.
  6. François Fillon (The Republicans, right of center): Deport convicted foreign terrorists; deport foreigners who pose a threat to national security; strip French jihadists of citizenship; dissolve Salafist and Muslim Brotherhood organizations; reform intelligence services to better combat terrorism; 30-year prison sentence for French citizens collaborating with the enemy.
  7. Jean Lasalle (Resist, right of center): Withdraw French forces from Middle East; focus on preventing terrorism originating in French ghettoes; set up a fourth army to fight cybercrime.
  8. Nicolas Dupont Aignan (France Upright, right-wing): Creation of a 100,000 strong National Guard to provide backup to military patrols; double intelligence budget; authorize off-duty law enforcement to carry weapons; set up special court to investigate and judge terrorist cases; prolong detention of terrorist suspects from 4 to 12 days; intern convicted terrorists after serving their prison sentence; compel all imams to sign a charter to prevent hate speech.
  9. Jacques Cheminade (Solidarity and Progress, right-wing): Reinforce intelligence services; 10,000 new prison places; six-month military/civic service; ban violent video games; severe penalties for consultation of jihadist websites.
  10. François Asselineau (People’s Republican Union, right wing): Increase defense budget to three percent of GNP; leave European Union and NATO; cease collusion with Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
  11. Marine Le Pen (National Front, hardline right wing): Reinforce fight against cyber-jihad; reinforce human and technological resources for domestic and external intelligence; ban and dissolve all entities linked to radical Islam; deport all foreigners linked to radical Islam; close down Salafist mosques; ban public funding of all mosques, prayer rooms and cultural centers; strip of French nationality and deport all dual citizens with links to jihadist networks; forfeiture of civic rights of all French citizens convicted of offenses linked to radical Islam.

With the exception of Marine Le Pen, none of the candidates are proposing policies commensurate with a country at war and even the measures she proposes, although they have the merit of identifying the enemy as not only foreign but domestic and not only political but ideological, seem restrained compared with those introduced by successive British governments during the Irish Republican Army campaign of the 1970s and 1980s.

The British government never declared war against the IRA, although the IRA declared war against England. Nevertheless, the government did introduce draconian legislation to counter and defeat the IRA. The main instrument in their arsenal was the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act of 1973.

The act gave sweeping powers to law enforcement. Not only was membership of a proscribed organization made an arrestable offense, but display of support for or attendance at a meeting of such an organization and even attendance at a meeting that was addressed by an organization  member was also an offense that carried a 10-year prison sentence. Exclusion orders were issued against suspects that restricted entry to or travel within the UK.

Individuals suspected of “the commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism” could be arrested without a warrant and held for up to 5 days without the benefit of legal protection normally granted to arrested persons. Law enforcement was given powers to conduct streamlined searches of persons and property.

Contributing, receiving, handling or soliciting funds or other resources for proscribed groups carried a 14-year prison sentence and this offense included failing to report any knowledge or suspicion of such support. The act also gave the authorities complete control of the media and broadcasting TV documentaries depicting IRA members and giving them a platform was made a criminal offense.

Other measures used by the British included internment without trial. Between 1971 and 1975 2,000 terrorist suspects were interned. The British Army occupied Northern Ireland from 1969 to 2007. Over 300 people were killed, including 160 civilians. Over a thousand British soldiers lost their lives. In addition to this conventional deployment, covert operations were carried out to kidnap and assassinate suspected paramilitaries.

At the peak of the conflict there were around 21,000 troops deployed for a population of 1.6 million. By way of comparison, there are currently 10,000 French soldiers deployed throughout France for a population of 66 million.

While it does not make much sense to compare the British “war” against the IRA with the French “war” on jihadists, one may yet conclude that the British took the conflict much more seriously than the French in their current “war” and deployed the necessary assets and legislation to defend the population and defeat the enemy.

The British were sufficiently pragmatic to understand that defeating the enemy required repression. The timorous approach of most candidates in the French presidential election does not augur well for the defense of France against the ongoing jihad being waged against it by foreign and domestic enemies.

It is true that fighting a war against an enemy driven by nationalism whose goal is the departure of an occupying army is a lot simpler than fighting a war against an enemy driven by religion whose goal is the establishment of a global caliphate. That being said, failure to understand the war and recognize who the enemy is entails the certainty of ultimate defeat.

The inability of French politicians to conduct the war may be compensated by the military. Back in 1992, the 8th infantry division executed maneuvers titled “recovery of the town of Roubaix from the control of Islamic militias.” In 1997, a similar training operation was carried out in Brignoles in the south of France.

Both Roubaix and Brignoles were and continue to be bastions of radical Islam. In June 2016, the French army set up COM TN (Land Command for National Territory) dedicated to anticipating and conducting operational engagement in the homeland — in other words, preparing for mass civil unrest and Islamic radicals taking control of the ghettoes.

In such a scenario the war referred to by François Hollande in his November 2015 speech to Congress will have revealed its true nature, not one carried out in a foreign theater but a civil war carried out at home.


Leslie Shaw is an Associate Professor at the Paris campus of ESCP Europe Business School and President of FIRM (Forum on Islamic Radicalism and Management).

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