French Leaders Fiddle as the Country Burns
French news reported this Thursday a terrorist attack in Nice, in the middle of town, in the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Nice. A man shouting “Allahu Akbar” assaulted several people, killing three, one of whom he almost decapitated—an old woman. Police shot and arrested the terrorist, then took him to a hospital.
Thus the morning—the mayor of Nice, Christian Estrosi, went to the scene and made strong statements against Islamofascism and called the terrorist attack an attack on Christianity, especially as it came before La Toussaint (All Saints’ Day, November 1, a public holiday in France). French President Emmanuel Macron flew to Nice and made his statement as well. The political ritual is complete—everyone said what was expected—unity and solidarity are the words of the day.
Terrorism and technology
The eminent politicians also posed with the alarm system—a box mounted on a pole—that allowed a witness to alert the police. M. Estrosi said this made police response significantly quicker; the system was installed after the horrible terrorist attack of July 14, 2016 (Bastille Day), which killed 86 and injured 434.
Estrosi in a radio interview insisted that laws, and even the Constitution, have to change in order to deal with the problem of Islamofascism. He explained that deportation of aliens must be made easier, but also that French citizens, if involved in terrorism, must be imprisoned in some special way. Further, that data protection laws must be changed to allow for more technological means to be brought to bear in the fight against terrorism. He also mentioned facial recognition technology and cameras.
This, of course, has nothing to do with the authority of a mayor—Mr. Estrosi referred to the momentum created by the shock of the terrorist attack to pass new laws. It is possible that he knows what he’s talking about and that French laws and attitudes to terrorism will change, though terrorism is far less deadly now than in previous years.
It’s easy to understand why the mayor is talking about needed changes. The BBC reports that the terrorist is a 21-year-old Tunisian, arrived by boat in Italy this September, where he was quarantined for coronavirus, then told to leave the country. He somehow arrived in France in October. Now, he’s a murderer. Administrative authorities failed at every step. The 2016 Nice terrorist was also Tunisian, working in Nice on a residential permit.
Perhaps no one knows how bad the problem of radicalization among young Muslim men is, or how bad the failure of French politics to deal with it is. It’s likely that the solution sought will be technological, as suggested above—anything else would be very controversial, both because of the French laws about the secular state (laicite) and because French elites are unable to even think coherently about the problem of Islamic terrorism.
Meanwhile, Thursday afternoon, in Lyon, a young Afghan man was arrested with a twelve-inch blade as he was trying to get on a tram. The man is reportedly known to French intelligence as having been radicalized. One of the district mayors of Lyon thanked the police for preventing another tragedy. Last year, in a Lyon train station, an improvised bomb attack wounded 14, and the terrorist was caught, a young Algerian man who had been two years in France by overstaying a tourist visa.
The murder of Samuel Paty
This terrible day comes after another, not two weeks back, when a French teacher, Samuel Paty, was murdered and decapitated in the street of a Paris suburb by a young Chechen Muslim for displaying caricatures of Mohammed in a class discussion of secularism. These are the caricatures for which the journalists of the publication Charlie Hebdo and others, including Jewish hostages in a deli, were murdered in 2015. That came after a previous firebombing of the publication’s offices in 2011.
The father of a girl in the school where Paty taught complained about the teacher showing these caricatures and even filed an official complaint alleging pornography—one of the caricatures portrays Mohammed naked. This went nowhere so instead he started stirring madness on social media, which proved much more influential, since he found an ally in an imam at a mosque in another suburb of Paris.
This is how the young Chechen man found out about the matter and traveled the 60 miles to Paris to become a murderer. After decapitating the teacher, he posted it on Twitter. He and his family had recently received a ten-year residency permit and refugee status. Again, French administration failed in a terrible way. One wonders what reforms might fix such a system.
Meanwhile, the French Ministry of the Interior closed the mosque for six months and arrested the imam, the father of the girl, and five others, including two minors who are accused of pointing out the teacher for murder. They are now facing trial, which should reveal important things about the relationship between Muslim communities in France and terrorism, social media, and mad young men.
At the beginning of September, the trial of the accomplices of the terrorists at Charlie Hebdo began, after months of delays caused by the coronavirus. Fourteen people are accused of having given logistical support to the three terrorists who murdered 17 people and injured more; three are tried in absentia because they fled France just before the attack. That attack, though it may have seemed a matter of chance at the time, proved to be only the beginning of the current wave of terror.
The three terrorists at Charlie Hebdo were French citizens, born to Algerian immigrants. They were known to authorities, had previously been arrested and condemned for terrorism, but again, administration simply failed. The mind boggles at suspending more than half a jail sentence for terrorism, but it seems to be routine in France. No doubt, bad technology is part of the problem, but one suspects authorities don’t want to solve the problem. We will see whether public and elite opinion change now, after hundreds of people have been murdered by terrorists.
This is the situation in France now, and it’s gone far past debates about freedom of speech or indeed teaching about the secular state in schools. The terror attacks show that neither Muslim communities nor French authorities take the problem very seriously. Perhaps this is because terrorism points to a very deep crisis in the regime.
Elites in France govern by their reputation for seriousness and incorruptibility, which is hard to understand in America, where damning politicians as incompetent is routine. But the same divide between popular and elite opinion exists there, and French elites are as likely to consider Frenchmen racist or fascist or xenophobic as American elites are to talk about white supremacy and systemic racism.
It’s becoming obvious that the beliefs elites need to hold in order to respect themselves and the beliefs the majority of the people need to hold in order to respect their elites are in conflict. One way or the other, this will change French politics, since populism, immigration policy, and state competence are all tied up with the politics of terrorism.
Titus Techera is the executive director of the American Cinema Foundation and a contributor to National Review, The Federalist, Law & Liberty, and Modern Age.