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Why does France keep getting attacked? Jason Burke


(Publicado originalmente en The Guardian el 15 de julio de 2016)

So once again, there will be the tricolour flag projected on buildings around the world, a hashtag expressing solidarity with France, and declarations of sympathy.

There will also be the question: why is France suffering a wave of extremist violence that is more intense – certainly more lethal – than any other seen in the west since the 9/11 attacks almost 15 years ago?

Though it is still unclear if the driver of the truck in Nice was linked to any broader network or organisation – prosecutors on Friday said only that his actions were in line with an Isis call to action – his attack is a grim reminder of the bloodshed on Paris just months ago. 


One reason that France is a particular target is down to a specific decision by Islamic State to target it. In September 2014, shortly after the beginning of airstrikes by a US-led coalition which includes France, the chief spokesman for Isis, Mohammad al-Adnani, singled out the “spiteful French” among a list of enemies in a speech calling for the group’s sympathisers to launch attacks across the west.

Undoubtedly, the role France has historically assumed as standard bearer of western secular liberalism has also put the nation in the spotlight. Islamic extremists may see the US as a source of moral decadence and economic exploitation, but France is seen as an atheist power which is both defending western ideals such as human rights, free speech and democracy and, in the eyes of jihadis, trying to impose them on the Islamic world.

We know from interrogations of Isis returnees that the group started planning strikes in France even before it seized the Iraqi city of Mosul and declared a caliphate in 2014.

The first big militant attack in France in recent years came earlier however, in 2012, and targeted soldiers and the Jewish community. The next major attack was against the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical magazine which had published controversial cartoons of the prophet Muhammad, deemed insulting by many Muslims. Then came November’s Isis-organised strike against a concert hall, bars and a football stadium – all representative of French life. Finally there is an attack on Bastille Day, with all the history and values it represents.

Successive governments in Paris have also taken a hard – and much publicised – line on issues such as the wearing of full-body coverings and the veil in public, which has been well noted by Islamic militants. So has the increasingly prominent French military role overseas. French forces have made a series of interventions in the Islamic world in recent years – in Libya, in Mali, where its troops rolled back one of the most successful Islamic militant offensives outside Syria or Iraq for many years, and of course in the coalition against Isis.

Other reasons for the violence are rooted in grave problems within France itself which have made the nation vulnerable.
Some of these are failings of the fragmented, bureaucratic and still under-resourced security services. A French parliamentary investigation into last year’s terrorist attacks on Paris highlighted a “global failure” of French intelligence and called for the creation of a single, US-style national counterterrorism agency.


All the extremists involved in the attacks had been previously flagged to authorities, the investigation found. Some had past convictions, or were under judicial surveillance in France or in Belgium when they struck Paris.
A recruitment push aimed at boosting the numbers of French spies was started late, at the end of 2014, and is only now beginning to show results, not least due to the time taken to find and then train new staff.


But France’s security also depends on structures at a European level – which have been repeatedly found wanting. Last years’ attacks in Paris and those in Belgium in March highlighted the yawning gap between the capabilities of the continent’s security services and the gravity of the new threat created by the conflict in Syria. Intelligence sharing had not, experts say, kept up with the new dangers posed by freedom of movement within much of the expanded EU. 

The cutting edge of this threat is of course the European nationals who have travelled to fight with Isis or, to a lesser extent, other similar militant outfits. There are now estimated to be more than 600 French citizens or residents currently in Syria or Iraq, of which 400 are fighters.

This does not put France – despite its substantial Muslim population – in the top rank of source countries for fighters, but nonetheless it means there is a big pool of potential attackers on which Isis could draw. Those responsible for the Paris attacks in November were French or Belgian citizens drawn from camps in Syria run by Isis and sent back into Europe. The driver of the truck in Nice was not reportedly known to the security services, only to local police for a series of violent offences and thefts.

France has a history of Islamic extremism reaching back decades. The 1990s saw two waves of attacks. One was linked to the bloody civil war between authorities and extremist groups in the former colony of Algeria. A second involved homegrown militants in the north of France who evolved a particular brand of terrorism mixing armed robbery and jihadism.

Like other western European nations, France imported large numbers of labourers from former or existing colonies to help with post-war reconstruction, without considering that they would stay, or that they would bring their families to join them. The integration of the resulting communities posed challenges all over the continent, but they were particularly acute in France, not least because of the violence and trauma of the Algerian war of independence. In recent years, as elsewhere in Europe and the Islamic world, rigorous and intolerant strands of Islamic observance have made inroads, as well as, more recently, a new, debased, ultra-violent “gangsta Jihad” culture attractive to a young and often marginalised constituency.

Almost all those involved in violence in France in recent years have had similar profiles – aged between 18 and 36, often with a record of involvement in petty crime, known to police if not security services, often served jail sentences, from backgrounds which if not poverty-stricken were far from wealthy, and with insecure, temporary or poorly paid jobs.
The “banlieues” or suburbs where many such men grew up or live are often physically and culturally isolated from more wealthy, integrated neighbourhoods. They are certainly very distant from the France of wine and charcuterie, chateaux and cheese. This gap has not been closed by the French policy of “assimilation” rather than multi-cultural integration into the supposedly secular republique, and has, critics say, created fertile ground for polarisation.


And this may be a final reason why Isis has focused on France. The group has been heavily influenced by both millennial thinking, which stresses the imminent final battle between the forces of belief and unbelief, as well as jihadi strategic thinking, which encourages extremists to use violence to destabilise states or nations to allow their eventual conquest.
Isis thus seeks to terrorise its enemies and mobilise its supporters but above all polarise those communities, which might then turn against one another. In its literature it has specifically pointed to France as a place where “the grey zone” of tolerance and moderation can be usefully targeted and destroyed.


Some observers in France have said the nation has been brought closer together by the recent violence. Not all agree. Patrick Calvar, head of the French Direction Générale de la Sécurité Interieure, recently warned that his country was “on the brink of a civil war between rightwing and Islamist extremists”.

“Extremisms are rising everywhere and … this confrontation, I think it will happen. One or two more attacks, and we will see it,” Calvar said last month.

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