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A French war on terror?

Reactions to the Paris shootings show France is looking outward

November 18, 2015 2:00AM ET

The city of Paris has a motto: “Fluctuat nec mergitur.” It means “tossed by the waves but unsunk,” roughly equivalent to the English “bloody but unbowed.” In the wake of the attacks that killed at least 129 people and wounded scores more last Friday, signs bearing the Latin phrase have cropped up all around the Place de la République, the center of the neighborhood in which the terror attacks were concentrated.

The words are brave — but what mood do they convey? And will that elusive mood prove more durable than the illusory unity implied by “Je Suis Charlie,” the motto that became ubiquitous after the attacks on satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo last January?

Those attacks, while shocking, provided a satisfying ending. Hostages were freed, the perpetrators were killed, and the dead were mourned by vast numbers of people in one of the largest demonstrations in French history. In January, France searched its soul. Politicians and citizens alike worried about the effects of residential segregation, employment discrimination, unequal schooling and prison-cell indoctrination. How had the suburbs become breeding grounds for homegrown terrorists? How had two wards of the state, the Kouachi brothers, become its implacable enemies?

But the initial professions of unity that followed the Charlie Hebdo incident quickly proved ephemeral. Politicians soon returned to blaming one another for intelligence gaps, security lapses, failing schools, lawless ghettos and lax border controls. Little was done to remedy the social ills invoked as causes of youthful alienation and radicalization. Behind the scenes, French officials were lucid about the likelihood of further attacks. One senior official assured me privately last February that more attacks were not just likely but certain. There were simply too many known radicals, too ready access to weapons and too many potential targets.

Something was bound to happen, and it did.

This latest atrocity is unlikely to provide any comparable sense of closure. At least one of the perpetrators remains at large. France is now officially at war with the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which has claimed responsibility for the attacks (although it remains unclear exactly what ISIL’s role was).

And this time the immediate reaction has been quite different: It’s angrier, more resolute and more outward-facing. After Charlie Hebdo, France expanded the purview of its domestic intelligence services while implausibly denying that it was enacting anything like the U.S. Patriot Act. Almost immediately after the Friday 13th attack, President François Hollande announced a major bombing raid on ISIL’s “capital,” Raqqa, in Syria. The French president did not shrink from embracing the rhetoric of a “war on terror,” à l’américaine, even as he was careful to differentiate between targeted “jihadis” and innocent civilians. But bombs falling on cities cannot be so discriminating.

The risks of French intervention in Syria are obvious, and the French made it clear long ago that they were willing to run them. President Barack Obama, who remains cautious about a full-on intervention, nevertheless says he will stand with the French, and in a document leaked to the German magazine Der Spiegel, Russian President Vladimir Putin has indicated that he may be willing to sacrifice his Syrian ally Bashar al-Assad if that is what it takes to consolidate a coalition of powers against ISIL. France seems ready for an accommodation with Russia.

The question of political Islam has become for the twenty-first century what Sartre said Marxism was for the twentieth: the ‘unsurpassable horizon’ of our time, and not just for the United States.

Thus Friday the 13th appears to have triggered a profound change in the positions of the major powers. It has also accelerated changes within France itself. In an extraordinary joint session of the National Assembly and Senate, President Hollande called for revision of two articles of the French Constitution dealing with emergency powers and “the state of siege.” The first of these, Article 16, deals with “grave and immediate” threats to the “institutions” of the Republic and the “integrity” of French territory. The president contends that existing emergency powers are “ill-adapted” to the fight against terrorists equipped with modern technology, yet the existing Article 16 provides that government authorities should promptly be granted all “means necessary to accomplish their mission.” How can such a sweeping set of emergency powers be expanded?

Former President Nicolas Sarkozy has proposed a law authorizing the government to place under house arrest individuals suspected of terrorist associations and named in a so-called Fiche S, or security file maintained by one of the domestic intelligence services. Hollande has referred this idea to the Council of State for a ruling on its legality.

When similar proposals were made after the January attacks, opposition to them was robust. That is not the case this time around. The mood in France has clearly changed and now resembles the mood in the United States after September 11. The pressure to act is irresistible.

The terror attacks will loom large in December’s regional elections as well, but it is hard to predict what the effect will be. Marine Le Pen’s Front National had been doing well in the polls. Even before the attacks, she seemed likely to win at least one and possibly as many as three regions, and Hollande’s Socialist Party seemed on the verge of another severe shellacking with potential consequences of the party’s viability. The refugee crisis provided Le Pen with ammunition to attack the government for failing to control the country’s borders, even though France has accepted only a tiny fraction of the refugees, most of whom have preferred Germany — in part because the anti-immigrant sentiment that the Front National represents is much more potent politically in France.

Now, the possibility that at least one of the attackers passed through Greece with a group of refugees and that the alleged mastermind of the attack, Abdel Abaaoud, escaped to Syria after a police raid in Belgium has added to calls for reinforced border controls throughout Europe. It’s still worth keeping in mind that the tide was shifting even before the attacks. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the most outspoken defender of open borders in Europe, has been losing ground within her own party, as Germany finds itself increasingly unable and unwilling to cope with the influx of refugees.

Meanwhile, refugees continue to flee ISIL, which President Hollande has now declared to be France’s global enemy number one. In the short run, the plight of the refugees is likely to get worse; in the long run, some of them may even wind up being recruited in the fight against ISIL, which could, in turn, earn them a warmer European welcome. It is still too early to predict what direction all these swirling and contradictory currents in both Europe and the Middle East will ultimately take, but Friday the 13th will very likely be remembered as a turning point in the West’s response to Islamist terror. What’s clear is that the question of political Islam has become for the twenty-first century what Sartre said Marxism was for the twentieth: the “unsurpassable horizon” of our time, and not just for the United States.

Momentous decisions are in the making, old alliances are likely to break, and new ones to form. France may be about to claim a long-coveted position at the center of world events — not because it has suddenly regained great-power status but because it happens to be home to the largest Muslim community in Europe. Let us hope that it makes the most of the opportunity. The ship of state will need a firm hand on the rudder if it is to survive the storm that has descended upon it and live up to the Parisian motto.

Arthur Goldhammer is is a translator, writer and affiliate of the Center for European Studies at Harvard University. He has translated more than 125 books from the French. He is also the author of a novel, "Shooting War," and a blog on French politics.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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