Shoestring surveillance and a shattered social model – latest France attack puts Hollande in a bind

François Hollande addresses the press at the Elysée Palace. EPA/Etienne Laurent

A man is dead in France after at least two people attacked a gas plant near Lyon. The motivation for the attack is not yet clear but President François Hollande has launched an investigation, stating that the incident had all the hallmarks of terrorist action.

The attack on the Air Products plant is the latest in a line of violent attacks linked to extremism on French soil. Some have been claimed by terrorist groups, others carried out by subscribers to the views such groups spread.

Barely six months after the attacks on the Paris offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and on a Jewish supermarket in the east of Paris, France is yet again facing violence in its towns. This time it came on the premises of a business few will know about in an small rural town called Saint-Quentin-Fallavier.

Suggestions that the severed head of the man who was killed was placed on a fence post and covered in Arabic writing will, of course, alarm the vast majority of French people well beyond Saint-Quentin-Fallavier.

If this does turn out to be a terrorist attack, there will be talk of Hollande’s actions abroad. Questions will be raised about whether this was a response to interventions against Islamist militants in Mali in early 2013 and against IS in Syria from 2013. But some explanations for the way in which these attacks have been allowed to occur must also be sought closer to home.

The French security services appear to be doing everything they can to combat the threat of extremist attacks on France. The problem is that the agencies employed to monitor terrorist activity in France have been the victims of governmental meddling and serious cuts.

Surveillance on a shoestring

Under Hollande’s predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy, the well-established intelligence branch of the French police, the Renseignements Généraux, which had been responsible for covert surveillance, was merged with its rival, the Direction de la Surveillance du Territoire (Internal Surveillance Agency, the DST). Together they created a new unit, the Direction Centrale du Renseignement Intérieur (Central Agency of Internal Information, the DCRI).

On watch. EPA/Etienne Laurent

Sarkozy wanted to create a central organisation capable of monitoring terrorism, along the same lines as the FBI. He also wanted to cut costs, so the number of agents employed by the DCRI fell from some 3,300 agents in 2008 to 3,110 agents in 2013, while the terrorism threat increased.

Despite some good intentions, the number of French security operatives is still far lower than when Sarkozy arrived at the Elysée palace in 2007. Hollande has renamed the DCRI, which has since become the Direction Générale de la Sécurité Interne (Central agency for Internal Security, DGSI).

Meanwhile, the agency responsible for the surveillance of prisons and prisoners has just 13 civil servants to its name. Hollande tried to expand the agency as part of a surveillance bill passed by the French National Assembly in May 2015, but failed because of opposition from interior Minister Chistiane Taubira.

This bill could still offer some hope to the French people that future jihadist attacks may be avoided, despite its potential for infringing on precisely the sorts of liberties enshrined in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of Citizenship.

The bill allows for mass surveillance of emails, internet and phone communication without the approval of a judge. As such, it may well provide the legal framework to allow the stretched French intelligence agencies to monitor some of the 1,683 French people suspected of involvement in jihadi networks.

Rethinking the republic

There is also, of course, the wider question of French society to consider. Ever since 1905, when the separation of church and state was enshrined in law, the French Republic has adhered to a policy of secularism, or laïcité. But secularism was not designed for the current French nation, a multicultural melting pot whose Muslim population is estimated to be around 6m people (French law, in line with the principle of secularism, bans the collection of official statistics on ethnicity or religion).

Hind Ahmas, fined €120 for wearing the veil in Meaux, near Paris. EPA/Ian Langsdon

As with the attacks in Paris in January 2015, questions must be asked about whether the current French model of integration – in which immigrants are expected to adopt the French language and customs and follow the official ignorance of religion – is really working.

No-one in France is permitted to wear “ostentatious” religious symbols in public places, but recently attention has fallen in particular on Muslims and the face veil.

If Hollande and his government want to prevent future attacks on French soil, they need to do more than simply increase funding for counter-terrorist and surveillance agencies; they urgently need to consider the very model of French society.