Francois Hollande has confirmed that the French government will take a hard stance in response to the attacks which took place in Paris on November 13.
The Socialist president hinted more than once that his retaliation would even surpass in forcefulness that of Nicolas Sarkozy – his right-wing predecessor as president and opponent for the 2017 elections, despite the latter’s reputation for tough measures. French forces are already bombing Syria.
In the aftermath of the attack, the early emotional reaction from the president was justifiable given the terrible circumstances. But in the days that followed, politicians from right to left and much of the mainstream media have abandoned caution and reason. They have sought to outdo each other in offering up the most reactionary, violent and divisive rhetoric.
Almost all agree that France is “at war”. Prime minister Manuel Valls has even spoken of the “enemy within” – a phrase with dire connotations in French history.
Prominent politicians on the right went even further and called for suspects to be imprisoned without trial – an astonishing suggestion given the dark history of “internment camps” in European politics.
The verses of the Marseillaise are being sung at every opportunity and with real intent. The archaic lyrics call the people “to arms” and for the “impure blood” of the Republic’s enemies to “water our furrows”. Such words appear to relate directly to the enemies Valls has vowed to “annihilate”.
Of course, the difference between the original context of the national anthem and the way it is being used today lies in the enemy. The citizens in Rouget de Lisle’s song were fighting clearly defined enemies – the European monarchies who had allied to destroy revolutionary France. Today’s “war” is against a much more elusive threat and fought for considerably less convincing political reasons.
This enemy has emerged as both a direct and indirect result of decades of exploiting the Middle East and supporting to different extents various terrorist groups and dictators and their allies that aligned with the economic interests of the western world.
Playing into the hands of terrorists
By responding in such a violent manner, French politicians have played right into the hands of terrorists. By declaring a state of war, they have legitimated an organisation which is struggling to hold onto its territory in the face of the courageous (mostly unnoticed) resistance organised by local fighters.
They have provided Islamic State with the opportunity to stand falsely righteous when the inevitable civilian casualties will be found under the rubble left by French bombs.
Such a careless stance has also benefited the far-right Front National. The utterly unethical coverage of the Syrian passport found near one of the attacks, the speculation about the identity of the murderers and the simplistic links made to refugees have allowed Marine Le Pen to pretend that she was right all along, and that closing borders was the only way to remain safe.
One could think that this may be for a greater good or that the end would eventually justify the means. However, the strategy of the government and politicians across the spectrum, as well as the debate taking place in most mainstream media about the way to respond to the attacks, is based on a fantasy which will ultimately lock us into a cycle of violence.
Just as killing Osama Bin Laden did not neutralise the threat of terrorism, destroying IS will most likely prove impossible, and certainly pointless if the root causes for its popularity are not addressed.
The real problem here is not simply foreign. It is not circumscribed to tiny minorities of fanatics. It is ultimately located within the so-called West’s own political and economic system. The up side is that the solution is thus within our reach. Yet this is not the path our leaders have chosen.
Instead, France is going to “war”. A three-month state of emergency has been imposed, giving Hollande significant extra powers, and governments are using the opportunity to push for tighter surveillance laws and policing.
Associating refugees with terrorists will add to the plight of the very people who are fleeing IS and Assad’s murderous regime. While it will never be possible to prevent everyone with vile intent from taking advantage of crises to enter Europe, closing the borders on those in need would simply be cruel.
Life will also become harder for the Muslim communities in France – and other parts of Europe. This group already suffers discrimination on a daily basis, not to mention violent and indiscriminate reprisals in the wake of terrorist attacks.
Yet many loosely categorised as Muslim for their creed, appearance or background continue to bear this unfair treatment in silence. They know that voicing their concerns would add to their suspicion. Many others will continue to fight for equal rights and treatment despite the odds set against them. A handful will turn and join the ranks of the alienated youth who find meaning in the some horrid narrative. That our societies are not able to offer them any more hope should act as a statement for us to evolve towards more inclusion and equality.
The extreme rhetoric will have a damaging impact on everyone else, too. It will force us all to navigate an environment where fear and paranoia become the new norm. Having soldiers and armed police in the streets may make some feel safer, but it may not prevent attacks. On November 13, the terror alert in France was already at its highest, following the events in January.
While safety against such awful acts will be at best an illusion, distrust of the other and suspicion of our own environment and community will become inevitable. Soldiers and armed police will be a constant reminder of an impending threat, forcing us to doubt everyone and anyone around us. That will ultimately weaken our democracy and our capacity to work together for a more hopeful and inclusive future.
Dealing with the despicable people who have perpetrated the attacks is essential, of course. Condemning these attacks as horrendous is obvious. But what is perhaps more important is understanding that the solution does not lie in a war to the death. Even if IS were defeated, a similar threat would only take its place, causing more pain and loss. Creating a more democratic, inclusive and egalitarian environment will not be easy in the current political climate, but it is the only way to keep us safe and free in the long term.