France faced with new terrorism challenges

On November 13, France will painfully remember the 130 people slaughtered during the Paris terrorist attacks in 2015. Three years after these deadly events, how has the terrorist threat evolved and in which way has the French government responded to this new challenges?
Terrorism represents an unprecedented threat beyond the Alps and a crucial issue for public authorities. However, the phenomenon does not concern France alone, as it is a world reality. Terrorist violence has indeed reached its paroxysm at an international level, with a nine-fold increase since 2000 in the number of people killed in terrorist attacks and 39% more deaths caused by Daesh (1).
While the threat of an organized attack from abroad, like the Bataclan one was, seems to be weakening, assaults of lone “wolves” are attracting the attention of French police and intelligence services. Nevertheless the overall level of public anxiety is still high in the Hexagone, where counterterrorism public policies have been a key focus for the national administration over the last years.

Global Terrorism Index in 2017

First of all, the change in the nature of terrorism must be emphasized.
With the Nice truck attack or Mohammed Merah, who committed the Toulouse slaughter in 2012, we can speak of a terrorism that has its roots deep in the country with a rapid transition from the process of radicalization to violent action (2). Thus, we can easily observe a correlation between the number of radicalized people and the number of young people in idleness living in France, but also in Belgium. In the same vein in French urban areas socio-economic weaknesses seems to favour indoctrination, as the analysis in the “French connection” article in Foreign Affairs suggested in 2016 (3).
Moreover, islamic terrorism is now characterized by a larger number of citizens involved and by a real targeting of France. Indeed, between 2002 and 2012, 50 French citizens went to jihad, while between 2012 and 2015 the number grew up to 2000, especially in Syria or Iraq. France is targeted by terrorist groups since the September 22, 2014 speech of an ISIS spokesperson inciting hatred against France, completed by a 2015 Daesh review headlines: “May Allah curse France”, responding to French bombing in Syria.
The indoctrination of French nationals and the increased threat were permitted by the important use of digital propaganda. This should not overshadow the role played by preachers in mosques, but in France, the Internet shaped 80% of the radicalised people. The power of Daesh digital propaganda involves the use of Youtube, Google, and Twitter, leading to the creation of 70,000 accounts on Facebook and 90,000 posts per day over the last years (4). Thus, digital instruments are now controlled by Daesh, with sometimes very sophisticated propaganda videos similar to rap clips, representing a real weapon, and another factors of indoctrination of young people.

Faced with these new challenges, the response from France is built with several types.
First of all, it involves a multiplication of antiterrorist operations theaters, particularly in Mali, to stop the threat. That is the Barkhane mission that mobilizes 4000 soldiers for a vast territory, in addition to the EU-funded Sahel force.
Since September 19, 2014 France is also committed against Daesh with Operation Shamal, an operation focused on the fight against Daesh in Iraq, given that attacks are sponsored from these territories. There is therefore political coherence in the French military and in national security choices.

French soldier in Mali

The other key point of France response was the request for a better European cooperation. On November 14, 2015 the European Commission contacted the French Minister of Interior, Bernard Cazeneuve, to ask him how the EU could help France after the Bataclan. At that time he answered that France and the EU needed a directive on firearms circulation: concrete policies, materialized by agreements, to fight against traffic of weapons in Europe, as the EU’s ability to do this would avoid terrorist attacks.
In addition, in the aftermath of the Bataclan assault, police forces were mobilized on highways to capture potential terrorists. Salah Abdeslam, the only survivor of the Bataclan terrorist group, was actually controlled by Belgian police while returning to Brussels, but was released, even giving his real name and address in Belgium. This showed at that time that the Schengen system was not well enough informed. Thus this example illustrated also for France and the EU the indispensability of a better external borders control, leading to the setting up of a new instrument, FRONTEX, the European border agency, proposed and supported by France and Germany, and to the modification of the Schengen system in order to allow the control of EU nationals and to gather more datas, all this having been built between 2015 and 2017.
These processes were initiated under the impetus of the French government, which considered after Paris attacks that the political actors reasoned too often in the national framework in terms of terrorism, and that view was not very effective.

Lastly, France has undertaken strong actions at the national level, especially legislative changes with six laws adopted in the last five years for terrorism fight. One of the most important ones is the 24 July 2015 law, nicknamed intelligence law, meeting the important need for France of an intelligence framework, whereas the last law about secret services dated from 1991, and digital development required to adapt rapidly. In particular, the law strengthened the Conseil d’Etat (State Council) to control intelligence activities, and extended the possibility for citizens to request directly the Constitutional authority for privacy protection.
In the same way, important reforms have been initiated at the institutional plan. Especially since 2014, the French national intelligence device was profoundly transformed. The intelligence unit of the National Police (DCRI or Direction Centrale du Renseignement Intérieur) became an autonomous intelligence service directly linked to the government, DGSI (Direction Générale de la Sécurité Intérieure), with more important means, and 2500 jobs created. The intelligence reform led also to the creation of new “local intelligence units” in France, Renseignement Territoriaux, removed in 2008 but doing a crucial work by identifying radicalisation signs at the bottom of society.
The conditions of intervention of French Special Forces were also revised, and the pattern of action is now elaborated in order to have the GIGN, RAID and BRI, giving their assault no more than twenty minutes after the beginning of an attack.
Thus, France is upgrading its national security device, given that the events have shown the adaptative capabilities of terrorist groups.

The improvement of French security forces anticipation competencies supposes also an opening to Research and to the academic world. National security leaders are not only crisis management specialists, but must project themselves in order to better understand the evolution of threats, too. That is illustrated by the conference in June 2018 in Paris gathering the secret services community and students, researchers, and teachers at the Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris (Sciences Po), assembled to understand how can social sciences studies help to terrorism, radicalisation, and islamisation analysis and understanding.

Terrorism threatens the most precious assets of French democracy: the press with Charlie Hebdo slaughter, or religious freedom with Mohammed Merah’s assault in a Jewish school in 2012 or Father Jacques Hamel assassination in Saint Etienne du Rouvray. In the face of this challenge of French core principles, the government has to create the conditions for avoiding the fright and a shift in democratic values, considering the complexity of public action, the difficulty for understanding a new phenomenon and reacting to an unprecedented threat.


(1) Global terrorism database, by the University of Maryland (United States)

(2) KEPEL Gilles, Terreur et martyre, relever le défi de la civilisation, Flammarion, 2008

(3) McCANTS William and MESEROLE Christopher, « The French connection. Explaining Sunni militancy around the world », Foreign affairs, March 2016

(4) France Télévisions, « Jihad, les recruteurs en France », 2016

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