The French are not a people easily cowed.
In open defiance of the national emergency in force, thousands made their way to the capital’s emblematic Place de la Republique to demonstrate on Sunday night, despite repeated police exhortations to go home.
Less than 24 hours since the deadly attacks that claimed 129 lives with 352 wounded (of whom 99 are battling for their lives), the French are saying they will not be terrorised.
“I have come here to remind myself and others that our Republic is in danger. This great institution that we created over two centuries ago and which stands for liberty, equality, fraternity and laïcity risks being destroyed by forces of extremism and fanaticism. I am here to say that I shall not let that happen, that we will fight,” said Delphine, a law student who came with friends and family to place flowers and light a candle.
The gigantic square is dominated by a statue of Marianne, the symbol of the French Republic, an allegory of Reason and Liberty, which has become an icon of democracy and freedom. Hundreds of bouquets and candles have piled up at its base and thousands of anonymous messages say they will defend French values and the French way of life.
The enquiry is progressing very fast. The chief prosecutor in Paris, Francois Molins, said one of the attackers, identified from prints taken from a sectioned-off finger is Omar Ismaïl Mostefai, a young Muslim Frenchman with a record in petty crime who had recently been placed on the ‘radicalised’ list. Three other suspects, who police believe were part of ‘a third team’, were caught on the Franco-Belgian border. Police have found one Syrian and one Egyptian passport near the assailants’ bodies. Greek officials say the Syrian passport belonged to a refugee registered in Greece. Police now have to verify if the fingerprints of those who blew themselves up correspond to those in the passports.
Less than a year ago Paris was hit by the Charlie Hebdo attacks in which 19 people, including most of the editors of the satirical weekly, were gunned down. This attack, police say is bolder, more radicalised and completely different in its planning and execution. The attackers had come to France to be martyred. They did not feel the need to wear hoods or masks but walked about with their faces uncovered. All of them wore explosive belts. Police bullets killed only one of them. The others blew themselves up. The communiqué from the Islamic State (ISIS) said many more attacks would follow, called Paris the capital of ‘prostitution and obscenity’ and described Francois Hollande as a ‘fool’.
Hollande, a socialist, who, unlike his British or Spanish counterparts, has obstinately refused to introduce austerity and budget cuts, is, by contrast, extremely hawkish in his foreign policy. He wanted more concessions from Iran on the nuclear issue and was a reluctant signatory to the nuclear agreement with Tehran. He has sent troops to Mali to quell rising Islamic fundamentalism there and has taken a unilateral decision to bomb Syria with French Rafales flying over 1,285 missions against ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria. Hollande has been a relentless opponent of Russian President Vladimir Putin, not just over Ukraine, but on the question of Syria too. Perhaps the time has come to seek out new coalitions to solve the Syrian problem and root out the ISIS. The United States, Britain, France, Turkey and most importantly Russia must find common ground to deal with the ISIS.
Hollande in his solemn address to the nation on November 13 from the Elysee Palace and again from the scene of the carnage at the Bataclan theatre said the attacks were “an act of war”. One can expect a hardening of the French position over Syria and Iraq and a resumption of the air raids. There will also be a serious re-think of the country’s migration policy. France has already introduced border controls and the ‘Schengen Zone’ is for all practical purposes a dead letter. It is quite likely that the border controls introduced ahead of the COP-21 Climate Conference that opens in Paris on November 30 will be retained even after the meeting is over and the Schengen free travel zone will become a thing of the past.
Observers here say that although the options at the disposal of any state fighting terrorism, the nebulous and elusive enemy whose operatives often lie dormant for months before striking unexpected blows, are generally limited, France has a large arsenal of measures at its command. The national emergency declared by the president gives the police and secret services almost unlimited powers to carry out search operations and it is likely that there will be a severe clampdown on radical Islamic fringe elements in the weeks ahead.
France has come late to de-radicalisation programmes for jihadists returning from Iraq and Syria. The country will be taking a fresh look at how it treats cases of youngsters who have been radicalised. One of the major issues in France is the state of its prisons. They are among the worst in Europe and it is a known fact that young offenders from the underprivileged immigrant ghettos from major French cities become radicalised in the country’s notoriously mismanaged and overcrowded prisons.
French Prime Minister Manuel Valls announced the nth plan to de-ghettoise the country’s housing estates. Money allocated to pull down tower blocks that have become a hotbed of petty crime and radical Islam has been only partially used. France is home to Europe’s largest community of Muslims, an estimated 6.5 million. That community is nervous and on edge today as the anti-Muslim National Front steams ahead in the polls. Regional elections are due in December. Hollande will have a difficult balancing act to perform. He will have to use every trick at his disposal to form a national united front against terrorism while preventing the spread of the National Front’s anti-Muslim poison. He will have to strike out internationally against the ISIS and radical extremists within France while pacifying an increasingly nervous Muslim community at home.
Vaiju Naravane is a journalist and commentator based in Paris and Delhi
The views expressed are personal