Terrorism in France is not new, but the nature of attacks has changed.
Terror attacks in France have become deadlier, but not more frequent
As the world continued to reel from the news of last night’s deadly terrorist assault in Nice, French politicians insisted their country is at greater risk from terrorism than ever before.
“We are in a war with terrorists who want to strike us at any price and in a very violent way,” French Interior Minister Bernard Cazaneuve said just hours after the attack, in which a truck filled with grenades rammed into a crowd of people celebrating Bastille Day, killing at least 80.
Echoing Cazaneuve, the French ambassador to the United States, Gerard Araud, characterized the attack as an assault upon democracy itself: “Our democracies — France, the United States, our other partners, we are besieged, we face a terrible threat.”
Terrible though the threat may be, terrorism in France is nothing new. Despite perceptions to the contrary, the frequency of terror attacks in France has not increased in recent years, according to data from the Global Terrorism Database, a project by the University of Maryland that tracks terrorist attacks since 1970.
In fact, terrorist attacks in France were far more common before 2011, according to the database: an attack was about four times more likely to occur between 1976 and 2000. In 1979, a single group — the National Liberation Front of Corsica (FLNC) — carried out 132 terrorist attacks, one more than the total number of all attacks committed by terrorist groups between 2011 and 2015.
So what fuels the perception that terror attacks on French soil have become more common, even though they have not?
First, recent terrorist attacks have been far more deadly than the attacks of earlier decades. Previous terrorist groups avoided killing civilians, instead targeting specific politicians, military installations, and property. Before 2015, there had never been a terrorist attack in France that killed more than ten people.
That January, however, al Qaeda gunmen murdered 12 people in the offices of French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, in what was then the deadliest terrorist attack on French soil in at least four decades.
Then, in November, nine men affiliated with the Islamic State murdered 131 civilians in a series of coordinated attacks across Paris, by far the deadliest terrorist attack in recent French history. The attack last night in Nice, the death toll of which is still climbing, fits with this recent trend.
Such acts of mass carnage grab the world's attention, and earn international news coverage, in ways that less brutal acts of terror cannot. This, in turn, makes it seem that terrorist attacks in France have become more common, when in fact they have only become more deadly.
The nature and objectives of the terrorists have also changed. Terrorism in France has traditionally been driven by separatist movements. The FLNC, which has carried out 637 terrorist attacks since 1972, more than any other group, sought independence for the island of Corsica from France; separatist groups from Brittany, the Basque Country, Algeria, and Provence have also been active in recent decades.
These groups have carried out far more acts of terror, and have been active for far longer, than the Islamic State and al Qaeda. But their provincial focus and limited political objectives were not the sort of thing to make headlines around the world.
Today’s terrorists, on the other hand, and the Islamic State especially, seek to futher an apocalyptic vision by sparking a global confrontation between Islam and “Western civilization.” Rather than fighting for provincial autonomy, the Islamic State’s goals are international. As such, their attacks resonate with people all over the world. Attacks like those in Nice and Paris can easily be imagined in Delhi, or Mumbai, or New York, or London, amplifying their impact in people’s imaginations.
Ultimately, the perception that terror attacks are becoming more common reinforces the Islamic State’s objectives, frightening people and encouraging overreactions from governments eager to keep their citizens safe — if not from more terrorist attacks, then at least from the fear of them.