By Sylvie Kauffmann
November 17, 2015
Sunday was a lovely, sunny day in Paris. People ventured out in the morning to buy the papers and a baguette. Some, more numerous than usual, went to church. By midday, Parisians were out in droves, enjoying this unusually mild weather — joggers, families with strollers, groups of friends meeting up for lunch, couples sipping rosé on café terraces.
Except this was not any November Sunday. In hospitals, doctors were still fighting to save the lives of those seriously wounded in the worst terrorist attacks ever carried out in the city, which left at least 129 people dead and 352 injured. “Let Us Resist” proclaimed the headline of a local paper, Le Parisien. In shock, Parisians had mostly stayed indoors on Saturday night, but Sunday was different: They chose to resist by living normally and going out, defying fear. Ordering a glass of wine at café terraces, the very type of place the gunmen targeted Friday, quietly became a political gesture.
Under the newly declared state of emergency, rallies in Paris were banned for five days. Yet people also defied this order: By late afternoon on Sunday, several thousand had gathered at the Place de la République, near where most of the attacks occurred, lighting candles and singing “La Marseillaise.” Trying to live normally, yet on the edge: Shortly before 7 p.m., a rumor spread that a gunman was attacking a café nearby. People fled in panic, desperately seeking shelter. Half an hour later, they were back.
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Schools opened Monday, but many children were apprehensive about going. How normal can life be in a city that has suffered two major terrorist attacks in just 10 months? Terrorism is not something new to the French; the sight of soldiers patrolling the streets, airports and railway stations has been familiar for some time. Yet now everybody is aware that “normal” is not what it used to be, even less normal than in the tense days after the Charlie Hebdo and kosher supermarket massacres in January.
Is it war? This is what our leaders are telling us. Friday’s attacks were “an act of war,” President François Hollande declared, using “army” for the first time to describe the enemy, the Islamic State, calling it “a terrorist army” and “a jihadist army.” On Sunday night, 10 French warplanes bombed ISIS targets in Raqqa, Syria. Though the French Air Force had been involved in coalition operations in Iraq for a year and in Syria for two months, this was the first time France had carried out such aggressive strikes. The Defense Ministry also made a point of noting that the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle was on its way to the region and would add 26 more warplanes to the firepower against ISIS.
So is this war? In a way, yes. French armed forces have been involved in combat operations against Islamist radical groups in northern Mali for almost three years. Opinions polls show wide popular support for these foreign operations. In fact, this is probably the only issue on which there is domestic political consensus. Unlike their British neighbors, the French bear no trauma from the Iraqi war, having refused to take part in it — for good reasons, it turns out. Though over the weekend some politicians called on the government to review its strategy in the Middle East, not a single one suggested that France should put an end to its military involvement in the region.
But fighting a “terrorist army” at home is a different kind of war. Americans have experienced this, except that the enemy they fought after 9/11 was foreign. In Europe, the terrorists we are confronted with are our fellow citizens, born and bred in our societies. “This is a new operational mode,” Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said Sunday on French television, “a group in Syria directing French people in Belgium to commit attacks in France.” Suicide bombers used to be a Middle East phenomenon; the Middle East war has now spread to our soil.
So if this is a war, it will require different tools, and nobody knows whether the French are prepared for the consequences, or the cost. For most Europeans, war was a conflict between states that had either territorial or ideological claims, fought by regular armies. It had a starting date and an end date. It belonged to previous centuries. War nowadays, writes the political philosopher Pierre Hassner in a recent book on the subject, “La Revanche des passions” (“Revenge of the Passions”), “has been re-legitimized in the form of jihad, of global war on terror, or with the aim of promoting democracy.”
The war we are asked to fight is against obscure men who one day target cartoonists, the next day Jews, another day football stadiums, cafés or rock concerts — who target people who live in “the capital of abominations and perversion,” as ISIS described us in a communiqué after Friday’s attacks. It added a chilling warning: “This is only the beginning of the storm.”
So how do you fight such a storm? “War is not a word used lightly,” former President Nicolas Sarkozy said Sunday on television after a long meeting with President Hollande. He advocates working with President Vladimir Putin of Russia to address the Syrian war; on the home front, he advocates putting some 10,000 suspect Muslim radicals under house arrest and fitting with them all with electronic bracelets. Another conservative politician, Laurent Wauquiez, even suggested interning them — a measure that was immediately denounced in the media as tantamount to “creating a French Guantánamo.” The government considers both proposals incompatible with the rule of law, but is now committed, under the state of emergency, to close radical mosques and deport imams who preach hatred.
Elsewhere in Europe, among defence experts, a debate has begun about the possible use of Article 5 of the North Atlantic Charter, which guarantees collective defence of an ally under attack. On Twitter on Sunday, a French foreign policy expert, Manuel Lafont-Rapnouil, deepened the discussion by mentioning a little known instrument, Article 222 of the European Union Treaty of Lisbon, which commits member states to help, including militarily, a member state under threat.
If this is not war, it is starting to look like it.
Sylvie Kauffmann, the editorial director and a former editor in chief of Le Monde, is a contributing opinion writer.