Normally, after the parties of Bastille Day, the French begin drifting off on holiday. People disappear to country homes, beaches or resorts where they spend weeks eating, drinking and lazing. Meanwhile foreign tourists — one of France’s few growing income streams — flood the world’s most visited country.
But after a jihadist in a truck killed 84 people in Nice on Bastille Day, the French are trying to comprehend their new normal: terror attacks. As prime minister Manuel Valls admitted: “France must live with terrorism.” In just 18 months, the country has fundamentally changed.
There are three layers to French life. Layer one is everyday perfection: that glass of wine in an ordinary bistro in a commonplace street. The Germans call it “living like God in France”. Layer two is economic stagnation, the sense that set in early this century that the country’s model is stuck. In December 2014, a fairly typical survey by BVA-WIN found that only 17 per cent of French people thought 2015 would be better than 2014. That ranked France 60th out of 65 countries for pessimism. Moreover, the French were unhappier than people in other rich countries — a finding now so commonplace in happiness research that it’s known as the “French paradox”.
And French pessimists were right: 2015 began with the deadly attacks on Charlie Hebdo newspaper and the kosher supermarket in Paris. Since then, the surface layer of French life has been fear of terrorism.
This fear is the parents’ meeting to discuss whether terrorists could break into your children’s school. It’s the university seminar you can only attend if you register in advance, with full passport details. It’s the security guard who searches you before you can enter your local post office. (Incongruously, the booming anti-terror sector has created thousands of jobs for low-skilled Muslim men.)
The French now live with the constant worry that the sky could fall on their heads. One glorious afternoon during the Euro 2016 football tournament, over a drink in Marseille’s Old Port, the friend I was with half-joked: “Shall we go, before this terrace is raked with machinegun fire?” The terror in Nice soon afterwards was terrifyingly predictable. The previous day in Paris, passing a poster advertising James Watkins’ new movie Bastille Day, about a massive terrorist plot, I had thought: Don’t let this be prescient.
France has experienced some variety of terrorism in every postwar decade, but never as bad as this. The last seven months have seen the two deadliest acts of terrorism in modern French history: the Paris attacks in November that killed 130 people, and Nice.
Before Nice, fear was focused on Paris. Almost every aspect of French life is overcentralised, and the capital had suffered disproportionately from terror. But if hell can break out in a sleepy beach town that lacks only a sandy beach, a place where millions of French people have happy holiday memories, then nowhere in France feels safe.
Like other recent terrorists, the Nice jihadi seems to have acted alone. Whereas al-Qaeda liked to orchestrate elaborate attacks, Isis has “crowdsourced” terrorism, says the Soufan Group, a security consultancy. And France has a reservoir of thousands of potential do-it-yourself jihadis.
Terrorism that requires barely any planning beyond renting a truck is almost unstoppable. The French authorities cannot turn the entire country into a kind of airport security zone. Perhaps it’s lucky that France lost the final of Euro 2016 to Portugal last Sunday. Had Les Bleus won, the crowds waving tricolours in every town square could have been targets. Only one other developed country lives with comparable everyday danger: the US, with its bizarre gun laws.
So far, the French have remained surprisingly tolerant in the face of Islamist terror. The annual survey by the National Consultative Commission on Human Rights found that racism decreased in 2015. In regional elections last December, just after the worst attack, the French mainstream voted tactically for Socialist and Republican candidates to prevent the anti-immigrant Front National from winning a single region. Voters may repeat the trick in next year’s presidential elections.
Still, if the French were pessimistic and unhappy before the increase in terrorism, imagine the national mood now.
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