Listen to this article
A year after the terrorist attack on the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, the mood in France is a mixture of resilience, uncertainty and growing internal division.
The murder of 12 people at the magazine and four people at a Jewish supermarket two days later presaged the slaughter carried out in Paris on November 13 by terrorists claiming allegiance to the militant Islamists of Isis. The sense of threat lingers, with heavily armed soldiers and police patrolling the streets of the capital and other big cities.
France is at war and must be prepared for the possibility, if not probability, of further attacks, as President François Hollande warned in his traditional New Year address.
Yet the terrorists have failed. If resistance means going to cafés, bars and restaurants and attending concerts, after a week or so of disarray, then life goes on, albeit with fewer Japanese and Americans tourists. The French have chosen to live as though they are not potential targets of further attacks.
If the goal of the terrorists was to divide the French people and to encourage support for the far-right National Front while pushing the large Muslim minority into the arms of radical fundamentalists, they failed in that too. Whatever the impressive gains made by the FN in last month’s regional elections, Marine Le Pen will not be the next president of France.
Polls show strong support for military action in the Middle East and the Sahel, and indeed many voters are proud of their country’s renewed international clout. They are persuaded by Mr Hollande’s assertion that the fight against terrorism cannot be won on the home front alone.
Despite this resilience, some difficult questions remain to be answered. Were the murdered journalists provided with sufficient protection, given the number of threats made against them?
Why were the intelligence services taken by surprise in January and again in November? Is the French state strong enough to confront the threat of terrorism effectively now that it appears to be one of the principal targets of Isis in Europe?
A strong state is not one that violates its fundamental values in the name of security. The country that invented human rights cannot be seen to flout the Universal Declaration of Human Rights — a document that it helped to inspire.
Yet, with the government’s proposal to strip French citizenship from dual nationals convicted of terrorist offences, France risks doing just that.
This step will not act as a deterrent against terrorism: anyone willing to blow themselves up will care little about losing their French passport. Worse, the plan evokes, however faintly, the measures taken during the second world war by the Vichy regime against French citizens of Jewish origin.
The effectiveness of France’s interventionist foreign policy stance is also unclear. It is doubtful that bombing Isis forces in Iraq and Syria makes a real difference unless it is accompanied by the use of competent regional forces on the ground.
Beneath these uncertainties lie cultural and social fractures that run deep in France and may have grown deeper in the past year. The slogan proudly adopted by millions last January was “Je suis Charlie” — but by no means everyone in France is Charlie. The cover of the “anniversary” issue of Charlie Hebdo, published this week, which depicts God as an “assassin still at large”, will do little to assuage those who believe the magazine to be gratuitously offensive.
More seriously, if France wants to continue to present itself to the world as the country of liberty, equality and fraternity — and it should probably add “security” if it is serious about protecting the democratic nature of the French republic — those in charge have to answer fundamental questions.
The most important of these concerns the progress that the authorities have made in trying to regain control of the republic’s lost territories — the deprived suburbs of France’s biggest cities where young people, enmeshed in crime, drugs and violence, have become the foot soldiers of jihad.
In order for France to remain resilient, it needs to offer a vision of progress for all its citizens and not simply to react to attacks and provocation in knee-jerk fashion.
The writer is a senior adviser at Institut Français des Relations Internationales and a visiting professor at King’s College London
Letters in response to this article:
Get alerts on Charlie Hebdo when a new story is published