[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below] [4th update below] [5th update below] [6th update below] [7th update below]
It was such a nice fête nationale yesterday, for both me personally—spent part of the day going around Paris with a visiting friend and his daughter—and France, with a spectacular end to the Bastille Day parade on the Champs-Élysées. And now this. I watched the reports on TV late last night as the news came in, hoping, praying that the number killed—said to be around 30—would turn out to be exaggerated. But now it’s 84 as I write (10am) and counting.
A few instant reactions.
First, my dominant sentiment—as it was last November 13th—is one of horror, of thinking of the victims of the atrocity, their families, and friends. If my daughter—who lives in the south of France and is presently down that way—had been in Nice last night, she would have no doubt been on or near the Promenade des Anglais with friends (and she has indeed informed me that she attended last night’s fireworks display in the city where she’s on holiday). One feels horror at all terrorist atrocities but just that much more so when they hit close to home. And I emphasize horror. Numerous persons on social media this morning have been expressing anger and rage, with these apparently being their prevailing sentiments (pressing that ‘angry’ Facebook emoticon). Sure, who isn’t angry at the terrorists? Who doesn’t want to terminate them with extreme prejudice? But not only do I not understand this being the overriding emotion to such an outrage but also find it potentially dangerous, as an enraged people will want and expect that the state respond to that. And so in anticipation of that rage, President Hollande has already announced that France will reinforce its military action in Syria and Iraq, and extend the état d’urgence (state of emergency). If one can explain to me how Rafales dropping more bombs around Raqqa will contribute to the security of the French people, I’d like to hear it. And also how prolonging the liberty-undermining état d’urgence—which didn’t prevent last night’s attack, or any other known attack in the works—will do this.
Second—and contributing to the horror—is the nature of the attack—committed with a truck, which any low IQ idiot can procure and put to use as a weapon to kill dozens—and the victims. As on November 13th, those targeted for death or maiming were not just ordinary random people but people having fun. Enjoying life. And they were mainly younger people and parents with children. If there has ever been as evil an apocalyptic death cult as the Islamic State, it does not come to mind.
Third, one learns that the truck had mowed down people for almost two kilometers before being neutralized. This is insane. How the hell could this happen?! Questions: How was a truck of this size even allowed to circulate in the center of Nice at that hour of night, let alone enter the Promenade des Anglais with so many people gathered there? And, above all, how was it that the mad driver was not quickly neutralized, i.e. shot and killed, that he was able to pursue his course folle for two goddamned kilometers?! Where were the police? Where were the soldiers one sees all over the place, toting their automatic weapons? This is, needless to say, a catastrophic failure of the French police and the security scheme it has put in place since last year’s terrorist attacks. All the soldiers in their jungle fatigues patrolling the metro stations, the security guards hired à la va vite (and no doubt paid the SMIC) to check people’s bags at malls and schools (a total joke)… C’est parfaitement inutile.
Fourth, certain analysts have already been speculating on the political fallout of the latest outrage, one being my blogging confrère Arthur Goldhammer, who has gone so far as to assert, in a blog post à chaud, that
It is becoming increasingly likely that Marine Le Pen will be elected next year. The government seems helpless, and little by little minds are being prepared to accept an authoritarian xenophobic response as the only conceivable next step.
On va un peu vite en besogne. It’s a little early to be advancing such lurid hypotheses, particularly when we still don’t have all the facts. E.g. at the present moment, as I write, we know nothing about the terrorist apart from his name, that he was Franco-Tunisian, and had a police record for delinquency. We don’t yet know if the act was hatched in Raqqa—which could fuel public anger—or if he was a “lone wolf” à la Orlando, which would perhaps lend itself more to public despair and helplessness. It would also be advisable to get away from the reflexive notion that terrorist acts will automatically benefit demagogic right-wing politicians or parties. In point of fact, this has not happened up to now, in either France (November 13th, Charlie Hebdo-Hyper Cacher, Mohammed Merah, 1995, 1986) or the US (Orlando, 9/11, etc). In the case of Marine Le Pen, her popularity rating upticked four points (27% to 31%) in the IPSOS barometer after November 13th—along with every other national politician, most of whom witnessed larger gains—but dropped back a month later. Her numbers are presently 25% favorable/70% unfavorable. Poll-wise, she’s even worse off than Donald Trump. There will have to be a historic, unprecedented improvement in her polling numbers if she’s going to have a chance at winning the second round of a presidential election.
In any case, one expects—or at least hopes—that the French public, confronted with such an open-ended domestic security threat—will elect as leaders men and women who are experienced, of steady temperament, with nerves of steel and a sense of the state, and can bring people together, over those who are febrile, frenetic, polarizing, bereft of executive experience, and/or given over to trash-talking demagoguery. Such has been the case up to now. There is no a priori reason it should change.
UPDATE: Jason Burke has a piece in The Guardian, “Why does France keep getting attacked?,” which is worth the read. The lede: “France is historically seen as standard bearer of western secular liberalism and has been singled out by Isis as a key target.”
See also George Packer in The New Yorker, “The tragic and unsurprising news from Nice.” His analysis is good except for the assertion about Marine Le Pen and Donald Trump in the next-to-last paragraph, which I address above.
2nd UPDATE: For those who think that successive jihadist terror attacks will worsen ethno-confessional relations in France—and even provoke a veritable “civil war,” as certain excitable writers with vivid imaginations have ventured—do take a look at the data in the Pew Research Center’s latest study on “What France thinks of multiculturalism and Islam.”
3rd UPDATE: Franco-American anthropologist Scott Atran, who has researched and written extensively on terrorism and Islamism, has a sobering post in the NYR Daily, “ISIS: The durability of chaos.”
4th UPDATE: A number of people on social media have taken the MSM and politicians to task for designating the Nice atrocity an IS operation—before the IS had claimed any responsibility for it—and the perpetrator a terrorist, when almost nothing was known about him or his motives—and at the present moment (July 17th), little is still known. But for research scholar and MENA specialist Jean-Pierre Filiu, there is little doubt that it was an IS terrorist attack, as he explains in an interview in this weekend’s Libération, “‘La France est le seul pays pour qui Daech est une priorité’.”
Also in Libé is a tribune by the Moroccan-Dutch economist Fouad Laroui, “Arrêtons de crier au calife comme on crie au loup,” plus an article by Emmanuel Fansten and Ismaël Halissat on the apparent powerlessness of the state to anticipate attacks of this nature, “Face à la menace, l’impuissance maximale.”
5th UPDATE: The very smart geopolitical analyst François Heisbourg has an op-ed (July 15th) in the Financial Times, “Attack in Nice: The French response to terror remains muddled.”
6th UPDATE: Not that it changes anything but, as it happens, over a third of those killed in the Nice attack were Muslims.
7th UPDATE: Middlebury College political science professor Erik Bleich has an op-ed in The Washington Post (July 18th) on “Why France keeps getting attacked, while its neighbours don’t.”