Terrorism and the French presidential elections

France has suffered numerous high-profile terrorist attacks in recent years. From Paris to Rouen to Nice, threats have intensified from radicals inspired by Islamic State (IS) and the violent apocalyptic doctrine of Salafi Jihadism. Social disaffection and criminality have been common features of the backstory of home-grown terrorists including Cherif Kouachi, Amedy Coulibaly, Mohamed Merah and Mehdi Nemmouche. Radicalisation in the French prison system and links to international terrorist groups including IS and Al-Qaeda are significant. A terrorist attack on police in Paris on Thursday was carried out by another ex-prisoner, Karim Cheurfi. As voting begins on Sunday in the first round of the French Presidential elections what impact will the terrorist threat have on policy makers and the electorate? Is Donald Trump right in his assertion that Thursday’s attack will have a ‘big effect?’

Over 200 civilians have died in terrorist incidents in France in less than two years (130 in the November 2015 attacks and 85 in Nice alone). Victims have included women, children and members of the clergy. France has been in a state of emergency since the end of 2015. In the wake of Thursday’s killing of Xavier Jugele on the Champs-Élysées, calls have been made for improved security and more robust and effective counter-terrorism measures. The disruption of an alleged terrorist plot in Marseille although an undoubted and important success is likely to be of cold comfort. The front running Presidential candidates Emmanuel Macron, Marine Le Pen, Francois Fillon, Benoit Hamon and Jean Luc Melenchon have differing policy responses to the ongoing threat.

Prior to Thursday’s attack Macron had spoken of the need to compel social media companies to provide access to encrypted messaging services. This reflects similar calls in the UK following the terrorist attack in London and an ongoing challenge for French and European security services to monitor terrorist suspects at scale across encrypted channels and the dark web. In an interview with French radio, Macron concluded that “This threat [terrorism], this imponderable problem, is part of our daily lives for the years to come.” Some may consider his view nihilistic or defeatist, others as realistic and pragmatic. Perfect security is unattainable and liberal democracies must balance surveillance and security with privacy, individual freedom and human rights.

Le Pen’s response is to suspend immigration, reintroduce border controls, expel foreign terrorist suspects and interdict Salafist ideology. The threat of torture of deportees hampered UK efforts to remove several high-profile terrorist suspects for many years. Legislative changes in Belgium and hardening deportation measures in Germany could indicate a shifting perspective. Terrorists aim to provoke overreaction as this plays to victimhood narratives and potentially draws in new recruits and supporters. In this sense, the hard rhetoric of Le Pen must be carefully assessed against the possible consequences of social, cultural or religious alienation. This could damage vital intelligence flows from marginalised communities.

Francois Fillon “called for election campaigning to be suspended.” Fillon has faced significant difficulties with ‘fake job’ allegations and contentious comments about maternity leave. He may well have been the target of the Marseille plotters. Fillon views the threat of Islamist Totalitarianism and its exacerbation by weak states and transnational terrorism as requiring a tough pan-European security response. He highlights the need for France to comply with European and national human rights legislation in its counter-terrorism policy.

If predictions are correct, Hamon’s campaign will quickly end in failure. Where the far left under Jean Luc Melenchon would lead France is uncertain. Closer ties with Russia, Venezuela and Cuba and an exit from NATO would be short odds bets.

A decision was taken not to allow electronic voting in the election due to cybersecurity risks. The scale and impact of cyber-attacks in the 2016 US Presidential election is still the subject of debate. The ability of terrorists to conduct an impactful cyber-attack should not be discounted. Former US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta’s 2012 speech makes for sober reading.

French and European security agencies must be concerned by the mode of Thursday’s Paris attack. Uncharacteristically of other recent atrocities in London, Stockholm and Berlin involving cars and lorries driven in to civilians, Cheurfi was armed with an AK-47 automatic assault rifle. The availability of automatic weapons on the European mainland is deeply worrying. Arms trafficking from the Balkans, radicalisation in the French prison system and returning fighters from Syria and Iraq are problems that will not be easily solved. Given the cadence and severity of terrorist attacks within France it would be understandable if the electorate voted for a security hardliner. The challenge however in a liberal democracy is how best to construct counter-terrorism policy that is tactically and strategically efficacious. There are of course differing schools of thought in addressing these questions. The first-round results should provide some indicators as to the resonance of differing security policies with the French people.

About the Author
Steve Nimmons is a technology entrepreneur and writer with interests in Innovation and Digital Transformation in Defence, Security and Policing.
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