Paris in Terror
France’s Long History of Political Violence
Dec 3, 2015
9 Min read time
The history of terrorism in France offers lessons in how best to respond to the Paris attacks.
"Une bombe au Café Terminus," Le Petit Journal (February 26, 1894)
On television, I watch the camera zoom in on a tense police officer, weapon raised. Behind him is a tobacco shop on the Boulevard du Temple. I used to live in the neighborhood and would go there on Sundays when everything else was closed. My apartment was a block away from La Bonne Bière, where five people died on November 13. My friends and I clinked glasses on its terrace in the afternoon sun.
The perpetrators did indeed strike a part of the city known for eclectic and vibrant life. In Paris there is freedom in dressing and eating a little better, in talking about the world instead of one’s self, in taking one’s time and being discrete, in flirting and musing. Such is the “capital of prostitution and obscenity” that was targeted.
The televised image of the policeman reminded me of something else, too. Directly across the street from that tabac, on July 28, 1835, one Giuseppe Marco Fieschi fired at King Louis-Philippe and his escort from a third-story window with his “infernal machine”: a twenty-five–barrel gun packed with bullets and buckshot. Eighteen people were killed and more than three dozen injured, including the king and Fieschi himself. Considered a hired assassin, a Republican, an aimless revolutionary, and a mad criminal, he was guillotined less than a year later. His brain was sent to scientists for study.
Paris has had a lot of experience with terrorism. This history needs to be recalled since it is in the nature of events such as those of November 13 to foreground the distinctiveness of the present, effacing memories of past destruction and inviting dread about even worse futures. Obviously, the Charlie Hebdo and the Hyper Cacher market attacks are fresh in memory, but the transport explosions of 1995–96 and sustained shootings and bombings of the 1970s and '80s are less easily brought to mind. Indeed, every year between 1970 and 1989 saw a terrorist attentat on French soil, perpetrated by left-wing and right-wing, secular and religious extremists; by Spanish, Algerian, Palestinian, Lebanese, Armenian, and other groups; and repeatedly by Carlos the Jackal prior to his 1994 arrest.
Terror has always haunted modern France. The dream that the Republic can eliminate political violence is similarly enduring.
In the twentieth century, terrorism emerged as an explicit problem in the context of anti-colonial insurgency and colonial counter-insurgency. The Algerian Front de Libération Nationale used tactics of seemingly random violence to intimidate the French and mobilize the support of their compatriots. Before November 13, the highest toll from a single attack in postwar France had been twenty-eight killed by a train bombing in June 1961 carried out by the Organisation de l’armée secrète, the revanchist rightist group that had tried to prevent Algerian independence. The highest toll, that is, if one does not count state terrorism: later that year, on October 17, Paris police infamously murdered an unknown number of Algerians—at least forty, but possibly more than two hundred—and threw scores of bodies into the Seine.
But France had experienced other forms of terrifying bloodshed before the unwinding of colonialism—involving war, occupation, insurrection, revolt, and revolution. Anarchist violence of the fin de siècle, such as Émile Henry’s 1894 bombing of the Café Terminus in Paris, was known as “propaganda by the deed” or simply anti-social crime. The assassinations of heads of state and their underlings by European anarchists were intended to provoke the state into overreaction and to inspire “the people” to rise up. Today’s Islamist terrorism also uses technologies of destruction to sow fear for ideological reasons. In spite of their self-understanding, ISIS fighters might have more in common with modern secular perpetrators of political violence than they do with Muslims of earlier centuries. We should not confuse present-day theocratic fantasy with actual historical conditions and experience.
French counter-terrorism also has a history. In response to the anarchist violence, subversive publications were banned, association with “evildoers” was criminalized, juries were replaced with judges, and some anarchists’ court statements were censored as inadmissibly political. These laws fit within a larger pattern that extends back to Fieschi and carries forward to the Algerian conflict of 1954–62 and the “vigipirate” security plan created in 1978 and updated several times since. The state of emergency that President François Hollande invoked immediately after the November 13 attacks—and that the French Senate unanimously extended for three months—is based on a 1955 law and on the 1958 Constitution of the Fifth Republic.
The president is empowered to take all “required measures” for public safety. The military and civil authorities are granted exceptional powers to close borders, impose curfews, lock down public places and close businesses, limit people’s movements, detain in jails or under house arrest, confiscate weapons, and control the press (the last unlikely to occur). There were more than four hundred warrantless raids during the first three nights after the attacks. France’s sophisticated internal intelligence network, now headed by the General Directorate for Internal Security, knew which doors to knock on. There is no need to pass a Patriot Act or to create a Department of Homeland Security since, given its substantial experience with social and political violence, the French state already has robust investigative mechanisms in place. Even on a normal day, the police can stop you at will for an I.D. check. Civil liberties have a different meaning in France than they do in the United States. “The state is us,” the French say.
Three days after the attack, President Hollande stood in the royal palace at Versailles and expressed a deep popular sentiment. “We will eradicate terrorism so that France can continue to lead the way,” he intoned. “Terrorism will not destroy France because France will destroy it.” Speaking at Versailles also brings back memories: the language of terrorism first emerged during the French Revolution. After Maximilien Robespierre and his crew were executed in July 1794, otherwise divergent voices unified in denouncing the tyranny and anarchy of Jacobin terrorism. Napoleon Bonaparte, after escaping a bombing on Christmas Eve, 1800, blamed “terrorists,” by which he meant lingering elements of the deposed Jacobins, even though there was little evidence that they had been involved.
Terror has always haunted modern France. The dream that the Republic can eliminate fear-inspiring political violence in the name of an order based on liberty, equality, and fraternity—that is similarly enduring. In the past, this dream was sometimes pursued through tactics that betrayed its own ends by disrupting the yearned-for liberty and fraternity.
Today there is a chance to respond to violence with reasoned calm and tolerance, by soliciting the disadvantaged in order to forestall their radicalization. And there is no doubt that the kinds of French people attracted to terrorism are disadvantaged—economically or culturally, and sometimes in both ways. France’s Muslims are often consigned to the urban margins—a fate increasingly recognizable among the poor in the United States, as well—and find themselves accused of failing to integrate in a nation that cannot meet them halfway. After all, religious freedom and immigration are not integral to the French national mythos, which has more room for the rational universalism of the Enlightenment and the assimilationist instinct of a highly centralized and relatively small country. Because immigrants should be incorporated through language and values, speaking French with an accent is a defect. Religion is thought of as “communitarian” exclusion; it detracts from the unity prized by the French secularist concept of laïcité, which is less concerned with private belief than avowed public identity. These are not justifications, as so many like to complain whenever French social and cultural conditions enter discussions of Islamist terrorism there. They are as much facts of the murderers’ lives as radical mosques and Jihadi newsletters. Ignoring them helps no one.
No foreign military intervention will solve the sense of malaise and discord within the country.
But there are reasons to worry that these facts will be ignored and that overtures of tolerance and solicitation are not forthcoming. Paris 2015 already differs from Madrid 2004 and London 2005. France has become the first member state to invoke the European Union’s collective security clause. When President Hollande mentions a grand alliance with the United States and Russia, he is recalling a bygone era of great powers. Regional forces, though, decisively complicate the situation in Syria and Iraq. There may yet be troops on the ground in the Levant, but if this is France’s 9/11, the way forward is even less clear than in 2001, and the dangers no less serious.
President Hollande is certainly drawing upon post-9/11 repertoires in describing a “war on terror,” but he is motivated neither by the political theology of evil that moved George W. Bush nor by the neoconservative freedom agenda of Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and their advisors. Still, the ambitious French project of universalism, rationalist Republicanism, and laïcité is potentially disastrous: foreign intervention guided by a vision that has faired poorly domestically and that echoes colonial presence in Africa and the Middle East, including Syria. No foreign military intervention will solve the ongoing sense of malaise and discord within the country. Indeed, emergency powers have already justified the house arrest of environmental activists amid the 2015 Paris Climate Conference—a disappointing but not entirely surprising move. In any case, recent experience shows that attempts to forcibly eradicate extremism produce more extremism. Surely no one can deny that the American response to 9/11—from the war in Iraq to the ongoing drone war in Pakistan—helped create the conditions out of which ISIS has emerged. Without the most minimal historical perspective, we lurch from crisis to crisis, reaction to reaction, tactic to tactic in an eternally returning present.
• • •
The meaning of an event is indeed determined in part by responses to it. In contrast to the risk of pouring oil on fire, there is also the “light and noise” Parisians decided to make on the Friday following the attacks. This affirmation—perhaps defiance is too strong—fortified the global solidarity Paris had inspired over preceding days. In many parts of the world, one expects to go out on a weekend for dinner with friends or to a soccer game or a concert and not have the evening shattered by chaotic brutality. The very expectation that we—yes, that global human “we”—should be free from such arbitrary violence is what makes terrorism effective. Beyond bodily harm, terrorism hurts because the act reverberates beyond its time and place. Two days after the Paris attacks, an impromptu vigil at the Place de la République was disrupted when someone threw firecrackers down a side street. Screaming passersby scattered. One woman fell on a memorial of candles and flowers, shattering glass. Police moved in with automatic weapons on their shoulders. It was a false alarm, but fear outlasts real danger. Or sometimes anticipates it, as the multiday lockdown in Brussels demonstrated.
That is all the more reason to assert the common expectation of eclectic and vibrant life, of talking, eating, loving, dancing. Paris defends such universal values by living them. But compare the light and noise of a normal Friday in Paris with that of the Rafale jets now dropping bombs on Raqqa. Populations surely do need to be protected, and at the same time, all sides risk undertaking violence to defend “our way of life” or to protect the Ummah, the world community of Muslims. It is for us to ensure that terror remains a state of exception, to decide that ordinary life matters—for all people.
December 03, 2015
9 Min read time