Opinion Columns & Blogs

France has its 9/11. What happens next?

Paris is getting back to life as usual after Friday’s attacks, if you discount the armed police on the streets and a general sense of grief. But for France, the question of what President Francois Hollande should do, now that he has declared the nation at war, remains unanswered.

This situation is completely different from the aftermath of the attacks in January on the Charlie Hebdo magazine. Then, Paris was all about unity. The lone voice of Marine Le Pen’s nativist National Front, attempting to make political capital out of the tragedy, was ignored. Those attacks weren’t directed at the citizenry as a whole, but at a very particular kind of magazine and a Jewish supermarket.

Charlie Hebdo was not France’s 9/11. Friday’s attacks were.

The calls Le Pen made in January to end Europe’s open borders are now mainstream. Former President Nicolas Sarkozy is trying to recapture his political relevance by out-toughing Hollande’s straight-talking Interior Minister Manuel Valls, as well as Le Pen. He has called for a wholesale change in French foreign policy that would involve a realignment with Russian President Vladimir Putin and his policy in Syria, as well as for forcing 11,500 citizens suspected of extremist sympathies to wear electronic bracelets.

The French media are filled with articles worrying about what the sociologist Jean-Pierre Le Goff called the “angelic and pacifist mentality” of a country that already has fewer restraints on surveillance by its intelligence service than the U.S., and restricts displays of Islamism among its large Muslim minority more than most European countries.

Islamic State must be delighted. It is changing French politics as surely, if not as dramatically, as al-Qaida changed the politics of Spain through train bombings in 2004 that led to a change of government.

Islamic State might be less happy if the response to Friday’s attacks was an effective international military intervention to destroy it in Syria and Iraq. And indeed, Hollande stepped up the pace of French airstrikes against IS in Syria on Sunday night. But he surely knows that extra bombs dropped on Raqqa will change little.

The best defense is to spend more aggressively on intelligence and disrupt jihadist cells across Europe. Policing in Belgium, where France’s Interior Minister now believes Friday’s attacks were planned, is probably as important to French security as what happens in Syria.