Why France – again?

The horror of what happened in Nice compounds the horror of what happened in Paris in January and November of last year.  These large-scale attacks got a lot of attention, but there were also some smaller ones like the killing of a police officer and his wife and an attempt to blow up a gas plant that have to be added to the list of terrorist attacks in France.  It seems that France is making the headlines for all the wrong reasons.

It is natural, then, to ask why?  Why does France seem to suffer more from terrorism than its immediate neighbours? Is there something unique about that country that spawns terrorism?  Can France identify these elements to move to a place where it can prevent more future attacks?

Today alone I have read dozens of op-ed pieces on news sites around the world that seek to answer these questions.  A variety of people – political scientists, psychologists, sociologists and others – have provided both the analysis and prescription for the terrorist disease that plagues France in particular.  Case solved.  If it were only that easy.

The problem is that you cannot diagnose terrorism as you would a virus or a cancer.  Biological illnesses usually have very specific causes that, once located, can be treated.  Terrorism on the other hand stems from any number of background drivers and factors and it is not certain that these drivers are uniquely tied to terrorism alone or that addressing them will actually lead to a decrease in terrorist acts.  A lot of the proffered “causes” – poverty, mental illness, alienation, etc. – are not fullproof indicators nor significant contributors to the decision to resort to terrorism.   We have been searching for these magic comprehensive profiles for decades but we have not discovered them for the very simple reason that they do not exist.  And we will never arrive at a one-size-fits-all model that “explains” terrorism because there isn’t one.

Nevertheless, there are a number of issues in France that are complicating matters.  I provide a partial list with the caveat that none of these gives us an answer or a way forward whether we tackle them individually or as a whole, nor are they necessarily tied to an increase in terrorism.

  • France has done a terrible job of integrating Muslims.  Yes, integration is a two-way street and it is not all the state’s fault, but there is a huge gap between different types of citizens.  France could learn a lot about how we do things here in Canada
  • French prisons are breeding grounds for radicalisation. This is a tough problem but something needs to be done about it.  French Muslims represent between 60 and 80 percent of the prison population, widely disproportionate to their 8 percent of the general population
  • The rise of the nationalists and the far right will make things a lot worse and only widen the gap cited above.  Hardened attitudes towards immigration will lead to more anger and violence
  • France has the largest number of foreign fighters of all Western countries. While not all will come back to wreak havoc some will and that country’s security services will have a hard road ahead
  • France and the EU need to get better at intelligence sharing.  It was never going to be easy to get the spy services of 28 nations to work together but they have to step up
  • Unlike Canada and the US, there is no ocean separating France from the world’s worst conflict zones.  Ease of access facilitates terrorist movement.

There are undoubtedly other factors at play but I think the picture is becoming clearer.  Of course France should work on these regardless of whether they have a lot to do with terrorism.  As everywhere else however, the terrorism spike in France is a perfect storm of sorts and if any one of these drivers had been absent we may have seen a very different outcome.

So, what is France to do?  I was encouraged by the comments of Prime Minister Valls who said “times have changed, and France is going to have to live with terrorism”.  Although he was excoriated on social media for saying this, he is bang on.  This is not a defeatist attitude, it is a realist one.  We are never going to “beat” terrorism anymore than we are going to “beat” crime.  It is a part of the human condition and while we have to do everything we can to minimise the incidence and effects of terrorism we must accept that it will occur on rare occasions.  Our security agencies will continue to do the best job they can and we will be safer because of them. But a few terrorists will evade detection and cause mayhem.

In the end France would do well to mimic the British phrase “Keep calm and carry on”.  As would we all.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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