EU Affairs Security & Defence

The Threat Remains, the Fear Dwindles Slowly

Taking stock four years after the Paris terrorist attacks


On Friday, 13 November 2015, Islamist assassins carried out a series of attacks on popular Parisian leisure destinations: a concert hall, a football stadium during the friendly match between Germany and France and a lively nightlife district near the Place de la République. The wounds heal only slowly. Four years later, the feeling of security has improved, but the threat of terrorism is still present throughout France.

Fluctuat, nec mergitur, “It falters, but does not sink” – this is the motto of the coat of arms of the city of Paris since the end of the 19th century, borrowed from its thriving merchant ships. The motto is also symbolic of 13 November 2015, when the French metropolis and its inhabitants were hit right in the heart by the most devastating attacks in its history, with 131 victims. Already at the beginning of 2015, large sections of the editorial staff of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and with it France’s best-known illustrators became victims of a terrorist attack. The new editorial team recently made its first public appearance since January 2015 at the Strasbourg World Forum for Democracy, as part of a debate on freedom of the press. But what about the safety of the public and what has changed in the country since Charlie Hebdo and 13 November 2015?

Immediately after the attacks, then President François Hollande declared a state of emergency. Numerous domestic and foreign policy measures were adopted to guarantee France’s security. The French air force launched its first attacks in Syria immediately after the attacks, and the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle was transferred to the Syrian coast. France also referred for the first time to the “alliance case” contained in the EU treaties (Article 42 (7) TEU). The treaty states that in the event of an armed attack on the territory of a member state, other EU states are obliged to support the calling member state – albeit not necessarily militarily. Germany complied with this request after detailed debates in the Bundestag in December 2015.


Stricter Security Measures

Security measures against terrorism, as part of the “Plan Vigipirate”, were also noticeable in everyday life for French citizens and Paris city dwellers: Bag or even identity checks when entering universities, theatres and shops and a noticeable increase in security staff, the removal of lockers in railway stations, transparent garbage bags in public spaces and maximum precautions when finding abandoned luggage to the chagrin of many travellers. The cityscape was also dominated by patrolling French soldiers with assault rifles on their chest, especially in places with an increased need for protection such as railway stations, airports, large metro stations or Jewish assembly places. In January 2015, 10,000 soldiers were assigned a citizens’ protection mission as part of the “Opération Sentinelle”, half of whom were deployed in Paris. Even though the deployment of the military in Germany is, from the German point of view, very difficult to get used to, it was welcomed by Parisians and tourists with reference to an increased sense of safety.

Subsequently, the “Plan Vigipirate” was reformed and extended to three alarm levels. The most common of these, which continues to apply mainly in large cities, is the first stage, “vigilance”. It describes a permanently increased but diffuse threat and comprises about one hundred protective measures. After the state of emergency of 13 November was first extended six times over two years without much resistance, Parliament passed a “law to strengthen internal security and combat terrorism” in October 2017. The state of emergency was thus lifted, but essential elements and powers were permanently incorporated into the new law. Many critics of the state of emergency protested vehemently. However, Emmanuel Macron, now President of the Republic, had succeeded in ensuring that the anti-terrorism plan launched in 1978 by the then President Valérie Giscard d’Estaing was debated, controlled and democratically legitimized by a vote in parliament for the first time, according to experts. Before the attacks in 2015 and the attack on French National Day 2016 in Nice, such measures would hardly have found a majority among the otherwise freedom-loving French. Unfortunately, times had changed.


Security Act with Consequences

The new security act subsequently granted the state and its representatives essential powers and powers of intervention, which may limit the basic democratic rights of individuals. These include, for example, house searches on suspicion of terrorism (with judicial permission), the closure of cult sites on suspicion of hate speech, the establishment of protection zones including controls at mass events with terror risk, as well as people screening and searches within a radius of 20 kilometers near the border and around airports, seaports and railway stations. This includes people screening of persons of “objective foreign nationality” within a radius of 10 kilometres from the national border. The daily Le Monde estimated at the time that an area with around two thirds of the country’s population was affected by such potential controls.

President Macron justified the necessity of the new law before the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg in 2017: “Our challenge is to effectively protect the French against the ongoing and multifaceted terrorist threat under general law. The limited number of measures provided for by this right are targeted, proportionate and exclusively aimed at preventing and combating terrorism”.

The author deliberately leaves open the question of whether such increased security measures actually lead to greater security (apart from a reduction in petty crime) or, if applied on a permanent basis, rather restrict the rights of individuals. It is undisputed, however, that an increase in terrorist and often Islamist-motivated attacks in France since 2015 requires effective responses and even closer cooperation between national and international authorities. All the more so since there is a danger that Islamist lone wolves may return to Europe with a diminishing influence of the Islamic state and especially after the death of their leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. In his book “La Fracture”, the well-known French Islamic scholar Gilles Kepel argues that the danger of individual perpetrators striving for the division of European societies is increasing.


Diffuse Threat of Terrorism

Paris 2015, Nice 2016, Strasbourg 2018, Lyon 2019 – the list could be supplemented for France by numerous other attacks, whether perpetrated or foiled. Only last week, a former supporter of the right-wing extremist Rassemblement National committed an attack on a mosque in Bayonne. In early October, a policeman fatally injured colleagues in the Paris police prefecture. The fight against Islamist-motivated terror and the so-called Islamic state in Syria and Iraq remains a political priority for France. This also explains the sharp condemnation of the Turkish military operation in Syria by President Macron and his provocative questioning of the efficiency of NATO. Finally, the security of France is also being defended in Northern Syria, Peter Struck would probably have added.

Even though the global security reception of the French in surveys continues to increase despite everything, the diffuse threat of terrorism, whether politically or religiously motivated, remains. The fourth anniversary of the Paris attacks on the Bataclan, the Stade de France and the restaurants around Le Petit Cambodge will also remind many French people of this. Throughout the day, commemorations will be held at various locations in Paris. Many citizens will probably put a sea of flowers at the feet of the imposing Marianne statue, a personification of the French nation, on the Place de la République. The wounds heal slowly, the memory remains present.


Carmen Descamps

European Affairs Manager