Five Years after the Bataclan Attack – Fear of Terror and Division Still Characterise France Today

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90 people were killed in the attacks at the concert hall in the 11th arrondissement in Paris on 13 November 2015. Although the scars of the survivors and relatives are slowly healing, the recent attacks on the teacher Samuel Paty in Conflans-Sainte-Honorine and on visitors to a church in Nice in the south of France are catapulting Islamist terror back onto the agenda of French politics. Once again, President Emmanuel Macron has to prove that France will not give in to the attacks of the Republic’s enemies.

However, the second wave of the Corona pandemic means that this year’s commemorations will not take place in the usual way. Movement restrictions mean that relatives of the victims of terrorism will not be able to gather in public places, in places of celebration and conviviality as usual. As in spring, France has introduced a drastic curfew, which only allows residents to leave their homes within a radius of one kilometre after completing a form.

This year, the memory of the Bataclan atrocities bears a special significance: the collective feeling of a nation deeply affected by terror in its fundamental freedoms is joined by an individual feeling of unease at the immediate restrictions on freedoms. In many places, families and relatives will be forced to find creative solutions to express their grief. Attaching flowers or white mourning ribbons to their windows is one way of doing this, or placing bouquets of flowers at the sites of the attacks where possible. But even though remembering the attack is important for the collective memory and especially for the relatives, the question of concrete answers from politics in the fight against Islamic separatism and terror is all the more important.

A Strong Political Response

Even before the renewed attacks in October, Emmanuel Macron presented his ideas for a future law against Islamist separatism in the Parisian suburb of Les Mureaux. The cornerstones of the law will include severely restricting home education or teaching in religious schools not registered by the state, making it easier to ban cultural and sports clubs that preach hatred, and the training of imams in France. Macron thus follows on from the security law presented by the French government in October 2017, which, in the wake of the two-year state of emergency, legally legitimised an anti-terrorism plan, but apparently was not sufficient to combat Islamist terror comprehensively and effectively.

The new law would restrict nothing less than fundamental freedoms. It is an extremely difficult balance to strike between curbing Islamist hate speech and calls for terrorism on the one hand, and maintaining freedom of expression and assembly on the other, as the French Minister of Justice Éric Dupond-Moretti recently stated. Balancing these principles is not an easy task. This has been most recently demonstrated by the debate on a previous draft law on online hate speech by a LREM MPs in 2019. It provided for high penalties for social platforms such as Twitter or Facebook, in the event of hate speech being spread. If this law had come into force, it would have led to the automatic censorship of vast numbers of posts on the basis of algorithms, a massive infringement of freedom of expression, as the French Constitutional Council then objected.

The French Society is Deeply Divided

The current debates also reveals w fragmented French society is and that the republican promise of secularism, according to which religion is a private matter and should therefore not manifest itself in public life, has apparently not been upheld for a long time. For instance, the former school inspector Jean-Pierre Obin had already stated in a report in 2004 that large parts of the student body with Maghrebian roots do not see themselves as French in their self-understanding and that numerous violations of the principle of laicism could be observed in everyday school life. Since the decapitation of the teacher Paty, the French media have increasingly drawn attention to this report, which has not been followed up by any action. A recent survey, carried out in September by Charlie Hebdo and the polling institute ifop, confirms this finding very clearly: 74% of all French Muslims under the age of 25 say that they put Islam before the values of the French Republic. The level of radicalisation is thus much more pronounced among the younger generation than among previous generations. At the same time, almost two-thirds of French people believe that Islam is incompatible with the French Republic.

But there is also positive news: the book “Il nous reste les mots” (“We are left with the words”) was published this spring. It depicts the exchange between Georges Salines, the father of a young woman killed during the attack, and Azdyne Amimour, the father of Samy, one of the jihadists of the Bataclan assassination. The book was seen as a sign of reconciliation and sends the important message that only dialogue and exchange can ensure a successful coexistence. Cooperation with Islamic actors is also the starting point for a paper with which Annegret Kamp-Karrenbauer is now trying to forge an “international alliance to promote a cosmopolitan moderate Islam”.

France is Europe: Strengthening Police and Judicial Cooperation at the European Level

Islamist terror knows no national borders and so this Friday, the 13th, in addition to the commemoration of 5 years of the Bataclan attack, a meeting of European Justice and Home Affairs Ministers takes place. This follows directly after the preparatory meeting between French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Council President Charles Michel and shows that Europe is willing to learn the right lessons from the disaster. Proposals that have been taken forward by the German Presidency include, for example, restricting the encryption of messenger services such as Whatsapp and Co. or an institutionalised dialogue with platforms such as Facebook or Twitter, which could probably be decided by EU Justice and Home Affairs Ministers in December. However, details such as Macron’s demand to have Islamist hate contributions removed by the platforms within an hour, remain controversial. Macron also called for improved external border protection and a revision of Schengen, our area of freedom, security and justice and which celebrates its 35th anniversary this year.

Thus, 13 November is not only a day of commemoration for France and the terrible attacks on our beloved and lived freedom in an open society. It also highlights the importance of Europe-wide cooperation in various policy areas, because the fight against hatred, exclusion and terror can only succeed through a pan-European effort.

Jeanette Süß is European Affairs Manager at FNF Europe