129 dead, 99 critical injured and over 35o injured, these are the numbers ensuing the terrorist attacks taking place on November 13 in the streets of Paris. These are the worst attacks on European soil since the Madrid and London bombings in 2004 and 2005. In a period of 10 months, France has seen two successful terrorist attacks with the January mass killing against French satire paper, Charlie Hebdo, and a Jewish supermarket (read here a previous analysis on the January terrorist attack) and yesterday night. And during the summer, three American tourists stood up and disarmed a man seeking to massacre people in a Thalys train from the Netherlands to France. These attacks on November 13 were highly sophisticated with three teams of terrorists attacking simultaneously (see below the location of the attacks).
Here are some reflections on these horrific attacks. The attacks on Charlie Hebdo and on November 13th demonstrate that the executioners are for the most part French and European citizens. Yes, Charlie Hebdo had received some international attention after the publication of the Danish cartoons of the Prophet, but aside from that it was a low print paper. Very few people around the world knew about Charlie Hebdo. The November attacks on cafés in the 10th and 11th arrondissements and the music venue, the Bataclan, confirm that these executioners are French. These locations are places where locals and Parisians go, they are not highly touristic locations. The attackers wanted to send a clear message to French people that they won’t be safe any longer. These attacks seek to go after the basic components of French life by targeting the arts, music, social interactions, and freedom. Members of radical Islamic networks simply seek to restrict and oppress humans in the name of bigotry and racism. There are no religious justification of such heinous crime, only ignorance and stupidity.
A Solid Leadership
The French leadership, as of today, has been exemplary. François Hollande, French President, has certainly not been a model on his socio-economic agenda and has had
difficulties in bringing needed reforms to the country. However, the criticisms emerging from the French rights (from the mainstream right, Les Républicains, and extreme right, Front National) are abject and unfounded. In the last year, François Hollande has been an exemplary leader in combining toughness and calling and maintaining national unity. His leadership during and after the Charlie Hebdo attacks was subtle and strong. Yesterday night’ speech prior the exceptional council of ministers at midnight, François Hollande addressed the Nation with an impeccable short speech. Not only did he call for an immediate state of emergency and territorial lockdown of France – which has only been done three times prior under the Fifth Republic – but closed his address by calling for solidarity and national unity. It was a difficult exercise that he managed to pull off.
Ensuing the Council of Minister on November 14th at 9am, François Hollande declared:
It is an act of war, which has been perpetuated by a terrorist army, ISIS, a jihadist army, against France, against the values that we are defending all around the world, against what we are: a country of freedom speaking to the totality of the world.
It is an act of war, which has been prepared, organized, planned from the outside, and with domestic assistance that will be demonstrated by the current investigation. It is an act of absolute barbarity.
The use of word and repetition of ‘act of war’ could underline the possibility of the use of ground military forces in Syria in the days or weeks to come. French army could be working on bringing another dimension to its war efforts over Iraq and Syria. However, launching a ground offensive in Syria is quite of a headache considering the current Russian involvement and the Assad forces. Can France conduct military operations in Syria against ISIS without the assistance of Syrian and Russian forces? What would be the endgame? How can France identify and quantify success with a ground offensive against ISIS? After a decade of military involvement in Afghanistan, the Talibans are back and Al-Qaeda, which has been severally armed, has been replaced by ISIS (read here an analysis by François Heisbourg).
National Mood and the Respect of French Values
Domestically, French citizens ought to show the same determination than after the attacks on Charlie. It appears that the national mood is darker than in January and French citizens seem heartbroken, rightfully so, but they need to stand up and demonstrate to these radical movements the impenetrable French spirit. François Hollande said
France is strong and even if she can be hurt, she will always stand up and nothing can break her, even the sorrow that touches us. France, she is solid, she is active, France is brave and will win against barbarity. Our history is a reminder.
Now, France, as after Charlie, has to look at itself and reflect on its failed social policies implemented almost five decades ago (read here a solid analysis by Javier Solana, former EU High Representative). The degree of inequalities in France is continuously increasing and the sense of belonging to the French nation seems to be disappearing in a wide segment of the population. Blame can be attributed on both side, but it will be unproductive. French
values of Liberté, Egalité and Fraternité are the foundation of our Republic and should be rediscovered. This means opening our arms to the refugees leaving Syria and fleeing other authoritarian regimes. Welcoming these refugees and offering them chances to success and leave productive lives are the remedy to such hate and violence. France cannot close her borders and reject the others, as it would be a direct repudiation of its values.
Understandingly, the initial reaction is anger and desire to make a distinction between us and them. But once our time of grievance is complete, French citizens ought to remember their history and values. The rhetoric coming for the French rights calling for closing the borders, leaving the European Union, protecting the homeland from any outside forces are the wrong solutions. It may be the easiest road in the short term, but in the long run it would be a direct repudiation of the republican spirit of France. The coming regional elections next month will be a turning point for French politics and could offer some insights prior the presidential elections in 2017. The amalgam of migration and terrorism continuously hammered by the rights is misleading, wrong, unfunded and abject. But amalgams tend to be integrated by a large segment of the population across the world.
Lessons from France’s Atlantic Neighbor and Ally
France can learn three lessons from the United States. First of all invading countries is not a valuable option. The US went to war and occupy Afghanistan and Iraq for over a decade and the situation in both countries has not improved. One could even argue it has worsened as Afghanistan is seeing the return of Talibans and Iraq is highly fragmented and home of ISIS. Second, violation of the habeas corpus and invasive laws like a French
Patriot Act won’t be the answer as well. Some members of the French rights are calling for the creation of jails for incarcerations of suspected terrorists. The US has created Guantanamo Bay and is unable to deal with its prisoners. And it would be an error and a core violation of French democracy to start incarcerating individuals based of suspicion. Guantanamo Bay, and the other American jails in Iraq and Afghanistan such as Abu Ghraib have been instrumentalized by radical islamic networks in order to recruit. Third, since 2001, American citizens have learned to live with terrorist threats and seen an increase of state forces in the streets. These could be the only alternative for France. The November 13th attacks could be the end of innocence for France. But these attacks remind us how precious are our values and way of life and how threatening they are to these radical movements. We have lived for too long taking for granted our freedoms and liberty, it is time to finally reflect on them, cherish them and defend them by living them consciously.
(Copyright 2015 by Politipond. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission).
Russia just started its airstrike campaign in Syria after approval by the upper house of the Parliament. “We [Russia] ’re talking exclusively about operations of Russia’s Air Force,” announced Mr. Ivanov, Mr. Putin’s chief of staff, “as our president has already said, the use of armed forces on the ground theater of military operations is excluded.” The airstrikes have for objectives to assist the Bashar al-Assad regime in his war against the Islamic State.
After more than four and half years of war, Syria is the home of a complex crisis seeing a war between the Bashar al-Assad regime, Syrian militias, and many terrorist networks. The Syrian war has permitted the rise of the Islamic State in Syria and Levant (ISIS), and has been costing the lives of 250,000 civilians and a million injured, displaced millions displaced, and put million refugees on the road. The Syrian civil war is taking a new turn with the direct military involvement of Russia. A simple, but yet complex question, ought to be raised: Does Russia dictate global politics in the European sphere of influence?
The Syrian Civil War
In Syria, Bashar al-Assad never lost his power. Even though the country is highly divided among a multitude of militias, terrorist networks and the al-Assad forces. The interesting case of Syria is that the West did not see coming the fall of Mubarak and Qaddafi and wanted to be proactive in the fall of al-Assad. In September 2013, the West was trying to build a coalition in order to start bombing Syria and the al-Assad forces after he was found guilty of having used sarin gas against civilians. Two forces played in favor of al-Assad, and
still are, avoiding the launch of airstrike against Syria’s al-Assad: Russia and Western public opinion.
Vladimir Putin has played an important role in sponsoring the al-Assad regime through military and financial assistance. Putin’s rationale is that the Assad regime is a better alternative and protection against radical Islamic groups than rebels. In the case of western public opinions, they had grown war-worn especially for the Americans and Brits both involved in Iraq and Afghanistan for over a decade. British citizens, through the UK House of Commons rejected to grant authorization to Prime Minister Cameron to participate in military airstrikes in Syria. The British aversion to use force in Syria was a powerful signal for the Obama administration, whom refused to intervene despite the fact that al-Assad had crossed the ‘redline’ in using sarin gas. Ultimately since 2013, the war in Syria has seen the rise of refugees, displaced individuals, rise of ISIS and a continuation of war without any direct role being played by the West to stop the conflict.
Mr. Putin has been very clear. Russia uses military force in order to fight ISIS and support the al-Assad regime. Vladimir Putin does not want to see his regional ally go and wants to maintain Russia’s influence in the region. Putin sees Russian intervention in order to stop the expansion and rise of ISIS in the region. If attention has been raised about radical islamists trying to conduct terrorist acts in Western Europe (like in Toulouse, Charlie Hebdo, the Thalys) and the US, Russia has as well been dealing with radical islamic terrorism for decades. Since being in power, Vladimir Putin has been fighting a lengthy war in Chechenya. Major Russian cities have been the targets of acts of terrorism over the years. In Syria, President Putin has played his game carefully by first bringing military capabilities, like fighter jets, in Syria at the airbase base of Latakia, in Western Syria.
In the case of the US, President Obama is neither interested in protecting al-Assad nor keeping him in power. As demonstrated by his two mandates, President Obama has been trying to leave the Middle East and readjust American power towards Asia. Obama’s presidential promises were to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which he has done even though some military forces are still on the ground. During the Arab spring, the US with his European allies missed the moment. The US was leading from behind in 2011 in the implementation of a no-fly zone in Libya. The mission was led by France and the UK, under the UN Security Council Resolution 1973 (2011), which facilitated the fall of the Qaddafi regime. Since 2011, and especially after the killing of US ambassador in Benghazi, the Americans have been extremely reluctant in playing an active role on the ground and rather remain in the sky. But ISIS has brought back the US in the region. As demonstrated in recent polls, Americans consider ISIS as the greatest threat to the US.
Chart: Global Perceptions of Major Threats (Only the ‘Very Concerned about’ are being represented here)
With the rise of ISIS over the region, President Obama was obliged to send some hundreds of military advisors in Iraq in order assist the Iraqi army and leadership. Since then, the US with France have conducted airstrikes over Iraq in order to limit the rise of ISIS.
Even within the US team, there is a certain division as reported by the New York Times between President Obama and his Secretary of State, John Kerry. “Obama seems to approach Syria with a professor’s detachment”said David Schenker, the director of the Program on Arab Politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, “while Kerry — perhaps because of his high regard for his own diplomatic acuity — sees it as something he can solve.” President Obama deeply distrusts President Putin, while Kerry feels that he can work on a deal with the Russians in order to bring in the long-term Bashar al-Assad down from his leadership position.
But the tension between the US and Russia can be sensed. During his address before the UN General Assembly, Russian President underlined that the US air campaign against ISIS in Iraq and Syria were illegal and a violation of international law. Putin claimed that the US used military force with neither a UN Security Council Resolution nor with the consent of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Now it will be interesting to see if the UN Security Council agree on a resolution in order to fight ISIS in Syria.
Europeans, Russians and Americans
The Syrian crisis is, and ought to be perceived by the Europeans, as the top priority. From Europe, the civil war in Syria is causing regional instabilities all around the Mediterranean front, is at the origins of the worst migration crisis since World War two, and is exposing the failures of Europeans address a direct security threat to its continent. The massive number of migrants seeking for refuge in Western Europe is exposing the weaknesses of European cohesion and solidarity, European integration (see the failure of the Schengen agreement and Dublin rules), and is destroying the myth of Europe as a civilian/normative power.
The only power in Western Europe to be military active is France. Under Presidents Sarkozy and Hollande, France has sought to maintain its global and regional influence and interests. France has been flexing its muscles in Central African Republic (CAR), Mali, Iraq, Libya and now Syria. Back in 2013, France was waiting on the Americans in order to start airstrikes against the al-Assad forces after he was proven to have used sarin gas against civilians. If French air power has been used as part of the coalition with the US over Iraq in order to fight ISIS, but it started its bombing campaign over Syria several days ago. However, François Hollande has maintained the fact that a solution in Syria cannot exist with Bashar al-Assad. As demonstrated during the nuclear talks with Iran, French diplomacy has been one of the toughest in order to assure that French and Western interests would be protected and enforced. On the Syrian case, Laurent Fabius is keeping the similar cap.
The United Kingdom has expressed a less clear position. British Prime Minister Cameron said “I know there are people who think Isis is even worse than Assad, so shouldn’t we somehow cut a deal with Assad to team up and tackle Isis.” But the Brits, in order to show support to their American partners, underlined that a long-term solution cannot include Bashar al-Assad remaining in power. The French and Americans have been clear on the fact that any peace deals cannot include Bashar al-Assad.
Prime Minister Matteo Renzi of Italy said that Russia was a central actor in the fight against ISIS in the region. His tone towards Moscow is much softer than his European partners, as Italy and Russia have always had deep relationship, especially in recent times. For instance, Italy has been the least supportive of European sanctions against Russia.
Russia, The Return of the Global Power?
Since the arrival of Putin to power in 2000, his priority has been to make Russia a great power once again. He has demonstrated that Russia not only plays an important role, but can shape global events. If Putin put himself in a corner after the annexation of Crimea and lingering war in Eastern Ukraine, he has brought Russia back at the table of great powers with his actions in the Middle East. If this aspect has been lost in translation as the world is more concerned about the approval of the deal by the US Congress, Russia played an important role on bringing a deal for the Iranian nuclear program. In the case of Syria, most powers have been reluctant to act aside from airstrike bombings over Syria and Iraq. Now Russia is actually forcing the West to act and do something about the vicious war in Syria.
Europeans have been inactive on dealing with Syria and have struggled on welcoming Syrian migrants. Aside from boosting border patrols in the Mediterranean and increasing financial assistances to countries hosting Syrian refugees, Europeans were unable to agree on a clear military operation in order to address the root causes of the migration crisis. The Americans, under Obama, have been much more reluctant to start another military mission in the Middle East. Obama promised in 2008 to quit the greater Middle East, he certainly does not want to leave office in 2016 with another war in Middle East.
With the escalation of its military intervention, Russia is bringing itself outside of the corner and rejoining the table of great powers. This last decade, Putin has demonstrated his ability to promote Russian influence and interests where and when desired. By using realpolitik, Putin has been able to promote Russia’s interests without any moral dilemmas, while the West is trying to act morally (which is highly debatable) and is actually limiting its flexibility and interests. Russia is back and the West needs to work with a complex partner.
(Copyright 2015 by Politipond. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission).
2014 has certainly been a complex and eventful year for the world; and 2015 already started at full throttle with the recent terrorist attacks in France. The relentless year was marked by a succession of events affecting directly or indirectly the Euro-Atlantic community at every level of analysis imaginable: individual, domestic, national, regional and naturally international. This year Politipond has identified six axiomatic issues occurring in 2014 with likely future repercussions.
The election of the European Parliament – the European earthquake
Were the European Parliament elections in May 2014 a wake-up call for Europe? Or the beginning of a new direction for the Union? The elections underscored a trend in most EU Member States, a shift towards the extremes (right and left). Some EU Member States have seen an increasing attraction to extreme-left parties. Greece, which has been at the heart of the future of the Eurozone since 2009, is still experiencing considerable traumas caused by the austerity measures implemented as required by the terms of the bailout. Today, Greece is still facing political problems, which has been a blessing for Syriza, a far-left populist party led by Alexis Tsipras. In other EU Member States, the shift has been towards the extreme-right wing political parties. This is the case in several large EU Member States such as France (with the Front National led by Marine Le Pen), the United Kingdom (with UK Independence Party with Nigel Farage), the Netherlands (Party of Freedom with Geert Wilders), Austria (Freedom Party of Austria and Alliance for the Future of Austria withHeinz-Christian Strache and Josef Bucher), among others.
Among these parties, the Front National, UKIP and the Freedom Party have increased their visibility on the European stage and their influence on shaping national debates. In the case of the Front National, the party received the most votes in France for the 2014 EP elections with 25% of the votes representing an increase by 18.9% from the 2009 EP elections (read analysis on France here). Marine Le Pen even called her party the first one of France. The graph below illustrates the votes received by extreme-right wing parties in the 2014 EP elections.
The 2014 EP elections were certainly a political earthquake in Europe as large EU Member States fell to extreme parties. However, institutionally, the influence of right-wing parties at the EP remains minor as they only have 52 seats out of the 751. At the end of the day, the EP remains in the hands of the EPP (Social Democrats) and the S&D (Socialists). But the increase of votes received by extreme-right parties underlined several aspects: a high discontentment with the EU; a misunderstanding of the EU; nationalist feelings; and the permanent anger towards immigrants. During Pope Francis’ speech before the EP in December, he described the EU as an “elderly and haggard” Europe. Europe needs to reconnect with its citizens, and it won’t be with the help of its radical parties.
A new EU leadership
2014 was the year of the renouveau in terms of changing personnel at leadership positions in the EU. This was the case for the High Representative (HR/VP), known as the EU foreign minister, the President of the Commission, and the President of the European Council. Ensuing the European elections for the European Parliament (EP) in May, the President of the EP remained the same, Martin Schulz. Considering the HRVP and the
President of the Commission, the latter went to former Prime Minister of Luxembourg, Jean-Claude Juncker (read here an article on the Juncker Commission) and to the former Italian Foreign Minister, Federiga Mogherini. These two individuals have been welcomed as they are expected to bring a new wind to Europe and their respective institutions. The José Manuel Barroso’s years have affected the dynamism of the Commission, especially in his last quinquennat; while, for his counterpart, Catherine Ashton, she never seemed at her ease leading the European foreign policy machine and the EEAS. However, Herman Van Rompuy, President of the European Council left the position to Polish Prime Minister, Donald Tusk, in excellent standing. Herman Van Rompuy, undeniably discrete but efficient, was axiomatic in holding European unity especially during the period of tense negotiations to save the PIIGS and the Eurozone (read here one of the best peer-reviewed articles on Ashton and Van Rompuy).
Soon after his appointment Jean-Claude Juncker pledged before the EP that he would seek to reboost and/or reboot the European economic engine. Later this fall, he announced his strategy, known as the Juncker Plan, a €315bn investment fund program intended to kick-start the European economy/ies. The Commission argues that the Juncker plan could “create up to 1.3 million jobs with investment in broadband, energy networks and transport infrastructure, as well as education and research.” This public-private investment fund program (the Commission and the European Investment Bank (EIB) would create a €21bn reserve fund allowing the EIB to provide loans of a total of €63bn, while the bulk of the money, €252bn, would come from private investors) would allow to fund broad construction and renovation programs across Europe. Some experts argue that the Juncker plan is too little, in terms of the size of the investments, while EU Member States are reluctant to invest their shares in such program. In any case, it won’t start before mid-2015.
Sluggish negotiations around the TTIP
The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), initiated in July 2013, has become a sluggish and complex series of negotiations between the EU and the US. At first this massive bilateral trade agreement was expected to be quickly completed and agreed. The TTIP consists in removing trade barriers in a wide range of economic sectors as well as harmonizing some rules, technical regulation, standards, and approval procedures. According to the European Commission, the TTIP is projected to boost the EU’s economy by €120 billion; the US economy by €90 billion; and the rest of the world by €100 billion. “The TTIP’s goal” argue Javier Solana and Carl Bildt, “is to unleash the power of the transatlantic economy, which remains by far the world’s largest and wealthiest market, accounting for three-quarters of global financial activity and more than half of world trade.”
Almost two years in, the negotiations on the TTIP are facing serious criticisms inside Europe. The TTIP has provided the arguments to anti-globalization movements, fear of decline of democratic foundations, declining national sovereignty, as well as destruction of national/regional identities and cultures. Nevertheless, as demonstrated below, a majority of European citizens are in favor of the TTIP at the exception of Austria.
The TTIP is seen as a way to relaunch the transatlantic economy, but mainly European economies stagnating since the financial crisis. The TTIP is as well a response to the other trade agreements, like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), and the rise of Asian economies. Economists and experts argue that a failure to conclude the TTIP in 2015 could lead to the collapse of the negotiations and leave the European economy in difficult position in the years/decade to come.
A Climate Deal for the Earth?
President Obama announced on November 11 the historical climate deal with his Chinese counterpart to control the level of pollution of the two nations. The US pledged to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by at least 26% below the 2005 levels by 2025, while China committed to increase its share of power produced by non-carbon sources, nuclear and solar, to 20%. Nevertheless, China recognized that its greenhouse gas emissions will continue peaking until at least 2030.
This climate pact between the two largest polluting nations was agreed weeks prior the Lima summit laying down groundwork for the comprehensive UN greenhouse gas reduction pact expected to be agreed at the 2015 Paris summit, known as the United Nations Climate Change Conference(UNFCC COP21). The 2014 US-Chinese climate pact is an important stepping-stone prior the 2015 climate summit in Paris. The 2015 Paris summit may be a turning point for the EU and the EU-28 to lead on this question after the 2009 Copenhagen fiasco.
A Terrorist Triad: ISIL, Boko Harm, and Al-Shabaab
Terrorism has always existed and will continue to live on. However, the type of terrorism faced by the Euro-Atlantic community since the mid-1990s has been principally based on radical islamic terrorism. The principal group on top of Western lists was Al-Qaeda, which has lost some of its grandeur since the assassination of its leader Ben Laden. The year 2014 was important as three groups have shaped Western foreign policies: the new comer, Islamic State in Iraq and Levant (ISIL, also now referred as the Islamic State, IS), and two more established groups, Boko Haram and Al-Shabaab. Each group does fall under a similar category of being inspired by Islam, but have different agendas and different radiance.
In the case of Boko Haram and Al-Shabaab, both groups are located on the African continents. Boko Haram, an Islamic sect, recognized by the US in 2013 as a foreign terrorist organization, seeks to create an Islamic state in Nigeria. Boko Haram became a familiar house-name in 2014 with the kidnapping of hundreds of school girls creating an outcry in the US. In the case of Al-Shabaad, a somali islamic terrorist group, is an Al-Qaeda militant group fighting for the creation of an Islamic state in Somalia. The group has started to increase its attacks outside of Somalia’s borders and especially against Uganda and Kenya (remember the terrorist attack on a Nairobi Mall in 2013) as both states are actively involved in fighting Al-Shabaad.
The last terrorist group, ISIL, is more recent. It has risen from the rubbles of the Syrian civil war, ensuing the Arab Spring. Prior its existence as ISIL, it was identified as Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and emerged during the US campaign against Saddam Hussein. The group became ISIL in 2012 when the ambition of the group became regional and some fighters moved their fight to Syria. Even though Western governments were aware of its existence, ISIL became a top priority for Western citizens – regardless of its real threat to Western homelands – in June 2014 after several victories in overtaking large Iraqi cities like Mosul and Fallujah. ISIL has progressively begun a territorial warfare in order to create its own state, a caliphate, over parts of Syria and Iraq.
The core distinction between ISIL and the two other groups lays in their soft power. ISIL has been extremely attractive to many Europeans and Americans citizens, while Boko Haram and Al-Shabaab have remained more local/regional in their recruiting efforts. A large number of Western citizens, mainly from France, Belgium and the UK, have decided to join the fight aside ISIL fighters in Syria. These fighters have been perceived as a real threat to homeland security (as proven by the January 7th attacks in France against Charlie Hebdo).
Ultimately, these three terrorist organizations will keep their importance on influencing Western foreign and defense policies as the US and some of its European allies are already involved in military actions in Iraq and Syria. In the case of Europe, France is actively fighting terrorist networks in the region of the Sahel (Operation Barkhane, read here a previous analysis) and other African nations like in Mali (Operation Serval).
On the European chessboard, 2014 belongs to Russia. Russia brought back the European continent to traditional warfare with territorial invasions and other types of military provocations unseen since the Cold War (including the destruction of an airliner above Ukraine). 2014 started with the ‘invasion‘ of Crimea by the Russian army leading to its annexation to Russia validated by a referendum. By mid-Spring 2014, Ukraine had lost a part of its territory without any actions by the members of the Euro-Atlantic community. The West started to act against Russia during the summer once reports revealed the presence of ‘green men’ in Eastern Ukraine and movement of military equipments across the border.
During the summer, EU Member States agreed on a series of sanctions against Russian individuals and some financial institutions. At first, many experts thought that the sanctions were too little too late, but in late 2014 the Russian economy was showing serious signs of weakness. However, one needs to underscore that the slowdown of the Russian economy is related to the collapse of the oil prices and a decrease in consumer spendings. In almost one year, the rouble has lost 30% of its value and the Russian economy is on the verge of recession. As reported by the Economist, “Banks have been cut off from Western capital markets, and the price of oil—Russia’s most important export commodity—has fallen hard.”
Despite the economic situation of Russia, at least until now, Vladimir Putin has maintained throughout 2014 a very strong domestic support and sky-high approval rating. Putin’s decision to invade and annex Crimea was highly popular in Russia (as illustrated below). Additionally, the anti-Western narratives advanced by Putin have been well received domestically. However, with the decline of the Russian economy the shift from Russian foreign prestige to more concrete concerns, like jobs, economic stability, and social conditions, may re-become of importance in the national debate.
2015, Year of the Renouveau?
The economists seem very optimistic considering the forecast of the global economy. According to Les Echos (of December 30, 2014) 2014 was indeed an excellent year for world markets with record results for Shanghai (+49.7% since December 31, 2013), New York (+13.1% for S&P 500 since December 31, 2013), a modest result for Stoxx Europe (+4.9%), a stagnating French CAC40 (+0.5%), and a declining British FTSE (-1.7%). But with rising world markets, declining oil prices, increasing US gas production, and an increasing American growth, 2015 looks bright for the US, but remain mitigated for European economies.
The Grexit may be back on the table based on the elections of January 25th. With Syriza at the head of the polls, his leader has been calling for a renegotiation of Greece’s loan terms implemented by the Troika (IMF, Commission, and ECB). Neither Berlin nor Brussels want to go down this road. According to Der Spiegel, Berlin is willing to let Athens leave the European Monetary Union (EMU) if it decides to abandon the austerity measures. Two aspects can be underscored: on the one hand, some argues that Berlin is not worried anymore about a contagion to other European economies in case of a Grexit. While on the other, some others are claiming that it is part of a ‘tactical game’ played by Berlin in order to lower the chances of a Syriza victory at the end of the month. In any case, the question of the Euro and EU membership will remain throughout 2015.
Will the Brexit occur? In 2015, British subjects will be voting for the next Prime Minister. The elections are going to be closely monitored considering the possibilities of an eventual referendum on the future of the United Kingdom’s EU membership. The current PM, David Cameron, has been promising a referendum for 2017 if re-elected and has been a counter-productive force in Brussels. Additionally, Nigel Farage, leader of the UK Independence Party (UKIP), getting strong results at the 2014 EP elections seem a strong frontrunner for the post of PM. He has, as well, promised a referendum on the EU membership of the UK. The financial hub of Europe, the City, has been concerned about the financial and economic repercussions of a Brexit. The City’s argument is that by being outside a powerful club, the EU, the UK won’t be able to influence its decision-making and direction. In a recent poll, 56% of British citizens are favorable in staying within the Union.
Last but not least, 2015 may be the year of another large debate in Europe about terrorism versus immigration, freedom versus security and the solidification of the rise of anti-immigrants parties. The terrorist attacks of January 7th, 2015 in Paris will change the national and European debate about counterterrorism, social-economic policies, domestic political narratives, and naturally foreign policies towards the Arab world.
(Copyright 2015 by Politipond. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission).
Three gunmen armed with kalashnikov rifles opened fire in the office of the satirical french newspaper Charlie Hebdo killing 12 people, including prominent journalists and two policemen. Four top French cartoonists, Cabut, widely known as Cabu, Stéphane Charbonnier, known as Charb, Wolinksi and Tignou were all killed. Cabu, Wolinski and Charb have been important figures in shaping/mocking French society and culture with the ink of their pens for decades. Since the attack the region Ile-de-France, including Paris, is on its highest threat alert as the authorities are looking for the gunmen, recently identified. Even though, there are still speculation about whether the gunmen acted as lone-wolves or are part of a wider terrorist network, François Hollande, French President, immediately announced that it was an act of terrorism and an assault on freedom of the press. President Hollande and the Minister of Interior went to the location of the shooting and addressed the press (here is his evening allocution on the act of terrorist).
Since 2001, the European continent has been struck by two large terrorist attacks, 2004 in Madrid and 2005 in London. Both terrorist attacks were planned by members of Al-Qaeda and were of large amplitude. Since 2005, Europeans have been better prepared, and in some instance lucky, in stopping attacks before their phase of implementation. But a new trend has emerged on both sides of the Atlantic, the lone-wolf syndrome. In the last years, attacks have been perpetuated in London (2013), Ottawa (2014), Sydney (2014) and other failed ones in the US like in New York (2010).
Marks of Radical Islamic Terrorists?
Even though all the proofs haven’t been gather to confirm such attrocity as a terrorist attack, world experts seem convinced of its terrorist nature. Now, the question is: is it an attack of lone-wolves? or a terrorist attack planned by a wider terrorist network?
Radical Islamic terrorism figures as one of the many terrorist threats facing the EU today. EU Member States have encountered over the years different sorts of terrorist groups like the IRA in the UK, ETA in France and Spain, individuals like Carlos the Jackal, the Red Brigades, so on and so forth. However, a new emphasis has been placed on radical Islamic terrorism in Europe starting in the 1990s and especially since the deadly attacks of September 2001 in the US.
On the European continent several key terrorist attacks have led to tentatively deepen cooperation between EU Member States and increase vigilance domestically. However, counter-terrorist experts are witnessing a shift in the origins of alleged terrorists. For example, the cell in Hamburg linked to the 9/11 attacks was composed of foreign students; Moroccan immigrants were behind the Madrid train bombings; but the killing of Dutch filmmaker, Mr. van Gogh, in 2004 was initiated by a European-born individual (Leiken, 2005: 125). European experts argue that the radical Islamic terrorist threat in Europe is entering a new phase, the emergence of “Middle East-style political assassinations as part of the European jihadist arsenal and disclosed a new source of danger: unknown individuals among Europe’s own Muslims” (Bures, 2010: 62-63).
This previous distinction underlines the two existing categories of jihadists in Western Europe: insiders and outsiders. The Outsiders are legal aliens such as asylum seekers or students. Oftentimes they move to Western Europe in consequence of a crackdown against Islamists in the Middle East. The other category, Insiders, is composed of second- or third-generation immigrants, who were born in Europe (Leiken, 2005: 126-27; Laqueur, 2006). This second trend, of home-grown Islamist terrorists, has considerably increased since 2006 as reported by Europol. In the case of the Charlie Hebdo attack, it will be interesting to find out if both men were insiders or outsiders. Additionally, France has been in recent months a country with over 1,000 men deciding to leave Europe in order to join the fight with ISIL fighters in Syria and Iraq. Ultimately, a segment of French population, nevertheless minimal, have decided to follow a road towards radicalization.
An Attack on French Democracy and Values
Such action is a direct attack against the French democracy and its values. Charlie Hebdo is a extensive satirical newspaper mocking everything, anything and everyone. The New York Times describedCharlie Hebdo extremely well when writing that “Charlie Hebdo is part of a venerable tradition in France, deploying satire and insolence to take on politicians and the police, bankers and religions of all kinds.” French citizens have remained divided on the work produced by Charlie Hebdo as “some saw them as powerful stands for free speech, and others as needless provocations.” The editorial director, Charb, was consistent in his understanding of freedom as he not only criticized anything even under foreign threat and national pressures (he has been under police protection for some time), but also called for the respect of criticism and expression by the others. François Mouly, the art editor of the New Yorker magazine was quoted saying “To have cartoonists slaughtered for publishing cartoons is something we haven’t seen since the 18th century,” and added that “They were troublemakers for my entire life” (listen here her interview on the issue).
The weekly newspaper, created in 1970, has a complex history. It emerged from the newspaper Hara-Kiri banned for mocking the death of General de Gaulle. From 1981 to 1992, Charlie Hebdo ceased to be printed for lack of funds. In the 1990s, it was resurrected and become highly visible after the publication in 2006 of cartoons representing the Prophet Mohammet priorly published by a Danish newspaper. Since 2006, Charlie Hebdo has faced threats for its publications and repeated criticisms of Islam. Ensuing the publication of the cartoons, French President Jacques Chirac called for greater responsibility by the press. Charlie Hebdo responded by claiming: “We, writers, journalists, intellectuals, call for resistance to religious totalitarianism and for the promotion of freedom, equal opportunity and secular values for all.” In 2011, the offices of the newspaper were under attack and damaged by a firebomb.
The symbolism behind this terrorist action is direct attack against French democracy and values, and overall France as a whole. The freedom of press and expression is a basic and central pillar of democracy in most Euro-Atlantic countries. Mockery, criticism, and self-criticism of the world, political systems, religion are necessary for fostering debate and pushing the limits of democracy. Mockery and satire have historically been a core component of French democracy and political life (see Les Guignols de l’Info, Le Bébête Show, Le Canard Enchaîné, and others).
Where does France go from here?
The spontaneous reaction by French citizens around the country and even the world has been the best one possible: spontaneous street meeting demonstrating the spirit of French unity behind its press and principles. Even though terrorism will never end and cannot be ‘killed,’ these attacks should be seen as a starting point in order to address the failures of French society and political environment and trying to reform them. France has been on the verge of a breaking point for quite some times. The society seems broken between the true-French and the rest (see the problem in this use of words). The true-French are unwilling to accept a reform and the opening of French values and cultures in accordance with the new realities; while, the rest feels rejected and sidelined in the booming French suburbs/ghettos. The society is divided into these two groups so intrenched in their narratives, beliefs and ideologies creating a environment propitious to such type of violence.
In addition to a broken society, the French political class is far from being exemplary. Political courage is needed in order to unite and once and for all ending the vitriolic and xenophobic tone present this last decade in mainstream political narratives. Unfortunately, these attacks are taking place at a time of breaking point for French society. The rise of populist and xenophobe parties like the Front National, scoring so highly at the recent European elections, and the vitriolic narratives of the mainstream right trying to attract the voters from the extremes has transformed the national debate. On the one hand, political parties and political leaders have created a dangerous amalgam linking terrorism, immigration, islam, integration altogether when the realities are much more complex. For instance, France hyper-activity in the fight against radical islamic networks in Africa, Sahel and Middle East has increased its vulnerability. While on the other, a taboo about the evolution of French society and the failure of its model of integration, through assimilation, have never been addressed properly. Last, mainstream political parties ought to reject/alienate the extremes and their attempts in normalizing their agendas.
Today France is mourning the death of its talented cartoonists. Tomorrow, France ought to face its realities and weaknesses. Combining a broken society and a toothless political class, the challenge seems considerable. The starting point is an obvious acceptance of the failure of the model of integration, the assumption of its standing as a leading democracy, and finally comforting the need to reform its broken society.
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