The interview was conducted in English for O’Globo, a Brazilian newspaper, over the phone on November 20th and then a written follow-up several days later. Here is a discussion in Portuguese about the intervention of Russia in Syria and its regional consequences. The interview took place before two majors events: the destruction of a Russian fighter jet by Turkey, a NATO member; and the terrorist attacks in Paris at the end of November. Both events have directly affected the situation in Syria by creating serious tensions between NATO and Russia as well as mobilizing European powers in contributing to the war efforts against ISIS.
In a recent intervention before the press, Jean-Yves le Drian, French Minister of Defense, laid out the revised strategic and defense goals for France for 2015. This plan was supposed to be exposed early January, but the terrorist attacks against Charlie Hebdo changed the policy and ultimately the strategic agenda of France. In his introduction the Minister claimed that “never, in its recent history, France has known such a deep connection between the direct threats on its homeland and the ones multiplying outside of its borders.” Despite its economic difficulties, France has demonstrated this last decade its commitment to assuring the security of its territory and interests of the Nation, as well as projecting its military power in its perceived sphere of influence.
Threats and Challenges to France and Strategic Reactions
In his intervention, Jean-Yves le Drian underscored the threat represented by the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL) and Boko Haram. In the case of ISIL, it menace can be felt in Syria, Iraq and Libya and in Western homelands. Territories under control of terrorist networks form an ‘arc’ circling Europe. Their presence can be felt on the European continent considering their degree of attractivity for many European citizens as illustrated by the terrorist attacks conducted in France and Denmark.
In addition to the real menace of radical islamic terrorist networks, the war in Ukraine on the European continent completes the circle around Europe. War on the European continent has fostered serious fears in most European capitals. “War in Europe,” argued le Drian, “it is what everyone of us must fear when borders are being changed and when international law is being trampled.”
In order to address the challenges and threats confronting France and its interests, France has defined its national security and defense framework in the famous Livre Blanc. In the last decade, France saw the production of two Livres Blancs, one in 2008 under President Sarkozy and recently in 2013 under President Hollande. Historically, France has produced four Livres Blancs. The first one in 1972 looked at the strategic independence of France offered by the possession of its nuclear capabilities. The second one in 1994 sought to address the radical shifting regional and global order ensuing the collapse of the Soviet Union. The third one, in 2008, incorporates the lessons learned after 2001, the new world order, and the new threats facing the Nation.
The last one, produced in 2013, incorporates the new realities facing France such as the economic crisis and the financial constraints, the Arab Spring and the rising instabilities in European neighborhoods, the rise of new powers especially in Asia and cyberthreats. In this 160-page strategic document produced soon after the election of François Hollande, French defense experts laid out three strategic lines of conduct: protection, deterrence, and intervention.
French Foreign Hyper-Activity
Historically, France has always been an independent global actor. Its global rank ensuing World War two was boosted by General de Gaulle developing a maximalist and exceptionalist dimensions to France’s foreign and defense policies. France has been for several decades a second-rank superpower with its large standing army, nuclear weapons, and active military-industrial complex. France has been a reliable US partner even though it remained independent from NATO until 2009 when it rejoined NATO’s integrated military command structure.
In order to compete with NATO, France was favorable to the creation of an independent European military force. The most serious and effective decision took place in 1998 in Saint-Malo during a bilateral agreement with British Prime Minister Tony Blair. This agreement established the European Security and Defense Policy, becoming the Common Security and Defense Policy with the 2009 Treaty of Lisbon. France has been an active participant of CSDP missions, civilian and military combined, when it favored its national interests and usually when CSDP missions were deployed in its sphere of influence, Africa and the Middle East.
Since the turn of the century, France has stood against the US because of the 2003 war in Iraq and was vocal against the neo-conservative agenda of the Bush administration. The relations with the US changed with the arrival to power of President Obama in 2008, even though some warming up occurred in the last years of President Bush. In parallel of Obama’s arrival, the world and especially the European neighborhoods have developed new dynamics. Once elected in 2008, President Obama wanted to disengage the US from its Bushian wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and pivot to Asia. The US pivot was engaged leaving a certain power vacuum in the Mediterranean region and the Middle East. During the pivot, the Arab world faced a radical and quick transition caused by the Arab Spring, which no Western leaders saw coming and knew how to handle.
To some extent, France under the presidency of M. Sarkozy took the lead and initiated a period of hyper-activity starting with the 2011 mission against Libya sanctioned by the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973 (2011) implementing a no-fly zone over Libya. This UNSCR was pushed to the limits by Western actors, France, Britain and the US, leading to the fall of the Gaddafi regime. Since the war in Libya, France is currently fighting battles on three exterior fronts and one interior front:
- foreign theaters: in Central African Republic (CAR) with Operation Sangaris; in the Sahel region counting Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad under Operation Barkhane; in Mali with Operation Serval; and in Iraq with Operation Chammal fighting ISIL.
- domestic theater: France has launched Operation Sentinelle in January 2015 until a scheduled review in June counting 10,000 soldiers to protect France’s homeland – public and religious sites – against possible attacks.
Reactualization of the 2015 Objectives
In his speech, Jean-Yves le Drian announced five broad orientations for 2015. These orientations are made in accordance with the Military Programming Law (la loi de programmation militaire) from 2014-2019. Due to the terrorist attacks of January 2015, the Ministry of Defense is seeking to addressing some adjustments in the Military Programming Law (MPL), which holds two dispositions: first, material provisions such finance, equipments and budgets; second, normative provisions.
The new orientations for 2015 are as follow:
- review of the military effectives;
- reforming some of the priorities established in 2013 by developing special forces, a new cyber strategy, increasing the domain of intelligence (human and material capabilities);
- military-industrial complex, addressing some capabilities shortfalls of the French army (in drones, helicopters, arial transportation), while increasing the sale of French military equipments, namely the Rafale;
- financial resources for the MPL by guaranteeing the funding to the Ministry of Defense;
- a new relationship between the Army and the Nation.
A Call for More Europe
During the two-day informal Defense ministers meeting in Riga in February 2015, Jean-Yves le Drian underlined the importance for EU Member States to increase their commitments and support towards European security and defense. A month later, he continued his call for more European participation to the protection of Europe. In his march intervention, he said “we are 28 Member States in the EU, but how many are we to really participate in the resolution of crises in our neighborhood?” He claimed that the distribution of labor is not evenly distributed, even though the threats directly threaten the EU and its 28 Member States as a whole. The attacks in Paris, Copenhagen and Tunis and the Russian expansionist war in Eastern Europe are a clear illustration.
The Defense Minister underlined the fact that European financial contributions to NATO (fixed at 2% of the GDP) are not met by most European members and in the case of the EU, the financial burden on common operations (under the CSDP, read here an article on the financing of CSDP missions) is not evenly distributed. “When France fight in the Sahel, Levant,” he said “she intervenes for the benefits of the security of all Europeans.”
Between the Le Drian’s comments, Juncker’s proposal for a EU army, and Solana’s call for a European Defense Union (EDU), the question of the Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP) is an important one of the many current European agendas. The global and regional realities with the ‘arc of fire’ all around the EU has caused great concerns to all EU-28. If Southern Members are more inclined to see the instabilities in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) as a direct threat to their homelands, Eastern Members are feeling the heat from the war led by Russia on the Eastern front, and all Member States are seeing the rise of radical islamic terrorist activities domestically. The EU and the EU-28 are confronting serious external and internal threats requiring more cooperation and ultimately deeper integration. These threats are so diverse in their origins and nature that they cannot be solved independently. They require a united front.
The June Defense Summit will be an important moment in European security and defense cooperation. The French will be vocal and will want to increase European cooperation and burden-sharing in addressing the extremely volatile neighborhoods. Other EU Member States ought to join France in seriously addressing these threats.
(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 with Heinz-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 described Charlie 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.