Jonathan Eyal, Europe Correspondent In London

France's longer fight against terrorism

Beyond a show of national unity, France needs to overhaul its security structures, foreign policy and treatment of immigrants.

"France is not mourning Charlie Hebdo, nor is it mourning the principle of freedom of expression; France is mourning itself as a country which died, and the fact that there will never be another one like it."

These are not the words of some politician or academic, but of Disiz, a French rapper who, notwithstanding his outlandish gigs and nickname "The Pest", has offered a perfect snapshot of the feelings of his nation. For, even if few agree with Disiz's opinions, most Frenchmen and women accept that their country has been profoundly changed by the recent terrorist attacks, and few seem to know in which direction France is now heading.

As is often the case when a nation is hit by a major disaster, the people of France and their leaders have responded by drawing together. Prime Minister Manuel Valls' parliamentary speech in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks lasted only 25 minutes, but got no fewer than five standing ovations, beating the previous record established in 1944, during the first parliamentary sitting after France was liberated from German occupation.

The parliamentarians also burst into a spontaneous singing of La Marseillaise, the French national anthem; the only other time this happened was a century ago, when World War I ended. And Mr Francois Hollande, hitherto the most unpopular president in French modern history, marched together with the leaders of no fewer than 40 other countries at the head of the biggest demonstration staged by the people of France since World War II. Few nations express their emotions with so much panache and sheer theatre as the French.

Balancing act

But the high hopes which followed the tragedy, the "ardent fire of national unity" as President Hollande now likes to call it, are unlikely to last, for the French government is trying to balance too many conflicting demands, with no immediate prospects of succeeding on any. The problem with high moments of national unity is that they generate unreasonably high expectations which cannot be fulfilled; the risk is that a French government which has done well in handling the immediate crisis will still fail when it comes to tackling the longer-term historic challenge.

The cracks are already obvious in what should be France's most immediate task: that of preventing future acts of terrorism. Mr Hollande has promised to "act fast to deal with the threat, but not in a precipitous manner". In theory, eminently sensible: a rushed response is invariably a bad one. However, this ignores the fact that, while France has yet to say what it will do when it comes to preventing future terrorist attacks, it has already announced what it will not do: weary of criticism from left-wingers within his ruling Socialist party, Mr Valls has announced that France will not adopt its own version of the US Patriot Act, the set of measures which the American Congress enacted soon after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on US soil.

So at least on this score, the French have remained true to form: Their instinctive reaction, when forced to take a stance, is to define themselves as different from whatever the Americans may be doing.

France's leaders claim that instead of writing new anti-terrorism legislation, they will concentrate on improving the ability of their intelligence community in dealing with the threat. But this may be easier said than done.

For the reality is that the intelligence structures which exist in France today operate not only to deliver efficient national protection, but also to shield the security services from being used by the politicians in power, as they used to be for more than a century.

For instance, the National Commission for the Control of Security Interceptions, the body which decided that the security services should stop monitoring the Kouachi brothers who then went on to murder the journalists of Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine, was established back in 1991 to reassure the public that the telecommunication intercepts done by the country's spooks will be for real security reasons rather than because the Elysee Palace wanted to keep tabs on political opponents.

To make matters worse, this grandly named commission is composed of only three magistrates and is incapable of handling the volume of demand now placed upon it.

And if this is not enough, the creation of bodies supposed to uphold the political impartiality of France's intelligence services has not put an end to the practice of appointing intelligence chiefs on political grounds: Mr Bernard Squarcini, who led France's DCRI, the agency responsible for counter-terrorism, was relieved of his position by the current Socialists in 2012, the moment they came to power.

Mr Valls admits that "without doubt the legal and judiciary reforms" which underpin the activities of the security services "are required". But there are no obvious indicators that this will end the French propensity to play political football with the intelligence services.

Education is another area where progress will be slower than anticipated. In true French style, Mrs Najat Vallaud- Belkacem, France's Education Minister who was born in Morocco and describes herself as a "non-practising Muslim", has called upon "intellectuals" - people who only in France are treated as a distinct group of society - to "mobilise" for the fight against religious extremism.

"Moral and civic" classes become compulsory for all schoolchildren from later this year. Still, in some schools, students refused to respect the moment's silence for the latest terror victims. And in many of the country's 64,000 educational establishments there is genuine opposition to government-dictated patriotic lessons. Either way, it would be some time before the "flame of the Republic will shine again", says Mr Laurent Escure, one of the top trade union leaders in the educational sector. 


Ultimately, reforms to the education system will never be enough, unless integration into French society is expanded to the ghastly, quasi-shanty towns on the peripheries of France's main cities, where many of the country's immigrants live; their marginalisation is not merely economic and spiritual, but also physical. This task is vast because what France needs is not merely large financial resources which it cannot afford, but also a fundamental rethink of French urban housing policies over the past half century.

The same gigantic overhaul task applies to France's foreign policy in the wake of the crisis. In his speech to Parliament, Mr Valls admitted that "Yes, France is at war with terrorism, jihadism and radical Islam".

But, he added, "France is not at war against a religion; France is not at war against Islam or Muslims". All very catchy and undoubtedly a reflection of honest aspirations, but hardly very enlightening.

For, rightly or wrongly, not many people in the Muslim world regard France's so-called "republican values" of racial integration and separation between religion and state as either universally valid or as morally appropriate. And the more these French values are being touted and enforced - as they are bound to be in the years to come - the wider the perception gap between France and the Muslim world is likely to grow.

It was noticeable that among the impressive list of world leaders who went to Paris to take part in the anti-terrorism demonstrations, there were two major omissions: the top leaders of Algeria and any representation from Morocco. In effect, the Muslim countries which are closest to France in both geographic and historic terms, and which have provided the bulk of the Muslim immigrants in France, have shunned this event altogether. So, what was presented in Paris as a great triumph for global solidarity against terrorism was nothing of the kind for the Muslim world.

Nobody in the world takes the slightest bit of pleasure in identifying the troubles France is now facing. And no government in Europe has the right to criticise the French on this score, since none has fared much better.

But it is a fact that the future of Europe's relations with Islam will be heavily influenced by the way France deals with this challenge. As far as Europe is concerned, therefore, France has to succeed.

Even if many tacitly accept that success in this area will remain a very relative concept.