The New Politics of War against Terror in France

Silence and the Statue. Place de la Republique, Paris. Copyright Alfio Cerami

On Friday 13, 2015 Paris underwent a series of terrorist attacks that have opened the door to a new politics of war against terror in France. This new politics of war against terror represents an important critical juncture that will change the entire foreign policy orientation of the country. Six main mechanisms of foreign policy re-orientation can be identified: 1) an enlargement mechanism; 2) a stabilization mechanism; 3) a softening mechanism; 4) a recalibration mechanism; 5) an isolation mechanism; and 6) a mediatization mechanism.

Up to current date, Washington’s positions about the new alignment of France towards Putin’s Russia have remained skeptical. White House and Pentagon’s experts have raised concerns about Putin’s real geopolitical and strategic interests. The issue at stake here is not only how to securitize the Middle East and Europe from the expansion of ISIS, but also the stay in power of Bashar al-Assad.

From this standpoint, France’s new politics of war against terror is resulting in a securitization of the French society. The key pillars of this new politics of securitization include: 1) a growing role for the defense and security sector (including additional spending); 2) new border and migration control measures; 3) a redefinition of citizens’ rights; and 4) new emergency laws, including criminalizing terrorist support, data retention and assets freezing .

This new approach to the fight against terror necessitates a drastic reconsideration of the state budget, with increasing costs of war. Additionally, it requires a ‘constitutional engineering’ which should, subsequently, result in a ‘security engineering’ (see, for example, Hollande’s recent call for constitutional reforms to establish an ‘état de crise’).

Financing the war against terror is costly, but necessary. Priorities must, however, be set.

During the days following the attacks, Parisian streets were empty and shops closed. Though estimations are not possible at this time, the gross city product dramatically decreased, as many tourists renounced to their vacations.

Loss of jobs and growing discontent among the population is also likely to occur, especially in the poorest neighborhoods of Paris where Salafism is preponderant.

In order to understand the dynamics of the terrorist attacks, a simple description of events is not sufficient. It is also necessary to capture their macro and micro foundations, with associated mechanisms of institutional change.

Unquestionably, the war in Iraq and in Syria have helped to radicalize the positions of several young muslims around the world, who have moved toward more radical positions, closer, so experts say, to a Saudi Arabian understanding of the Islam.

As far as the micro foundations of the Paris attacks is concerned, jihadists were of different origins (primarily French, Belgian and Moroccan). A Syrian passport was also found by police authorities.

Interestingly, however, the majority of the attackers cannot be regarded as perfect arabphones, being born in Europe or North Africa. They also did not belong to extremely disadvantaged groups of the society. At best, they could be considered as belonging to vulnerable groups to social exclusion with difficulties in cultural adaptation.

Conducting the terrorist attacks in Paris was, however, not a cheap exercise. Each jihadist is supposed to have received (earned) approximately 50,000 euros, primarily deriving from the ISIS exorbitant budget estimated in 2 billion USD a year .

There are several reasons why the fight against ISIS has become vital for France. Just to quote a few, this has depended, on the one hand, on its internal battle against the revival of religious fundamentalism in major French cities. On the other, it has also depended on the expanding presence of ISIS in its former colonies of North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa (see, for instance, the recent interventions of France in Mali).

In this context, supporting Assad war against ISIS has been seen as a functional necessity to limit the expansion of religious fundamentalists abroad, though anti-Assad rebels and ISIS supporters cannot be considered as one single entity.

What should not be forgotten here is that opposition to the Assad regime derives from the Arab Spring movements in 2011 and not from factions of the Al-Qaeda branch in Iraq (AQAP). The two groups were competitors in the beginning of the war in Syria, but they might now find some point in common if they are both subjected to a joint aerial bombings. ISIS training camps are, in fact, difficult to target. They are located in open space places with no clear boundaries (see Squarcini ‘s article in Le Parisien). Hence, who hits whom is still an open question.

What are then the international repercussions of Hollande’s and Putin’s new marriage? And what is their impact for future foreign policy?

Six main path-breaking mechanisms in foreign policy re-orientation can be identified. These represent the key elements of a critical juncture whose long term effects are still difficult to evaluate.

1) Enlargement mechanism: A move from US to Russian main foreign policy orientation can be expected in the short and medium term. For France, ensuring security abroad corresponds to pursuing not only country-specific geopolitical and strategic objectives, but also broader EU enlargement priorities through the opening of special partnerships to other members of the former Soviet Union (see European Neighborhod Policy ). This clearly involves important repercussions in diplomatic relations with difficult equilibria that must now be established among France as member of the EU, EU institutions, USA, NATO and Russia.

2) Stabilization mechanism: The stabilization of the Assad regime and not its removal is a consequence that cannot be excluded a priori, since the persistence of the Assad regime may ensure a smoother reorientation of French energy policies in the context of expanding new EU energy assets. Interesting to note here is that military interventions can help to endure the survival of a regime, when this regime succeeds to obtain an international legitimacy due to ‘war on terror’ tactics. This is what is happening to Assad’s Syria.

3) Softening mechanism: A realignment or softening of the EU Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) from NATO to Russian geopolitical and strategic interests can therefore be forecasted. Path-breaking political decisions not rarely involve path-breaking policy realignments. However, institutional legacies in processes of incremental institutional change must also be taken into account. In this context, Charles de Gaulle’s notion of France as an independent nation not fully aligned to the US represents, simultaneously, a return to the past, as well as the creation of a new pathway associated to the establishment of a new EU CFSP and Energy Union.

4) Recalibration mechanism: This new politics of war against terror implies also a recalibration of the foreign policy approach toward Iran (the world largest Shiite country) and Russia in the light of the future EU Energy Union. New pipelines projects that seek to cross Syrian territory to deliver either Qatari or Iranian gas to Europe or Russian gas and oil through Turkey and South-Eastern Europe are currently underway .

5) Isolation mechanism: In absence of clear directions from the White House, a possible isolation of the United States is likely to occur, representing an important element in France foreign policy re-orientation. This will especially occur if France and the EU decide to follow a ‘cooperation at any cost strategy’. In this strategy, the dismissal of the Assad regime may, in fact, be ranked second to the new war on terror.

6) Mediatization mechanism: Last but not least, as part of the mediatization of terror, there is finally the risk that the attacks will produce through an excessive emphasis in the media a multiplying effect on the economy, on the society and on the political arena. As a self-fulfilling prophecy, the mediatization of terror can, in fact, spill over in more panic among the population, more resentment toward muslims and jewish people, more attacks and a greater securitization of the French and European public sphere. New visual marketing strategies against terror must therefore be envisaged in order to lower the multiplying effects of fear.

These are the issues that the international community must be aware of.


See also Photo Project: The Business Politics of the War Against Terror.  . Share your photos of the at

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