Yesterday, on the Champs-Elysées in Paris, a man opened fire on police with an automatic weapon, killing one officer and injuring two others. ISIS claimed responsibility. Because the attack occurred in one of the most iconic tourist destinations in the world, the news reverberated quickly. And because it happened during the week before the first round of the French presidential election — the events unfolded as the candidates were attending a TV debate — it means that terrorism has suddenly become an issue in the home stretch of the campaign, like a summer storm breaking in a clear blue sky.
Since November 2015, France has suffered a string of terror attacks: the Paris attacks at the Bataclan; the Nice truck attack; the murder of the Catholic priest Jacques Hamel in Normandy.
And yet, bizarrely, terrorism has barely featured as an issue during the French presidential campaign. In fact, the campaign seems to have oddly sidestepped one of the French people's main concerns. Throughout President François Hollande's term, the main macro events have been a marked deepening of economic malaise and the terrorism wave. And yet, inexplicably, neither of those issues have been front and center of the current campaign. Instead, it's been mostly horse-racing and gotcha questions.
Politically, Thursday's deadly shooting is most likely to play into the hands of the two right-wing candidates, François Fillon and Marine Le Pen. The shooter had allegedly been flagged as an extremist, and both of them have called for more stringent controls for those on terror watch lists. Le Pen favors expelling all foreigners on terror watch lists back to their home countries. On Friday, as CNN reports, "Le Pen called for the closure of all 'Islamist' mosques in France, the expulsion of hate preachers and the reinstatement of French borders."
Meanwhile, Fillon wants to ban salafi and Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated preachers and shut down radical mosques. He has promoted a plan to use anti-treason and espionage laws to sentence anyone who partakes in online radicalism. These are all fairly radical steps.
The other main contender in the first round of the election, Emmanuel Macron, is seen by voters as strong on the economy but is green on security issues. The far-left candidate Philippe Poutou humiliated himself when he was arguing on live TV for disarming police even as, unbeknownst to him, the news of the shootout was breaking.
So how is it that terrorism has been a peripheral issue until now? It could be because the French people have been hung up on the smaller, horse-race issues of the campaign. During the conservative primary, the main issues were the size of government and Fillon's links to the Catholic right. During the Socialist primary, the main issue was eventual candidate Benoît Hamon's (now watered-down) proposal for a universal basic income. After that, France's political conversation was engulfed by the ethics scandals swirling around Fillon, who stands accused of improprieties such as arranging a no-show parliamentary aide job for his wife (Fillon maintains his wife did real work), and the unsuccessful machinations by his party to defenestrate its nominee.
But, perhaps more tellingly, there may also be a sense that nothing can be done right now to prevent terrorism, anyway.
France, as a nation, is not in good spiritual health. The country has been beset by economic stagnation and mass unemployment for decades, even as it struggles alongside the rest of the rich world to adapt to a changing economy. Moreover, the country is increasingly losing sight of its own identity, as its intelligentsia affiliates more with the European Union or the global elite class and its underclasses — whether the working-class whites or immigrants — feel disconnected from the social compact. A country that doesn't even know who it is is not a country that can tackle massive challenges like a multi-front battle against jihadism, an enemy that, to be vanquished, requires a combination of military, police work, and socioeconomic and ideological responses.
Yesterday, ISIS reminded France that it's more confident about its future than France is about its own. And it is now up to the French people to change that.