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In the wake of the mass murder in French city of Nice, President Francois Hollande and his Prime Minister Manuel Valls have reiterated dire warnings that France is in a permanent state of war. Valls quoted by Le Journal du Dimanche said : “I have always told the truth about terrorism : a war is underway, there will be more attacks. It’s hard to say, but other lives will be lost”. Nine months ago, Hollande made similar grim forebodings of “France at war” following the Paris gun attacks in which 130 people were killed by five jihadist suicide attackers.
The State of Emergency declared after the November 13, 2015, atrocity was extended at the weekend by a further three months after 84 people were killed in Nice on Thursday night. In that attack a man plowed a 20-ton articulated truck into thousands of pedestrians watching the Bastille Day fireworks display in the French Riviera resort.
Some 120000 police and troops are now reportedly deployed across France, up from the already record high level of 115000 security personnel on alert during the Euro 16 football championship. A further 12000 police reservists are being called called up. It is now routine to see armed soldiers patrolling among shoppers and cafe goers along French city streets. Citizens have to submit to random checks on their bags, body pat downs and metal detector arches as they enter public buildings. French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve is urging “all French patriots” to join the police or army reserves. There are even demands from Marine Le Pen, the National Front leader, for the return of compulsory national service.
Over the past year, thousands of French citizens have been arrested or had their homes raided by police without warrants. Some 20000 people are said to be under surveillance by French authorities. The State of Emergency has also seen the government banning public demonstrations against unpopular legislation to curtail workers’ rights. That unprecedented infringement on civil liberties has been justified as a necessary “national security” measure to combat terror threats. France has thus entered a permanent emergency state, marked by high levels of police powers and militarization of society, and the suspension of democratic rights and freedoms. This is merely a few degrees away from outright dictatorship. Ironically, the latest atrocity in Nice occurred on the national July 14 Bastille Day holiday celebrating the French Revolution and its historic proclamation of “liberty, equality and fraternity”. It is a moot question as to how much “liberty” French citizens are allowed to avail of by the authorities in the purported war against terrorism.
Not in dispute here is the fact of terror attacks on France. The mass shootings at the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in January 2015 and the Paris massacre in November were clearly carried out by individuals with links to jihadist terror groups. However, in the Nice atrocity it is far from clear what the motives of the killer were. Tunisian-born Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel (31) was said to be have deep psychological problems of depression and violence. Divorced and separated from his three children, his family said he was no “Islamist radical”. He reportedly drank alcohol and smoked during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, and friends say he had never been inside a mosque during his entire life. Islamist terror group Daesh (Islamic State) may have claimed Bouhlel was “a soldier of the caliphate” following the killings in Nice. But there is no evidence of an organizational connection, even according to French investigators. The terror group made similar claims about the shooter in the Orlando, Florida, gay nightclub massacre last month. It turned out that the Orlando attacker, too, suffered from psychological troubles totally unrelated to terrorism. On the Nice attack, French police sources have even speculated that Bouhlel may have been motivated by a desire to commit suicide than by Islamist ideology, and decided to make his suicide look like a terror plot, according to the Daily Telegraph. Despite the ambiguity, the French authorities are asserting that Nice was a terrorist event. Interior Minister Cazeneuve claims that the attacker was “quickly radicalized” even though he wasn’t on any terror watch list, albeit known to French police as a petty criminal. Manuel Valls, the premier, makes the rather stilted assertion : “The claim on Saturday morning by Islamic State and the fact [sic] of the radicalization of the killer confirm the Islamist nature of the attack”.
It is probably easier for the French authorities to rationalize all such violent attacks as “terrorist”. That conceptual framing permits the authorities to assume more powers over democratic rights, without accountability. The terror framing also tends to bolster the legitimacy of the government and state security forces and to deflect public criticism and anger over what have been horrendous lapses in public safety. But this trajectory in state power is in danger of becoming a self-reinforcing dynamic of increasing autocratic governance –dictatorship– where democracy, for all intents and purposes, ceases to exist. Even more disturbingly, this sinister watershed is hardly even questioned in public discourse.
The international aspect of the French government’s response is equally problematic. It has announced a stepwise increase in air strikes avowedly against terror groups in Syria and Iraq. French officials are reportedly traveling to Washington this week to coordinate greater military deployment in those two countries. The French state, like its NATO partners, is plowing into a snake pit. The covert destabilizing of Syria (and Libya) for regime change involving the weaponization of terror proxies is a recipe for endless blowback. The subsequent “anti-terror” bombing of Arab countries in flagrant violation of international law is a further foot into the snake pit. Without dealing with the root causes of political problems –the French complicity in sponsoring regime change and terrorism– there will never be a solution. It is an irrefutable axiom that there can be “no peace without justice” –the latter meaning in the widest sense abiding by law and and morality.
France is heading towards a militarized autocratic police state, not unlike Israel. Citizens are being conditioned to live permanently with fear and emergency powers that supplant democratic rights. The analogy with Israel is appropriate. The Israeli usurpation of Palestinian rights and systematic violation of international law is another case of “no justice, no peace”. French citizens, as with other Western countries, need to ask themselves : do we really want to live like this ? That is, under a permanent siege of fear and arbitrary state power that is also expressing itself in despotism, as seen in the banning of public protest to cuts in workers’ rights and economic austerity policies. It may not lead to an immediate eradication of terrorism, but the way forward is for citizens to demand accountability of their governments. Washington, London and Paris –the chief NATO powers– must not be allowed to trample on international law by launching wars and covert plots for regime change in sovereign countries.
Western governments and political leaders must be prosecuted for crimes against peace. When have they ever ? This is the only way to break the vicious cycle of state-sponsored terrorism, blowback and alleged “counter-terrorism”. If citizens don’t impose their democratic will on rogue governments the cycle is a descent into fascist dictatorship. And France seems to be well on the way to this dystopia.