The recent fatal attack on the streets of Paris raises questions about security, partly because in less than eight months, the French capital will host the Olympic Games.
One person died, and two were injured after a radicalised Islamist attacked tourists in central Paris near the Eiffel Tower on Saturday night (2 December).
After a series of coordinated Islamist terrorist attacks killed 130 innocent people in Paris on 13 November 2015, the then French president François Hollande famously told the French MPs and senators: “France is at war.”
After that, both in Syria and Iraq, France conducted war-type actions against Daesh, the French name for the Islamic State.
Hollande was still president in 2016 when a book appeared under the title “A President Shouldn’t Say That”. The book is based on 61 private interviews by two journalists from Le Monde, Gérard Davet and Fabrice Lhomme.
In the book, Hollande is quoted as saying that he allowed “at least four” military operations abroad to kill people believed to be responsible for hostage-taking and actions against French interests.
He did not specify where and when.
The revelations amounted to publicly sharing secret information, but Hollande wasn’t prosecuted. After the publication, he said he would not be running for a second term.
But while in Iraq and Syria, France, together with the so-called ‘Global Coalition to Counter the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’, significantly degraded the Islamic State’s capabilities by around 2019-2020, nothing comparable happened on French territory.
Abroad, France acted by the law of the war. At home, it continues to act by peacetime standards.
Unlike the US after 9/11, France didn’t adopt wartime type of legislation, similar to the US Patriot Act.
The act was the first of many changes to surveillance laws that made it easier for the government to spy on Americans by expanding the authority to monitor phone and email communications, collect bank and credit reporting records, and track their activity on the Internet.
Indeed, since the 1960s, France has had the so-called fiche S, the letter standing for Sûreté de l’État (“state security”), which allows surveillance of people suspected of terrorism without being a cause for arrest.
In 2015, then prime minister Manuel Valls said there were 20,000 people in France tagged with a fiche S, including 10,500 suspected of being Islamic radicals.
Each time a terrorist attack happens in France – the last before Saturday’s Paris attack being the stabbing of teacher Dominique Bernard in the northern city of Arras – it becomes clear that the perpetrator is someone who appears on the fiche S.
Such was the case for the perpetrator of the Paris attack, a Frenchman of Iranian origin by the name of Armand Rajabpour-Miyandoab, aged 26, who had already been convicted in 2018 for preparing a terrorist act.
But monitoring the 20,000 people in France (if not more, as some suspect the number is bigger) tagged with a fiche S is impossible by any stretch of the imagination. According to police sources, monitoring one single potential terrorist 24/7 would require the attention of 10 security officers.
The national anti-terrorism prosecutor Jean-François Ricard revealed that Armand Rajabpour-Miyandoab had been in touch with the radicalised Chechen who beheaded French teacher Samuel Paty, that he had been networking with radicalised Islamists abroad and had filmed a video just before the attack, pledging allegiance to Islamic State.
It would be wrong, or illusory, to consider the successive terrorist attacks in France as “lone wolf” attacks. A lot of evidence shows that the perpetrators have been networking. And they could be remotely mobilised to cause massive harm.
Keeping people on ‘fiche S’ is an instrument, not a solution.
Reportedly, many of them are foreign nationals and should be sent home, to start with, no matter what, and let’s bear in mind that rights associations prevented the expulsion to Russia of the murderer of Dominique Bernard and his family. Monitoring a smaller number is certainly easier.
The French authorities have much work and little time to reassure the world ahead of the Olympic Games.
They will undoubtedly do their best to make sure that France stays a beacon of democracy and human rights – but not an easy target for terrorists.
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Look out for…
Agriculture Commissioner Janusz Wojciechowski receives representatives of European council of young farmers on Tuesday.
Justice and Home Affairs Council meets in Brussels Monday-Tuesday.
COP28 ongoing until 12 December; Energy Commissioner Kadri Simson gives keynote speeches at several events on Tuesday.
Transport, Telecommunications and Energy Council (Telecommunications) meets in Brussels Tuesday.
Views are the author’s
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic/Alice Taylor]