How fear of terrorism has come to dominate life in France

Attacks taking toll on surprisingly tolerant French now turning increasingly pessimistic

French CRS police patrol on the walkway above a public beach after the Bastille Day truck attack. Photograph: Pascal Rossignol/Reuters

French CRS police patrol on the walkway above a public beach after the Bastille Day truck attack. Photograph: Pascal Rossignol/Reuters

 

Normally, after the parties of Bastille Day, the French begin drifting off on holiday. People disappear to country homes, beaches or resorts where they spend weeks eating, drinking and lazing. Meanwhile foreign tourists – one of France’s few growing income streams – flood the world’s most visited country. But after a jihadist in a truck killed 84 people in Nice on Bastille Day, the French are trying to comprehend their new normal: terror attacks. As prime minister Manuel Valls said: “France must live with terrorism.”

In 18 months, the country has changed fundamentally.

There are three layers to French life. Layer one is everyday perfection: that glass of wine in an ordinary bistro. Layer two is economic stagnation, the sense that the country’s model is stuck. In December 2014, a survey found that only 17 per cent of French people thought 2015 would be better than 2014. French pessimists were right: 2015 began with the deadly attacks on Charlie Hebdo offices and the kosher supermarket in Paris.

Constant worry

Since then, the surface layer of life has been fear of terrorism. This fear is the parents’ meeting to discuss whether terrorists could break into your children’s school. It’s the university seminar you can only attend if you register in advance, with full passport details. It’s the security guard who searches you before you enter your post office. The French now live with the constant worry that the sky could fall on their heads.

The attack in Nice was terrifyingly predictable. France has experienced some variety of terrorism in every post-war decade, but never as bad as this.

The past seven months have seen the two deadliest acts of terrorism in modern French history: the Paris attacks in November that killed 130 people, and Nice.

Before Nice, fear was focused on Paris. Almost every aspect of French life is overcentralised, and the capital had suffered disproportionately from terror. But if hell can break out in a sleepy beach town where millions of French people have happy holiday memories, then nowhere in France feels safe.

Potential jihadis

The Nice jihadi seems to have acted alone. Whereas al-Qaeda liked to orchestrate elaborate attacks, Islamic State, also known as Isis, has “crowdsourced” terrorism, says the Soufan Group, a security consultancy. And France has a reservoir of thousands of potential do-it-yourself jihadis.

Terrorism that requires barely any planning beyond renting a truck is almost unstoppable. Only one other developed country lives with comparable everyday danger: the US, with its bizarre gun laws.

So far, the French have remained surprisingly tolerant in the face of Islamist terror.

The annual survey by the National Consultative Commission on Human Rights found that racism decreased in 2015.

In regional elections in December, just after the Paris attack, the French mainstream voted tactically for Socialist and Republican candidates to prevent the anti-immigrant National Front from winning a single region. Voters may repeat the trick in next year’s presidential elections.

Still, if the French were pessimistic and unhappy before the increase in terrorism, imagine the national mood now.

(Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2016)