To date, France has suffered seven terrorist attacks in which 140 people have been killed. Political scientist and France expert Ronja Kempin explains why France is so often targeted.
DW: Yet another terrorist attack. Why is France repeatedly targeted?
Ronja Kempin: There are many reasons that are linked to each other and make France so vulnerable. First of all, France is one of the European countries that are deeply involved in the international war against terror. The French military is active in Syria and Iraq, where it bombs “Islamic State” positions.
Secondly, you must not overlook the fact that because of its colonialist past, France has a large Muslim community whose members hold dual citizenship: French and that of their country of origin. It is difficult for French authorities to monitor citizens going through the process of radicalization because they can easily travel in and out of the country with a French passport. They do not need a visa to stay in France if they are Syrian, Tunisian or Algerian; they have citizenship.
Then there are reasons that can be found within France itself. France is a secular nation that strictly separates religion from state. The state does not feel responsible for religious matters. That means it hasn’t kept an eye on what has been going in Muslim communities, where past radicalization processes have eluded the state because it simply did not feel responsible.
There are two more reasons why France has been the target of terror again. The country has a high unemployment rate. Almost 10 percent of the population is unemployed. This is serious when you consider the fact that 46 percent of young people with an immigrant background are affected by unemployment and thus a lack of prospects. In this regard, the potential for radicalization lies within the country.
Finally, collaboration between French intelligence agencies is still problematic, as in the past. French intelligence agencies do not cooperate enough with each other. Information gaps constantly emerge, and at the same time, politicians have not found a means of improving cooperation between the different agencies. As we now see, the gaps often lead to fatal consequences for the country and its people.
Many other countries actively supporting the front against Islamist terror also have deplorable social conditions at home. Why is it that France is always struck?
If you compare the two other countries whose military is heavily involved in the fight against “Islamic State,” i.e. Great Britain and the USA, then you notice that France is much easier to access geographically than an island like Great Britain. It is far more difficult to enter the USA than French territory for terrorists who have been radicalized in Northern Africa, the Sahel region, or in Syria and Iraq in the Middle East.
Why has this attack just taken place? Can you explain “why now”?
There are two clues that can answer the “why now” question. First of all, the 14th of July is a symbolic day; it is the French national holiday when the values of the French republic are celebrated. Liberty, equality, fraternity are the triumphant outcome of July 14, 1789. Ultimately, because of the French Revolution, France sees itself as the motherland of democracy and human rights. Carrying out a terrorist attack on this day shows, “We do not share the values of the republic. We are against them and actively demonstrate this through a symbolic deed.” It is a severe blow to everything France stands for – internationally and domestically.
Secondly, on the morning of the 14th of July, French President Francois Hollande said in his traditional speech on the national holiday that the situation with regard to terrorism was much better under control. And if the terrorist attack in Nice does turn out to be motivated by Islamism, it would be a clear signal by the Islamist terrorists saying: You won’t get us under control.
To what extent do you expect tough counteraction on the part of France?
Well, the French president has already said that France would toughen sanctions on Iraq and Syria.
How much tougher will they be?
At this point, I believe you can say the French government cannot handle further military involvement in the region.
We shouldn’t overlook the fact that since the attacks in November, over 10 thousand soldiers and members of the French army have been deployed in the country, meaning France itself, to fight international terrorism. That weakens France’s capacity to act internationally.
Ronja Kempin is a senior fellow in the research division of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, SWP (Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik) in Berlin. She studied political science in France.
The interview was conducted by DW’s Wolfgang Dick.