|The Paris attacks of 13 November have put France on a war footing. In the wake of the attacks carried out by the so-called Islamic State on bars, restaurants, the Bataclan concert hall and the Stade de France, killing 129 people and wounding another 352, the political parties and candidates have for the moment suspended their regional election campaigns.|
The deadly events in Paris have put national security issues and France’s foreign policy in the Middle East front and centre of the political agenda. The attacks have also taken place against the background of the current EU refugee crisis, fuelling political controversy both nationally and at the European level as populist leaders reinforce their message linking terrorism with the inflow of refugees.
President Hollande has started to shift the government security agenda, and proposed a new security agreement at both the national and the European level. Addressing all French deputies and senators in a Parliamentary Congress in Versailles, Hollande has demanded that anti-terrorist laws be toughened, calling for new measures to fight arms trafficking, and for the new passenger information system (PNR) to be implemented in the EU. The President has announced more security spending with an increase of 8,500 in France’s police forces, intelligence and customs, as well as an extension to the state of emergency declared immediately after the attacks, while saying that the constitution itself should be amended to adapt to the new threats of modern terrorism. Key to Hollande’s list of measures is his intention to strip terrorists with dual citizenship of their French nationality, and prevent these individuals from setting foot on French soil if they present a security risk. Finally, the President is showing ever greater determination to fight the Islamic State group, with the French military coordinating with Russia to intensify airstrikes in Syria. On 17 November 2015, EU members agreed unanimously to grant military assistance to France; activating for the first time in EU history the ”mutual defence clause” of the EU treaty.
The French executive, however, is not enjoying similar solidarity from its own political parties. Whilst the election campaign may have been officially suspended by parties, public debates in the National Assembly have gone back to political business as usual. Both the Republicans (LR) and the Front national (FN) have been quick to break their silence and criticize the socialist government for its alleged lack of response to terror threats. Unlike the Charlie Hebdo shootings of January 2015, which had seen a movement of national unity behind the President and government, the Paris attacks have been highly politicized by national leaders of the right and the extreme right, in particular Nicolas Sarkozy and Marine Le Pen. The LR leader is proving extremely critical of the government’s national security agenda, and blames Hollande for having wasted too much time in taking the necessary steps to improve France’s anti-terrorist arsenal following the Charlie Hebdo atrocity. Sarkozy’s support for the constitutional revision announced by Hollande is conditional on the adoption by the socialist government of the more stringent control laws which have been pushed by the Republicans. Within LR, hardliners such as Laurent Wauquiez and Eric Ciotti have called for more extreme measures such as detention camps for an estimated 4,000 individuals suspected of terrorist activities, showing ideological escalation designed to demonstrate a strong stance shutting the door on the manipulation of national security issues by the FN.
But, even within the mainstream Right, there are clear divisions in stance. The Republicans themselves appear divided over the very issue of national unity and support for the government. Alain Juppé, one of the frontrunners for next year’s presidential primary, has expressed his support for the government and President Hollande, dissenting from Sarkozy’s more ‘aggressive’ line. In the Nord region, where competition with Marine Le Pen’s FN is fierce, Xavier Bertrand, another possible primary runner, has taken a similar position, calling for all leaders of LR to rally behind Hollande in national unity. At the local level, there are signs of discord between LR and their centrist allies of the UDI, which threatens to weaken further the otherwise successful model of party co-operation between parties of the right since 2014.
Needless to say, Marine Le Pen’s FN is seen as the most likely to emerge as the main beneficiary from the current terrorism crisis. The attacks provide a propitious context for the FN and could help boost its dynamics which are already exceptional: the FN is currently topping voting intentions in polls for the regional elections with no less than 28% of the vote. A poll conducted after the attacks suggests that Marion Maréchal-Le Pen could top the regional election at 40% of the vote, a 3 point increase on her previous polling score. After the Charlie Hebdo shootings in January 2015, Le Pen had adopted a moderate and pro-national unity approach. This time, she has immediately seized the opportunity to deliver her well-rehearsed nationalist anti-Islam message, saying that “France and the French are no longer safe”. The FN leader has called for a crackdown on Islamists in the country, proposing that France should close all radical mosques, expel foreigners who preach hatred on French soil, and that dual-nationality terrorists should be deprived of their citizenship. To some extent, both proposals have already been endorsed by the executive, showing the increasing resonance of the FN message, if not its growing agenda-setting influence.
Linking the terrorist attacks with the current EU migration crisis, Le Pen has also called for the closure of borders and an immediate halt to the intake of migrants into the country. This follows the clear radicalising move by the FN on immigration issues since the escalation of the refugee crisis. In recent months, Le Pen has re-launched her father’s old alarmist discourse about ‘invasion’ and ‘submersion’ by what she would describe as a ‘terrifying wave’ of migrants, causing ‘an advanced destabilisation of France’s national identity’. These claims have been associated with the classic FN line equating immigration with crime, and go even further in stating that the city of Calais is ‘besieged’ by migrants. Playing with fears arising from the influx of refugees in the EU, the FN is also pushing its traditional welfare-chauvinist agenda, claiming that migrants will strain further France’s public finances and healthcare system. Finally, Marine Le Pen has gone back to racist epithets more characteristic of the FN in the 1980s, stigmatising migrants as carriers of diseases causing public hygiene problems.
On the left, Hollande’s new security agenda is equally divisive, though in the opposite direction, alienating the radical left (FG) and the Greens (EELV), which both have a tradition of pacifism and anti-militarism, thereby increasing party fragmentation on the left of the political spectrum. Both EELV and FG leaders have expressed concerns about the intensification of air operations in Syria and, more generally, about any possible military escalation in France’s foreign policy in the Middle East. This is happening at a time when both parties are already moving away from the socialists, in public disagreement with the social-liberal turn of Hollande’s presidency, and will run independent lists against the PS across all 13 regions in the forthcoming elections. Internally, the PS is still divided over the Macron economic agenda and the government’s broader socio-economic policies, as revealed by the positions taken by the group of rebel MPs (frondeurs) against the current budget. While a strategic move to place the responsibility for future FN victories on the Republicans, Valls’ suggestion that the left and the right should merge their regional lists where the FN is likely to win the second round has fuelled discontent within PS ranks.
The broad domestic political consequences of the attacks remain to be seen, as does the impact that they may have on the slowly recovering French economy. In the short term, the regional elections should take place in early December, as initially planned. The possible electoral effects of the Paris events on party competition may not be negligible, and they certainly should not be ignored. National security and terrorism issues concern predominantly the national government, and they have little relevance at the regional level, but they could well find their way to regional politics through related issues of security and passenger control on public transport. The current lack of national unity certainly sheds doubt on any possible reconfiguration of the party system. Despite Valls’ recent call for merging PS and LR lists in regions where the FN threat is most serious, the materialisation of a ‘progressive pole’ uniting the centrist sectors of the left and the right seems ever less likely. The growing divide with the radical left partners, though not initiated by the terror attacks, are symptomatic of an electoral cycle heading towards defeat for the incumbent socialists, in December and in 18 months’ time at the President and Legislative races.
Based on previous experience, this new episode of terror could be of little help to the highly unpopular socialist executive. Earlier this year, the management of the Charlie Hebdo shootings in January had led to a short-lived rebound in popularity for both the president and his prime minister. Since then, Hollande’s approval ratings have shown yet another continuous descent into the political abyss from 23% in February down to only 15% in November, the lowest ever recorded for a French president. Since the attacks, Hollande has seen a renewed jump of between 7 and 12 points, according to some polls But, two-thirds of the French are critical of the manner in which Hollande and the government are dealing with the current migration crisis. The crisis on the terrorist front may help boost somewhat both presidential stature and credibility, but it is unlikely that it will disrupt the current balance of power in French politics, nor prevent the much anticipated socialist debacle in next month’s regionals.
Meanwhile, the public demand for authority is growing while trust in the political elite continues to decline: in a survey published before the attacks, no less than 40% of the French said they were in favour of an ’authoritarian government’. What France demands of its own democratic leaders, often to be disappointed, has been thrown into sharp relief by the barbarism of Paris.