|Since the Mohammed Mérah shootings in 2012, France’s politicians have mostly presented a united front against terror attacks. In contrast, political controversy has quickly erupted over the recent massacre in Nice on Bastille Day, no doubt to be fuelled further by the killing of a Catholic priest near Rouen.|
By the morning of 15 July, opposition politicians had taken to traditional and social media to criticise the government’s security policy as failing to prevent the attack on the Promenade des Anglais. Christian Estrosi, former Mayor of Nice and a pro-Sarkozy Republican right-winger, is currently leading the offensive against the government. “Lies are fuelling the controversy”, he said. ”If the state stops lying, there will no longer be a controversy.” The Minister of the Interior, Bernard Cazeneuve, is suing a municipal police officer who has accused the Ministry of pressing her to falsify her report on the presence of national police officers during the Nice attack. Reports suggest, however, that the policewoman has been publicly supporting Estrosi and his successor in Nice’s city hall, Philippe Pradal.
The rapid politicisation of the Nice terror attack has a number of causes. The first reason is real and serious, and concerns the effectiveness of the French security services and of government policy. Debate had already begun in the weeks prior to Nice. The official Parliamentary investigation into the Bataclan attack and subsequent manhunt put forward a number of proposals to address failings in the French security and intelligence services, all of which were rejected by an embattled Minister of the Interior. His position that the mobilisation of heavily armed police and troops on the streets of French towns would reduce the terror threat, to be violently disproved on 14 July, was already proving ineffective in controlling social unrest connected with demonstrations and direct action against the El-Khomri employment bill.
The second reason, however, is more typically political. At the end of November, the Republicans will hold their presidential primary race to decide on their candidate for April 2017. The original frontrunner, Mayor of Bordeaux and moderate conservative Alain Juppé, has recently seen his lead eaten into by the hardline former incumbent, Nicolas Sarkozy. Although still the most popular candidate with the French electorate in general, some 14 points ahead of Sarkozy, a similar lead among the party faithful has dropped to 8 points in the space of a month.
Juppé’s uncharacteristically outspoken criticisms of a government policy failing to stop the Nice attack is difficult to frame as anything other than an appeal to the more authoritarian right of the party which is slipping away to Sarkozy. Ironically, Sarkozy criticised the tenor of Juppé’s comments for being too speculative, before himself drawing attention to failing security policy. As the moderate Juppé shows his teeth, so the normally robust Sarkozy draws attention to his understanding of the realities of his former presidential domain, and once again plays the emotional card, asserting that “France cannot let her children be murdered.”
The Republicans are all too aware that, inevitably, the most likely political beneficiaries of the attack are Marine Le Pen and the FN – the final reason for a politicised response. The party benefited in the December regionals from heightened fears over security and immigration, winning more than 40% of the vote in its southern and north-eastern strongholds. As polls suggested, most of the FN electoral boost came from former Republican voters increasingly fearful of Islam and immigration.. As right-wing voters are increasingly leaning towards the FN’s strong immigration and security policies, national unity would leave the field to the far right, and political consensus with the left is simply not an option for the French conservatives.
Current national security concerns are embedded in broader European issues, most evidently the EU refugee crisis. Immediately after the Bataclan shootings, Marine Le Pen promptly forged a link between the current influx of refugees and Islamist terror attacks, which she will no doubt reiterate after the recent events in Germany. Together with terrorism, European management of immigration is likely to top the 2017 agenda in France, potentially giving a traditionally Europhobic FN a strong presidential boost.
Despite falling popularity ratings, down some 10 points from a peak of 30% approval in December 2015, Marine Le Pen nonetheless looks very well placed in vote intentions to reach the presidential run-off in 2017. In the remaining months leading up to the most important election in the French calendar, both sides of the political mainstream need to reduce this possibility by whatever means necessary. Neither camp can afford to let the FN steal a march in owning the security and immigration issues any more than it already does.
Both sides are in strategic gridlock, however. Whilst the left is showing greater unity, the government’s national security agenda risks alienating part of the PS electorate as well as the Communists and the Greens. On the right, Sarkozy’s failure to win the presidency in 2012 demonstrated the limits of his hardline strategy as a weapon to use against a mainstreaming FN.
On a political level, there is no optimal solution. On a social and human level, what should have once more constituted a barbaric attack, bringing a country together in collective grief and outrage, has thus inevitably become grist to the political mill.