The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

France’s terrorism problem divided the country. The election could make it worse.

A tourist is blocked by French soldiers next to the Champs Elysee Avenue during ongoing police operations after a shooting in which one police officer was killed in Paris on Thursday. (Etienne Laurent/EPA)
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PARIS — For a few days over the past two years, terrorism helped to unite some parts of French society. Following large-scale attacks, the French rallied behind their deeply unpopular President François Hollande, making his approval ratings repeatedly skyrocket for short time periods.

But the times of political unity are long over.

In Sunday’s first round of the presidential election, following a divisive campaign, French voters will have their choice between 11 candidates and their vastly different approaches to counterterrorism. Even before Thursday’s attack at the Champs-Elysees in which one police officer was killed, a majority of French said in polls that they wanted harsher sentences for terrorists and more powers for security services to prevent attacks.

Sunday’s vote is the first presidential election since the wave of terrorist attacks in France started in early 2015, and two of the four leading candidates are in favor of counterterrorism laws that have been criticized as draconic. Far-right candidate Marine Le Pen and conservative contender François Fillon have vowed to introduce sweeping legislation to expand police powers if they get elected. Centrist contender Emmanuel Macron's proposal to increase security measures also attempts to calm the fears of voters, although it remains far less extensive.

Tougher measures might not automatically lead to more safety in France, however. Experts are warning that the opposite could be the case. In reality, a further crackdown on terrorism in the way it has been practiced so far, they say, could end up exposing the country further and making it more vulnerable to attacks.

“Invasive counterterrorist operations and tough tactics by the general police have [already] led to alienation in some sections of the community and may be contributing to the increasing problem of jihadist radicalization in France,” said terrorism researcher Frank Foley. Several purportedly arbitrary arrests in counterterrorism raids have created a perception that all Muslims are now under a general suspicion in the country.

A Le Pen victory in particular might “lead to a dangerous escalation of the situation in France,” Foley said.

Le Pen has, for example, vowed to proceed with large-scale deportations of Islamists. And following Thursday’s attack, both she and Fillon stated that France was “at war” with radical Islam.

Some say that such harsh rhetoric has only incited sectarian tensions.

“Le Pen's recent remarks deliver a representation of Islam, which could easily be perceived as incompatible with secular democracy and indirectly play into the hands of radicals,” said Dounia Mahlouly, a terrorism scholar with the International Center for the Study of Radicalization. The Islamic State and other groups have been trying to isolate Muslims within Western societies for some time to make them more prone to radicalization. Hence, a Le Pen win — and a further marginalization of Muslims — could also be a victory for the Islamic State's recruitment strategy.

But to many voters, this is the kind of tough talk they think is needed to tackle the continual terrorism threat.

Contrary to Le Pen's proposal to reinstate border checks and to intensify a police crackdown on extremists, observers in neighboring Britain and Germany believe that a complete rethink of French counterterrorism is needed.

“Before the current wave of terrorism ... France already had one the most hard-hitting counterterrorism policies in Europe. They have simply reinforced that approach since the attacks of 2015,” said Foley, who said the effect had been minimal.

First put in place following the November 2015 attacks in Paris, France’s state of emergency has been extended five times. Lawmakers justified the latest extension last December by arguing that authorities had foiled at least 13 attacks within the preceding six months and that the threat level remained extremely high.

In an indication of growing discomfort with the measures, human rights groups have recently voiced sharp criticism of the emergency rules which allow police to place anyone under house arrest who is deemed a security threat and to search houses without judicial warrants.

Although Foley and others acknowledge that the extensive measures may have prevented some attacks, they say that France is pursuing a dangerous path.

Britain, for instance, has chosen a radically different counterterrorism strategy, which relies far less on police powers and more on preventive approaches to stop the radicalization of extremists in the early stages. Much effort has been put on improving relations between police forces and local Muslims in Britain — an approach which has recently gained traction in France within the current Socialist government and was also embraced by centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron.

The only leading candidate who wants to roll back some security measures is leftist politician Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Despite his pledges to reverse the marginalization of Muslims in the country, he is aware of the limits of such an approach if he wants to win the election. On Saturday, one unofficial election poster urging Parisians to vote for him hung next to the Bataclan — the nightclub which was targeted in November 2015 by Islamic State militants who entered Europe using refugee routes.

“Refugees welcome,” the poster read. During these days in France, it is a message few would agree with.

Leftist candidate Mélenchon himself has said France's strict immigration policies will be unlikely to change.

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