Bastille Day 2016 began on a promising note. In his traditional holiday press conference, President Hollande announced that he would be calling an end to the state of emergency that has been in effect since the November 2015 attacks in Paris. The police and military were tired, he said. Long hours patrolling countless sensitive sites around the country had taken a toll. It was time to stand down.
Then came the horror in Nice, one of my favorite cities. The Promenade des Anglais, the broad walkway hugging the shore of the beautiful moon-shaped bay, is one of the most familiar and oft-photographed sites of the French Riviera. The lethal white truck was stopped and the attacker killed in front of the Hôtel Westminster, where I stayed some years ago. The television networks broadcast footage of people fleeing down familiar streets. More than 80 killed, hundreds injured, including many children. One heartbreaking image showed a child’s doll lying on the street next to a shrouded corpse.
With France in mourning yet again, Hollande rescinded his earlier decision and announced that the state of emergency would be extended for another three months. Fatigue notwithstanding, fear would once again set the agenda.
It was a perfectly targeted attack, for which ISIS quickly claimed responsibility, although we do not yet know if the attacker had any link to the organization. He was apparently a 31-year-old Franco-Tunisian known to the police for minor infractions but, unlike other recent French terrorists, was not included in the infamous “File S,” containing the names of several thousand suspected jihadists. Whatever his motives, his act was perfectly designed for maximum symbolic effect, coming as it did at the end of a day celebrating “Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity” and aimed at the hedonic heart of the Mediterranean.
It was also an attack designed to inflict maximum…despair. Despair rather than damage: Damage is not the point of these horrors, although there is damage enough, carnage enough, blood enough. The point is to induce desperation and trigger an emotional, irrational, disproportionate, and ill-targeted response. And I fear that the enemy is on the point of achieving its goal.
Once again, the French government was made to seem helpless and, worse, hapless. After the November 13 attacks, the government released a smartphone app intended to warn citizens of an attack in progress. But no warning went out during the Nice attack, and the app failed to signal anything unusual until more than two hours after the event, by which time the attacker was already dead.
Although attacks like this one are difficult, if not impossible, to prevent, especially when the attacker has not been identified as a potential radical, the government, which had only just breathed a collective sigh of relief after the French-hosted European soccer championship ended without incident, was thus left looking helpless and embarrassed by a terrorist who was able to drive several kilometers unmolested along a boulevard ostensibly closed to traffic during the Bastille Day celebration.
Each such event pushes frightened citizens a little closer to surrendering to the impulse to embrace an authoritarian response. And, as it happens, Marine Le Pen has been offering just such a response for years now, insisting that draconian police measures are the only way to deal with the threat. She wants France to “take back control” of its borders, as the British have just voted to do with Brexit.
Le Pen has been attracting a steadily increasing share of the vote, but until now it has seemed that the pro-authoritarian, anti-foreigner vote had a ceiling, which polls suggested would be around 30 percent, perhaps a little higher. Although this would be enough to ensure that Le Pen’s Front National would lead the first round of voting in next year’s presidential election, it seemed unlikely that she could win the second round, in which the two leading candidates from the first round square off against each other. Yesterday’s attack has very likely punctured that ceiling, and it is becoming thinkable, if not probable, that Marine Le Pen will be elected next year.
Not that a Le Pen government would be any less helpless than a government of the center-right or center-left. Her authoritarian instincts would do nothing to lessen the threat—au contraire. But for too many people, I fear, electing Le Pen to speak loudly and carry a big stick will feel like “doing something rather than nothing”—and, in these circumstances, it is all too human to want to do something. We saw this in the United States after 9/11.
I hope we do not see a repeat in France, but I am no longer as convinced as I once was that France will be saved from catastrophe by its two-round voting system. Fear is gaining the upper hand. And this is what is truly terrifying.