France, Target of Terror, Faces Toughest Challenge

Dominique Moisi is associate director of the French Institute for International Relations and editor of Politique Etrangere

The wave of terrorist attacks in Paris, the worst that the city has known since the days of the Algerian war, is confronting the French government with its toughest challenge to date.

Why has France become the favored target of terrorists? What can be done?

In the 1970s France watched terrorist attacks in Italy, West Germany, Spain and Great Britain with a certain smugness. Such dramas could not occur in France; the French were common-sensical, their state was powerful and competent, their extremists were happy in the Communist Party.

The French were not entirely wrong. The current wave of terrorism has international roots and is linked not to domestic tensions but to the high profile of French foreign policy in the Middle East.

With bombings in Paris, hostages in Lebanon and increasing attacks on the French contingent of the U.N. force there, certain actors in the Middle East are trying through coercive diplomacy to impose a new Middle Eastern policy on France.

The symbol of a hated West in a region of turmoil, France unhappily is burdened by a combination of high visibility and high vulnerability, being neither superpower like the United States nor resolute adversary like Israel.

France is not short on enemies in the Middle East. Traditionally present and active in Lebanon, France can be seen only as an obstacle by the Syrians. The French also have infuriated Iran by their military support to Iraq. And they have directly confronted Libya in Chad. Now many detect the direct or indirect hand of one if not more of these three countries behind the bombings in Paris--Syria and Iran being more suspect than Libya, a hypothesis strengthened by the sophistication and professionalism of the attacks.

Highly visible in the Middle East, France also has given the impression of being more vulnerable. Its territory is close to the region, with borders that are difficult to protect, and France has a long tradition of openness, both as a country of political asylum and as a haven for immigrants--especially from the Arab world.

France's vulnerability stems also from the impression that it has given of being less resolute than others in fighting terrorism by any means and without any compromise. Its policy of ambiguous leniency (or its sacred egoism) has been ill served by the rather confusing reorganization of the French secret services after the coming to power of President Francois Mitterrand. The French thus became highly exposed in the Middle East precisely at the time that their intelligence services were least prepared to handle the challenge.

The measures announced by Prime Minister Jacques Chirac last weekend, including tighter visa controls and increased police surveillance, will not suffice to eradicate terrorism. The bombing Wednesday, the worst so far in casualties, underscored that. But, whatever their unpleasant consequences to law-abiding people, the measures should, with time, prove effective in curbing terrorism.

That these measures will at least educate people is reinforced by Chirac's personal credibility in his resolve to confront terrorism. There is a congruence between the message and the messenger. This toughness matches the mood of French public opinion, which is characterized by firmness and unity.

To some extent public opinion has preceded the government on that line, as exemplified by the polls taken after the American raid on Libya, which was supported by more than 65% of the French. Today, according to polls, 85% of Frenchmen are against the freeing of Georges Ibrahim Abdallah, the man whose liberation is demanded by the group believed responsible for most of the Paris bombings.

The French are learning to adjust their lives to the threat of terrorism as the Israelis and British have done. The vigilance of private citizens prevented major carnage in two of the recent bombings.

But citizens' vigilance and a strong police presence will not be enough. Ultimately the secret services must uncover the hand that arms the terrorist. When sufficient evidence is found, France should not hesitate to identify the culprit government. No country wants to be indicted as a terrorist state and suffer the political, economic and diplomatic isolation that would ensue. This is deterrence at its best.

Terrorism is the weapon of the weak against the weak-hearted. It must be countered with an absolute mobilization of force against those who do not hesitate to use violence on innocents as a political weapon.

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