Two colours of war


Illustration: Ekaterina Chechel, IdeaChipper; Europe Insight

In France, the year 2015 has been one marked by terrorist attacks. At least 148 people were killed in acts of terror perpetrated in France this year, not counting the French killed in similar events outside the country. The newspaper Figaro summed it up in two words: “Annus horribilis.”

The series of attacks began in January with an assault on the editorial office of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. “An exceptionally barbaric act,” was the initial reaction of French President François Hollande at that time (BFMTV). “This is an attack by fanatics against civilisation,” said opposition leader Nicolas Sarkozy (Europe 1).

An attack, local in nature, received a global, “civilizational” explanation. Consequently, politicians of all stripes and officials at every level of authority will regularly bring it up. Added to this conceptual canvas was a word repeated over and over – “war” – the start of which they saw as the attack on the Charlie Hebdo office.

The most senior person to immediately use the world “war” to mark the significance of the event was Prime Minister Manuel Valls. “We are at war with terrorism,” he said (quoted from L’Obs).

Ten months passed before the president also used the word “war” in a speech addressed to the population of France. Up until this point, he only used the word in speeches intended for a narrow target audience. The Paris tragedy became an “act of war” for him (video of the address).

The government of France has had a plan in place for cases of terrorist threats since 1978. In general it takes the form of escalating danger levels paired with corresponding measures – similar to the systems found in many countries around the world. Until 2014 the French version had a scale of four colours, where the last two – red and scarlet – required heightened and exceptional measures, accordingly.

The word “war” is an analogous indicator. War, already being waged outside the republic for quite some time now, was first declared in full force by the prime minister, and now the country’s president is proclaiming it. Europe Insight explains the process by which France has taken up the force of arms and words in the war on terror in 2015.

Two colours: red

After the attack on the Charlie Hebdo office, Manuel Valls set the tone in the struggle against terrorism. An analysis of the government’s portal conducted by Europe Insight shows that from 9 January to 13 November, he has made at least ten official announcements wherein he used the word “war” in relation to the danger of terrorism. In addition, so as to avoid using the same word “terrorism” over and over, he employed practically the whole linguistic arsenal for defining the enemy:

  • 9 January: “We are at war against terrorism, not against religion.” (Twitter)
  • 13 January: “France is at war against terrorism, jihadism, and radical Islamism.” (quoted from Figaro)
  • 28 June: France “is at war against terrorism and jihadism.” “It is not a war between the West and Islam but a war in the name of values held by ourselves and people far beyond the borders of Europe.” (Government of France)
  • 30 June: “A war between human civilisation and barbarism.” (Government of France)
  • 26 August: “We are at war against the new totalitarianism.” (Government of France)
Police in Paris after a series of attacks. Credits: AP

Police in Paris after a series of attacks. Credits: AP

The plan for “extraordinary” anti-terror measures was introduced by Manuel Valls back on 21 January. The prime minister announced the creation of 2,680 jobs and the allocation of €425m over the next three years for the war on terrorism and radicalism. The new employees will be joining the internal affairs, defence, justice, finance ministries, and the customs. The army will be helping the police guard the most important objects.

In addition, the defence budget will be maintained at its previous level for three years. The plan proposed increasing oversight on financial transactions and the monitoring of radical inclinations and those who justify terrorism in various spheres, especially on the internet and in prisons. A separate programme was elaborated for schools, where radicalism will be countered through secular education and gender equality, including the banning of wearing anything intended to show religious affiliation.

A new intelligence bill occupied a central place in the war. It defined clearly what “national security” is, introduced an appeals institution for people who think they are being surveilled illegally, and decreed that a separate request must be submitted in order to obtain permission to surveil lawyers, journalists and MPs. However, the main thing receiving the attention of critics, and what has caused the most debate is additional powers for the special forces. It was seen as an attempt at the uncontrolled collection of personal information on the internet and to listen in on all telephone conversations is perceived in the bill. The government explained that the working principle of the planned system involves only analysis of the behaviour not the contents and that only the telephones of suspects will be listened to. The law was signed on 23 June.

Two colours: scarlet

While talking of war, the French government has also taken definite steps to improve the situation, but it has done so in a very specific and limited manner. Careful study of the plan of measures to be implemented shows that the great majority of the proposals were not radical overhauls of policies and methods based on new conditions but that they were primarily a resurrection and intensification of ideas that already existed before – in the White Paper on Defence and Security or the counter-terrorism law adopted in 2014.

The measures were a logical continuation of a trajectory in place prior to the series of attacks, which was directed at radicalism and sympathizers as well as at increasing stricter liability for criminals. However, there is little that has changed fundamentally.

It is difficult to say why it turned out this way. Possibly because two weeks in January was too short a time for preparing truly exceptional measures. Or possibly because, despite all of the rhetorical militarism, the government felt that it was in control of the situation and some demonstrative raids and initiatives were sufficient.

François Hollande’s behaviour can be considered as indirect affirmation of the second version. Analysis of the Élysée Palace website conducted by Europe Insight shows that the president used the word “war” in official speeches a total of only three times from January to November: the first time when addressing service persons in armed forces, the second time to diplomatic personnel, and the third to education sector professionals.

On 14 July during an interview on France 2, host David Pujadas asked the president if he shared his prime minister’s opinion about the “war of civilisations”. Hollande answered as if there was neither a war of civilisations nor a war itself.

A definite pattern can be seen in this: the wish to shield society not only from xenophobia but also from fear. Militant rhetoric was primarily directed towards special audiences, those in the front lines against radicalism and terrorism. The word “war” was meant to sharpen their perceptions and mobilise them. But for ordinary citizens, France needed to remain a place of “liberty, equality and fraternity”, a place free of war. This has turned out to be a noble illusion which shattered on that very day when a year ago the law on terror was passed, along with the terror acts and the president’s subsequent speech.

The war has now entered a new stage. Today, the president promises a “ruthless” response.

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