France's longer fight against terrorism

France's longer fight against terrorism

FRANCE - "France is not mourning Charlie Hebdo, nor is it mourning the principle of freedom of expression; France is mourning itself as a country which died, and the fact that there will never be another one like it."

These are not the words of some politician or academic, but of Disiz, a French rapper who, notwithstanding his outlandish gigs and nickname "The Pest", has offered a perfect snapshot of the feelings of his nation.

For, even if few agree with Disiz's opinions, most Frenchmen and women accept that their country has been profoundly changed by the recent terrorist attacks, and few seem to know in which direction France is now heading.

As is often the case when a nation is hit by a major disaster, the people of France and their leaders have responded by drawing together.

Prime Minister Manuel Valls' parliamentary speech in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks lasted only 25 minutes, but got no fewer than five standing ovations, beating the previous record established in 1944, during the first parliamentary sitting after France was liberated from German occupation.

The parliamentarians also burst into a spontaneous singing of La Marseillaise, the French national anthem; the only other time this happened was a century ago, when World War I ended.

And Mr Francois Hollande, hitherto the most unpopular president in French modern history, marched together with the leaders of no fewer than 40 other countries at the head of the biggest demonstration staged by the people of France since World War II.

Few nations express their emotions with so much panache and sheer theatre as the French.

Balancing act

But the high hopes which followed the tragedy, the "ardent fire of national unity" as President Hollande now likes to call it, are unlikely to last, for the French government is trying to balance too many conflicting demands, with no immediate prospects of succeeding on any.

The problem with high moments of national unity is that they generate unreasonably high expectations which cannot be fulfilled; the risk is that a French government which has done well in handling the immediate crisis will still fail when it comes to tackling the longer-term historic challenge.

The cracks are already obvious in what should be France's most immediate task: that of preventing future acts of terrorism. Mr Hollande has promised to "act fast to deal with the threat, but not in a precipitous manner".

In theory, eminently sensible: a rushed response is invariably a bad one.

However, this ignores the fact that, while France has yet to say what it will do when it comes to preventing future terrorist attacks, it has already announced what it will not do: weary of criticism from left-wingers within his ruling Socialist party, Mr Valls has announced that France will not adopt its own version of the US Patriot Act, the set of measures which the American Congress enacted soon after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on US soil.

So at least on this score, the French have remained true to form: Their instinctive reaction, when forced to take a stance, is to define themselves as different from whatever the Americans may be doing.

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