France has long taken pride in and drawn strength from its universalist, secular principles. On the heels of the “war on terror” and the dubious radicalisation doctrine surrounding it, however, the institutional landscape has changed and a new public narrative has taken hold; one that misjudges the complexities of the world, blurs the line between liberalism and authoritarianism, and further essentialises identity. French democracy will have to pay a hefty political price for this feverish transformation in light of surging extreme right-wing politics and an invasive and intransparent surveillance apparatus.

Modern terrorism has left its mark on all of us. It emerged at the end of the 1960s with decolonisation and the Cold War in full swing but also in the wake of the growing power of images and a nascent conservative revolution that would have a lasting effect on the West. Modern terrorism has questioned and pushed to the brink our relationship with violence, death, the other, and the gods, but also with the ‘state’, whose opaque mechanisms ⁠— at times a mixture of comedy and secrecy ⁠— it has laid bare in plain sight.

France, an old land of violence and revolt, at the crossroads of all invasions, had built, since the end of the Second World War, a model of anti-terrorist struggle of great stability. The indiscriminate terrorist attacks of 1986 and 1995 and the political tensions they caused did not call into question the French idea of the republic and its universalist ambitions.

In recent years, however, France — as the European country that has been most affected by this type of violence for decades, but also the most repressive in its response — has undergone a profound transformation in how it perceives and responds to terrorism.

The shift in the French approach has been particularly evident over the last twenty years and it has taken place outside any democratic process. Public opinion has not found sufficient material to form a sure and reasoned opinion on anti-terrorist policy, neither in the media — which are primarily interested in the audience violence attracts — nor in parliamentary debates, due to a lack of knowledge and interest on the part of elected representatives. In fact, this shift has crept slowly, often hidden behind the emotions and grandstand effects that usually followed the attacks. Above all, it has followed the growing influence of ‘friendly countries’, which had launched the “war on terror” before us and whose soft power has found increasingly sympathetic ears in France over the past fifteen years or so.

Since then, a sort of TINA (There Is No Alternative) attitude has emerged around these issues. A soft consensus underpins the idea that there would only be one possible policy on the matter, and that its parameters would be strictly technical, applied regardless of the political regime in place. This kind of thinking is predicated on a dangerous notion: that there is little difference between authoritarian liberalism and liberal authoritarianism, since both apply the same type of measures and can therefore be interchanged with impunity. On the heels of this idea, France has fallen into the ranks of an anti-terrorist West that, particularly since 2001, has fully exploited terrorism as a global threat for symbolic, diplomatic, and political gain. In France, however, this had not always been the case.

A sudden change

The tipping point for the French doctrine was around 2007. As France reintegrated into NATO, it also experienced a progressing alignment of its anti-terrorist practices with the doctrine pushed by the United States after September 11th, 2001 and then the United Kingdom in 2005.

Although at first, the French model did not seem to falter. In the White Paper on Internal Security and Terrorism drafted in 2006, interministerial arbitration had again made it possible to avoid including the terms “war” on terrorism, in favour of a judicial approach against ordinary criminals, and “Islamist” terrorism, out of respect for the Muslims present on French soil, respect for certain partner countries in the southern Mediterranean, and doubts about the authenticity of the faith of the criminals concerned. In retrospect, we see that this document is the last remnant of a specifically French stance on terrorism, built on the basis of a centuries-old experience that had proved its worth, i.e. the rule of law and secularism.

In 2008, a new white paper, this time on military issues, attested to a significant shift in rhetoric, however, by introducing the notion of “national security”, whose questionable origins, and effects in terms of confusing threats, are well known. The French approach to terrorism thus shifted in favour of a global security ideology by making the fight against terrorism a strategic issue. This new belief was then promoted by government agencies and a whole new generation of academics and media staff, who gave it the appearance of a science and the veneer of truth. But beyond this context — the determinants of which were above all political — this change in doctrine had tangible operational consequences.

The new face of counter-terrorism

Let us begin by referring to the general tone used by opinion-makers to talk about terrorism, which suddenly gained in brutality – a kind of brutality which so often is not a demonstration of strength but an admission of weakness and which could be classified under the generic term “counter-terrorism”. While states have always been tempted to respond to terrorism by the same means it employs — as well as adopting its methods and vernacular (while officially preserving legal appearances) — this time there was a public claim presenting the virility of counter-subversive action as proof of effectiveness.

This is the case, for example, with drone strikes in foreign territory and outside of wartime situations. In addition to the collateral damage they cause, their moral consequences should not be understated, although more often than not the opposite is the case. With drone strikes, soldiers no longer need to bear direct responsibility for opening fire, since their own lives are not in danger, and the action is played out without witnesses, far from sight and from a physical battlefield. They also constitute the surreptitious reintroduction of the death penalty (for their targets), whose abolition was a European prerequisite and a marker of civilisation. Last but not least, drone warfare has also lastingly disorganised intelligence services; services which are now entirely geared towards short-sighted information intended for short-lived strikes, at the expense of long-term analysis and dealing with the complexities of the field. This long-term perspective and in-depth reconnaissance, however, was intelligence services’ initial job and at the core of their contribution to the public good. Yet, the most spectacular shift for France was the adoption of the fight against radicalisation on home soil.

The ill-fated fight against radicalisation

This fight against radicalisation is based on the ideology that there is a continuum between the orthodox practice of Islam and the transition to the terrorist act. It assumes that recourse to terroristic crime is the result of a linear process, a sort of ascent to extremes, marked by perfectly identifiable stages, in which religion is the main, if not the only determining factor. Thereby, it is not only deliberately adopting the claim terrorists make about themselves, it is also narrowing the scope of action that ought to be taken to reduce the threat. 

This scope of action generally includes measures to detect supposedly high-risk individuals, the promotion of moderate Islam, more general reflections on its organisation, targeted social programmes, the development of a counter-discourse, deradicalisation courses in prisons and in open environments, the closure of so-called Salafist places of worship and the removal of their imams, and so on.

It should be noted that these public policies, which are also quite costly, have never really been evaluated, either in terms of their scientific relevance, their operational effectiveness or, above all, their pernicious ramifications, particularly for national cohesion and the risk of fracturing the social fabric into multiple rival “separatisms”.

Previously, Paris had looked with perplexity at the fight against radicalisation, finding it at best ineffective and vaguely exotic (since it was designed for countries with a community tradition and a state religion), and at worst counterproductive and even Islamophobic. France’s secular tradition, in any case, forbade the slightest experimentation of this kind. But the ministers of the interior after 2013 thought differently. It should be remembered that in 2012, the entire French anti-terrorist apparatus, led by the Central Directorate of Domestic Intelligence (DCRI), was destabilised by the Merah affair — two shooting sprees in Montauban and Toulouse committed four days apart by the same man — and accused of having failed to anticipate the attacks.

This was the moment chosen by the supporters of this doctrine (i.e. the fight against radicalisation) to impose it on a political class in search of reform to display to the public and to make France the last country in Europe to adopt it. After a skillful British diplomatic offensive — which began in 2005 right after the London attacks and the UK taking over the Presidency of the Council of the European Union — had already persuaded all other EU states to adopt its prevention model, French diplomacy gave in to pressure, fearing, as so often, to find itself isolated. After decades of its own doctrine, based on its own history and the level of threat it faced, it had only taken France a few months to fall into line with a new Western consensus.

Yet the fight against radicalisation brings together all the symptoms of a desperate West ready to sacrifice everything for the mirage of security and power. It is both a misdiagnosis and authoritarian. It is a misdiagnosis because violent radicalisation often precedes the passage through Islam. And it is authoritarian because, by shifting the focus from policing the act to policing the behaviour, by making collective punishments acceptable (such as the closure of places of worship), by even inviting the population to take charge of a new public security system (“the society of vigilance”), we are changing the nature of social control.

Above all, it has made France abandon a secular tradition that had been legally established for a century, and philosophically for two centuries, by authorising the state for the first time to intervene in “the deviations of a religion”, to use the words of the French president. France has been spending a great deal of energy since then to make up for time it believes to have lost on its partners, multiplying interministerial plans (each time more ambitious) to combat radicalisation.

A growing surveillance apparatus

Another, more opaque trend was a growing recourse to mass intelligence. The advancement of the French intelligence services’ technical capabilities, such as the provision of a new generation of digital data sensors within the Foreign Intelligence Service DGSE, enabled France to rise to the level of its main partners (in particular the “Five Eyes”), while justifying increasingly intrusive techniques with a growing terrorist threat. This was done without a debate. Despite some recent reforms on the control of intelligence techniques (CNCTR – 2015) and parliamentary commissions (DPR – 2007), the Fifth Republic, which gives pre-eminence to the executive power, does not generally allow the expression of real counter-arguments on these questions.

So how should we interpret the regrouping of anti-terrorist services which also began at that time? The domestic intelligence service DGSI has accrued power in successive stages (2008 & 2014) and was designated in 2018 to lead France’s fight against terrorism. More precisely, the entire security apparatus is required to report to it any information relating to terrorist threats. Most of the services have a liaison structure and the DGSI is in charge of promoting this intelligence feedback. It is also responsible for national coordination through a dedicated operational staff. (In a division of roles that seems to satisfy both agencies, the DGSE had previously been given a leadership role in SIGINT.) This central role for the DGSI has allowed it to benefit from the same type of positioning and independence as most of its Western peers.

However, many strange effects have again been noted by observers: namely, 1) as the analytical focus on terrorism has narrowed within a single professional culture, so has its understanding; and 2) a verticalisation of the intelligence chain, which now goes as far as the presidency of the Republic, and thus a risk of politicisation without real control.

The formulation of public policy and the necessary trade-offs are generally made at the level of the head of government, who is also politically accountable to parliament. Placing intelligence matters at the level of the presidency, however, is a departure from this rule and may arouse the suspicion of those calling for greater democratic transparency on these issues. The fight against terrorism is being concealed from the eyes of public opinion, almost entirely hidden behind high walls of secrecy, involving the risk of abuse. The intelligence world is being compromised in matters of low-level policing, at the risk of losing some of its soul and its resources, which are much more necessary for counter-espionage.

To complete this portrait of a state that is slowly changing under the pressure of events, we should also mention the increased specialisation of magistrates. This trend started in 1986 and ultimately led to the creation of a national anti-terrorist prosecutor’s office (PNAT) in 2019. Behind the praiseworthy intentions of enabling judges to deal with the complexity of a special crime (terrorism) — while at the same time increasing the number of anti-terrorist laws (on average one per year since 2001) — we have once again given the impression of an ’emergency justice’ (justice d’exception), where terrorism feeds precisely on the importance attributed to it.

We could add, still under the pretext of the fight against terrorism, 1) the exponential development of the private security market in France without any real ethical control; 2) the increasing recourse to special forces abroad without any real democratic control; and 3) the extinction of independent strategic thinking going hand in hand with the triumph of a new criminology devoid of any scientific basis. Combined, we have a rough idea of a regime that has become — in the space of a dozen years — a kind of anti-terrorist republic. Beyond these institutional changes, however, we should note the apparent success of this general anti-terrorist mobilisation.

An easily acquired plebiscite 

In a very short period of time, public opinion has risen up as one to throw itself headlong into this strange war. The new French doctrine has been met with little opposition – apart from the usual protests from human rights organisations. On the contrary, reactions ranged from frank endorsement, unfortunately strengthening the extreme right-wing electorate, to benevolent indifference in the interest of national consensus. Indeed, these theories on terrorism do have a reassuring effect and are to some extent intellectually appealing, particularly because of their simplicity.

To take only the fight against radicalisation, does it not provide the keys to a crime that generally defies understanding? By creating a new category of individual, the “radicalised”, who is not yet guilty but no longer truly innocent, we resign ourselves to a linear description of (an expected descent into) crime. This perception facilitates the formation of a social body that feels concerned and collectively victimised by the terrorist crime and is thus invited to determine and define itself in relation to it. And it still permits a possible de-radicalisation of the suspect.

Just as the “broken windows” theory had drawn a logical chain between disorder and criminality, the even more fragile radicalisation theory allows for the reduction of the other, the fundamentalist and militant Muslim, described in broad strokes using superficial criteria, to a potential criminal. But such shortcuts inevitably come at a price.

The political price

The “anti-terrorist” narrative — constituting a willingly paternalistic, even essentialist discourse towards Islam — has freed identity drives. The effects of this are beginning to appear in terms of public disorder (with far-right terrorism on the rise), have profoundly fractured the social fabric by clumsily playing on the notion of “Islamic separatism”, and will soon have serious electoral consequences. It should also be stressed that this new doctrine has made us more fragile in the face of real terrorist threats.

Terrorism has made us feverish, ready to give up — for the small comfort of certainty and a façade of security — what made us who we were, in particular universalism, which was an irreducible part of our common identity. We gave the terrorists everything they asked for: to be treated as soldiers of an enemy army and considered as the pious messengers of an Islamic vanguard. We too easily gave them the choice of weapons. We lost that first battle. It is for the quick wins of the present that we will have to pay for a very long time.

By massively mobilising their intelligence services in this war against terrorism — a conflict from which no victors will arise — and providing them with exorbitant means of controlling the population, Western governments could well, for the first time since the end of the Cold War, lead their services towards defeat. It remains to be seen how this new surveillance architecture will do in the wake of the often evoked ‘troubled political times’ in France and how Europe’s intelligence community, which, thanks to counter-terrorism, has never been so well organised, will face the jolts of history tomorrow.