By Ana Pouvreau and Mark Porter
A key factor in Sunday’s final round of the French presidential election is terrorism. How the T word is to be handled by centrist Emmanuel Macron and the National Front candidate Marine Le Pen could decide who next occupies the Elysée Palace.
Both offer radical solutions in the hope that it will counterbalance hitherto negative perceptions of their electoral programmes. The fact that neither belongs to the traditional parties who have ruled since 1958, and that Macron’s newly created En Marche! party is hardly a year old, seems only to have encouraged a disillusioned French electorate desperate for change.
Between them they polled 45% of the votes in the first round, the remaining 40% going to conservative candidate François Fillon, and Jean-Luc Mélenchon, of the hard left. On the domestic front Macron has promised 10,000 more policemen and gendarmes over the next five years, whereas Le Pen has trumped him by promising 15,000.
Macron will focus on fighting ISIS outside France’s borders and will maintain the current levels of military personnel, while Le Pen has pledged 50,000 more in the same timescale. He has announced a new roadmap for Syria using the experience gleaned from France’s intense involvement in the conflict since September 2015. He will also focus on the situation in Libya and on the Sahel-Saharan strip, where French troops have been trying to oust Islamic militants in recent years. His first visit abroad, if he is elected President next Sunday, will be a visit to the troops.
Le Pen has pledged to end free travel within the EU and reinstate state borders and will quit the Schengen Agreement, which she considers an open door for migrants and criminals. If elected she will expel foreigners monitored by surveillance. She has called for the closing of 120 Salafist mosques and other venues associated with radical Islam already identified by the Interior Ministry. She also calls for the 2004 law banning headscarves and other « ostentatious » religious symbols from the nation’s classrooms to be extended to all public spaces, including the streets. Only religious workers such as nuns, imams and rabbis would be exempt. She also plans to prohibit foreign funding of religious building and staff.
Fear has stalked the streets of France since March 2012 when a young Franco-Algerian signalled the start of a jihadist terreur with a series of brutal murders. Mohammed Merah, 23, gunned down three uniformed French soldiers on the streets of Toulouse and Montauban in revenge for France’s involvement in the war in Afghanistan. Merah then moved on to the Ozar Hatorah Jewish School in Toulouse where, in cold blood, he massacred a young rabbi and his two young sons, before shooting an eight-year-old girl in the head.
In September 2014, when French air strikes on Iraq commenced, “war” was declared on France and its citizens by Islamic State. Daech called upon its jihadist network to strike wherever – and whenever – on the “bellicose French.”
The recent Kalashnikov attack on police in the Champs Elysées on April 21, two days before the first round of polling, in which a policeman died and two more were injured, served as a stark reminder that no fewer than 237 people have died and a further 800 have been injured in this time. As did the overturning of a jihadist cell in Marseille just two days beforehand, which prevented a further “imminent and violent attack”, according to Interior Minister Matthias Fekl.
The state of emergency has been permanent since November 2015 when 130 people died in co-ordinated attacks on the Bataclan concert venue, the Stade de France Stadium in the suburb of St-Denis, plus cafes and bistros in the city centre. Since January 2015 the streets, railway stations and synagogues have been patrolled by 10,000 troops under “Opération Sentinelle”, whose powers have been renewed no fewer than five times to allow sporting events and elections to take place in relative safety.
There has been an admirable air of defiance, despite the appalling Bastille Day lorry attack on the crowds watching a firework display in Nice last year, in which a further 86 died and 434 were injured, many of them severely. International sporting events, political rallies and music festivals have gone ahead whilst life on the boulevards has been largely unaffected save for the visible presence of la Légion étrangère and other highly armed troops.
In March 2016 President Hollande scrapped plans to strip convicted terrorists with dual nationality of their French passports and deport them. Macron was opposed to this measure.
Le Pen, meanwhile, makes no bones about favouring the removal of passports and prompt deportation, a measure that has played well with the public. Her manifesto goes further: it contains a pledge to revoke citizenship of dual nationals with affiliations to jihadi organisations; those categorised as a potential threat to national security (so-called “Fichés S”); expulsion of all foreign nationals with links to Islamic fundamentalism, plus permanent bans from re-entry to French territory.
And that’s not all: French citizens who have contacts with a foreign organisation hostile to French national security interests will be placed under pre-trial custody in accordance with the law on “complicit intelligence with the enemy” (Article 411-4 of the French penal code). A list of such organisations will be drawn up for this purpose and those deemed guilty of crimes in relation to Islamic terrorism will lose their civil rights.
Le Pen also wants to end the principle of automatic citizenship for those born in France – known as « le droit du sol ». Under this law any child born to foreign parents automatically becomes a French citizen at 18, provided they have lived in the country for five of the previous seven years.
Le Pen throughout the electoral campaign has promised to end bi-nationality as far as countries outside Europe are concerned, with the curious exception of Russia. The measure has stirred outrage among the Jewish community (about 500,000). About one tenth of the French MPs at the National Assembly are themselves Franco-Israeli bi-nationals.
Under Sarkozy counter-espionage and domestic surveillance units were merged as part of a streamlining operation. But these major reforms have been deemed a failure in the curbing of homegrown, local terrorist cells. Both candidates have pledged to unpick this policy and encourage local level intelligence.
Macron will set up a new security headquarters with a promise to beef up all aspects of intelligence gathering. He will pull together a permanent counter-terrorism task force (50-100 personnel) which will be directly attached to the Presidency.
Le Pen, for her part, calls for the creation of a single counter-terrorism agency attached to the Office of the Prime Minister, which would analyse and co-ordinate responses to terror threats. Both candidates have said they will re-establish a strong territorial intelligence gathering force to patrol the streets, paying special attention to radical mosques.
Le Pen will also focus on intelligence gathering inside French prisons. She will increase the prison population by 40,000 while Macron has promised space for a further 15,000, over the next five years. He also plans to reinforce anti-radicalisation centres in an attempt to prevent the young being radicalised by Islamic State. The success rate of the centres is far from proven, despite an annual cost of €20 million to the taxpayer.
While Macron has promised to set up a big European data bank in which EU Member States will be obliged to share intelligence on suspected individuals, Le Pen is likely to criticize this idea since her party has opposed the Passenger Names Record system, or PNR, to collect and store information on anyone flying into or out of the EU.
Last but not least, Le Pen vows to cut down the legal yearly number of immigrants from 200,000 to 10,000 while employing a further 6,000 customs officers on the newly ringfenced French borders. Macron does not consider the present level of immigration a problem. Le Pen will also make it impossible for asylum seekers to claim asylum once they reach French territory. Such people will have to apply from abroad even if they come from war-torn countries. Macron considers this to be in breach in France’s tradition of giving asylum to the persecuted.
All of which seems to have left a political vacuum into which France’s famous tendance anarchiste has quickly moved, with angry post-election mobs chanting: “Ni patron, ni patrie” (“No bosses, no fatherland”). Hard-left followers of the failed Jean-Luc Mélenchon and other leftist candidates quickly found a cause to focus their frustrations, and a willing following among impressionable teenagers who stormed the Bastille in time-honoured fashion on the day of the first round.
The night of the first round was dubbed the “Night of the Barricades” when 2,000 rallied in protest. They were dispersed by tear gas.
On the Thursday after the election pupils blocked the entrances to 20 schools, staged demonstrations outside them and then marched through eastern Paris towards the Bastille in protest at both presidential candidates, chanting “No Le Pen, No Macron,” objecting to the nationalism of the former and the pro-business approach of the latter.
Teenagers were again in evidence during the Labour Day riots on May 1, where there were ugly scenes. Six police were injured as the crowds threw Molotov cocktails. Shades of ‘68? Quite possibly, with potentially more serious consequences.
The spectre of civil war hangs in the air as the volatile elements of anarchy, fascism and terrorism intermingle in the build-up to Sunday’s election.