If the aim of Islamic State is to further polarise French society and destabilise western Europe, we should expect another terrorist incident before second-round voting for the French presidency on May 7. The Paris shooting just before first-round voting seems to have mainly benefited the new radical centre, represented by Emmanuel Macron, and the far right, represented by Marine Le Pen.
France has lived under a state of emergency since 2015 and has suffered a series of Islamist militant attacks that have killed more than 230 people over the past two years.
The reasons for Islamist terrorist attacks in France are numerous. They include:
- Negative Muslim perceptions of France's treatment of Muslims, including its treatment of World War II Muslim veterans.
- France's involvement in the US-led military coalition against Islamic State, particularly as a French military contingent is now playing an important part in the Mosul battle against IS.
- French employment discrimination against Muslims in France.
- The ease with which extremists and automatic weapons can cross France's borders.
- The number of young French Muslims inspired by IS extremist ideology.
- The French security services' difficulty in keeping on top of more than 15,000 people of security interest.
France does not have a good record in the treatment of Muslims from its former colonies. As just one example, more than half of the French liberation army of 1943-44, which fought in Italy and France, comprised soldiers from North and sub-Saharan Africa, with 134,000 Algerians, 73,000 Moroccans, 26,000 Tunisians and 92,000 men from other colonies. When their countries achieved independence from France, their French pensions were frozen. It was not until 2011, about half a century later, that France agreed to pay those still living at the same rate as French veterans.
The French Muslim population is estimated at about 10 per cent of the total population (or 6 to 7 million people), but the French jail population is about 70 per cent Muslim.
A Stanford study in 2010 showed that a Christian French citizen is 21/2 times more likely to get a job interview than an equally qualified Muslim candidate. Discrimination has reportedly worsened since the Charlie Hebdo attack in January 2015.
There is little control in western Europe of population movement, particularly between Belgium and France. Under the 1985 Schengen Agreement, national border controls were removed, to be replaced by controls at the European Union's external borders. Many French citizens question a situation where extremists and weapons are able to move freely between countries within the Schengen area.
Military automatic weapons, such as the AK-47s used in French terrorist attacks, are mainly trafficked across EU borders from the Balkans and former Soviet-bloc states. According to a Christian Science Monitor report, there are 10 to 20 million illegal weapons in France.
One of the far-right's election priorities is to re-establish tight national border controls.
Because of the number of disaffected young Muslim men in France, it is relatively easy for IS to mount attacks in France. Some of those involved in the attacks have returned from fighting in Syria. It is estimated that at least 1000 French residents or nationals have travelled to Syria to take part in the conflict. More than half of them were not known to French intelligence services before their departure.
The main French security intelligence agency is the General Directorate for Internal Security, founded in 2008 and tasked with counterespionage, counter-terrorism and the surveillance of potential threats on French territory. It has an estimated 3300 employees. This compares with ASIO's 1880 employees last financial year, for an Australian population of 24 million, and a Muslim population of about 500,000. This means France is allocating less than 10 per cent of the resources Australia allocates to security intelligence relative to the potential threat.
IS has referred to its attacks in Paris as a ghazwa (religious raid) whose function is to weaken and demoralise an enemy. Other alleged motives included objection to Paris as a capital of "abomination and perversion".
It is doubtful France knows where to begin to get to the roots of its security problems. Measures being taken to enhance security are likely to worsen its religious divisions. Fortunately, Australia's security problems are well managed by comparison. The limited availability of military weapons and explosives in Australia means that, while IS-inspired terrorist attacks remain probable here, they are unlikely to result in the horrendous death tolls seen in France over the past two years.
This article was first published in Fairfax Media on Wednesday, 26 April, 2017.