"Douce France, doux pays de mon enfance…” (Sweet France, Sweet Country of my childhood). My parents’ generation adored these lyrics of the famous French crooner Charles Trenet; indeed, the country of France must have been sweet in the early 1950s.
Today things are different; very different.
On Saturday night, Paris witnessed the worst terror attack in France's history: some 129 people were killed and more than 350 injured.
In his televised intervention, President Hollande said, "Terrorist attacks of an unprecedented level are underway across the Paris region. It's a horror."
He was referring to the attack in the Bataclan, a popular concert hall in Paris. It was packed with 1,000 people for a concert by the US band Eagles of Death Metal. One hour into the concert, some Black-clad gunmen walked from the back of the hall and started calmly, methodically firing at hundreds of screaming concert-goers. A radio presenter who was present first thought it was part of the show, “but we quickly understood. They were just firing into the crowd." It soon turned into ‘a bloodbath’, another witness later said. One attacker told the crowd, "It's the fault of Hollande, it's the fault of your president; he should not have intervened in Syria."
It was the first time that France experienced suicide-bombers: 7 of the 8 terrorists identified so far died after activating their suicide-vests.
The temporary tally is horrific: 1 casualties near the Stade de France, 5 dead rue de la Fontaine au Roi; 12 dead rue Bichat ; one terrorist killed on boulevard Voltaire; 19 persons died rue de Charonne and more than 90 in Bataclan.
Already 11 months ago, two brothers, Saïd and Chérif Kouachi entered the offices of the French satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris. Armed with assault rifles, they killed 11 people and injured 11 others. They identified themselves as members of the Yemeni branch of Al-Qaeda. While leaving, they shot dead a Police officer posted outside the building. Later in the day, other attacks took place in the Île-de-France region, five more were killed and 11 wounded.
The public in France thought that it would not happen again, but it did.
The difference this time was that the attacks did not occur in any symbolic place, but in ‘normal’ popular areas such as restaurants, concert hall …and the Stade de France, which for many symbolizes of the multiracial character of French sport.
Why did this happen in France?
A personal experience immediately came to my mind. It was 5 years ago.
I was a bit spaced out after the long journey from Chennai as I arrived at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris. A man approached me (like outside most airports in India) and asked: “Can I help you, my taxi is just there; I will drop you wherever you want”.
Though in India, I only deal with ‘prepaid’ taxis, there in my country of birth, I was fooled. The man then called ‘his brother-driver’, and when I explained that my relatives’ resided near the Stade de France, he said “no problem, in 10 minutes you will be there”. He braggingly added: “I know how to avoid the ‘bouchons’ (‘cork’ meaning traffic jams’)”.
As soon as I was in the taxi, I had a strange feeling: was it really a good idea?
I soon discovered that my ‘pal’ had no knowledge whatsoever of Paris and its suburbs; he missed the correct turn off the freeway. “No problem, I will take the next one out”, he confidently said. For more than one and half hours, we visited different banlieues (suburbs). I was getting more and more nervous to have jumped into this so-called ‘cheap and friendly taxi’.
To cut a very long and meandering story short, I forced the driver to leave me “at any Gare-RER” (Metro-station).
As I waited for my relatives to pick me up, two vans of CRS (the well-equipped riot police who deal with difficult suburbs) arrived. I was going to have a most enriching ‘journalistic’ experience.
Immediately, a CRS advised me not to go far on my own; it was a ‘difficult’ area, he said. While on the pavement with the CRS, youngsters kept passing by, passing comments on the police, who remained ‘cool’ and refused the provocation.
The CRS requested me again me to stay with them, it was better not to wander around with my big suitcase; for a long time, I watched them handling all sorts of youths, often aggressive or drugged. My general feeling was that the youngsters were completely lost and out to provoke.
The fact remains that if even one out 1 lakh is ‘converted’ to jihad, it becomes a huge problem for the State. Molenbeek, Brussels’ banlieue where at least 3 of the terrorists, who died in Paris, lived, probably faces a similar situation.
In 2006, President Sarkozy had triggered a hot debate: how can France tighten its security? He had proposed that anti-social elements who had recently acquired French nationality be stripped of their citizenship, if they committed crimes against police personnel.
Many asked how a nation which invented the mantra of “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” and was the first of speak of the equality of all citizens in front of the law, could speak of a double-tier law (one for ‘true’ French, one for new ones). Obviously, the solution could not be so simplistic.
Since my 2010 experience, the situation has further deteriorated, not only in France, but in nearby Belgium where some of Saturday’s attackers lived and also elsewhere in Europe. Issues are further aggravated by the fact that Douce France is not doing too well economically.
Three days before the latest Paris events, Bernard Cazeneuve, the French Home Minister had announced that a terrorist attack had been thwarted in Toulon, the naval base in Southern France, where the aircraft-carrier Charles de Gaulle is based.
On October 29, Hakim, a 25-year old resident of the city, had been arrested for preparing a terrorist attack targeting some French naval personnel.
Hakim’s whereabouts were being monitored since some time by the Direction General for Internal Security (DGSI), the branch of the French intelligence responsible for anti-terrorism. Hakim had recently come into contact with 21 year-old Mustapha Mokeddem, one of the IS recruiters also living in Toulon.
A usual scenario followed: Hakim met Mustapha, who convinced him to join the jihad, but Hakim failed to leave for Syria in October and December 2014. Two months later, Hakim was banned to leave French territory and his passport confiscated. Then, encouraged by Mustapha Mokeddem, he decided to ‘act in France’.
When he received two parcels containing some assault weapons and hoods, the police arrested him. He told the French police that since a few months, the IS propaganda had ordered the new recruits that if they were unable to join the ‘Caliphate’, they should prepare attacks in France. In one video, a IS cadre exhorts his ‘brothers’ to become ‘solitary wolves’ and to fight the ‘infidels’: “Kill them with knives, spit in their face as much as you can” were his injunctions.
For the French intelligence, the difficulty is that many ‘normal’ youth can one day come across a recruiter or a preacher who ‘converts’ them to jihad.
There is no easy solution to stop this. And more worrying is the large amount of arms and ammunition used by the terrorists on Saturday.
All this raises critical questions, including the French foreign policy, the question of migrants and the inadequacy of the intelligence sharing within Europe.
Will the France and European leadership be able to take adequate decisions? Only the future will tell us, but certain aspects of today’s France definitely lack ‘sweetness’.