Terrorism hijacks France’s presidential election
13 Sep 2016|

France’s presidential campaign is heating up, with terrorism constituting one of the key debate topics. In the past 18 months, four terrorist attacks have targeted French territories, from Paris to the small suburban city of Normandy. Fear is tangible amongst the whole population and candidates to the French Presidency must suggest solutions to this critical issue.

However, as the political debates intensify toward the election in April and May 2017, discussions on how to fight terrorism are taking a wrong turn. French public opinion is already exasperated by the strategies taken by politicians; to either scare people about the loss of their national identity or to blindly support the government’s anti-terrorist policies. So far none of the candidates’ declarations have aimed to answer people’s three main questions: how to tackle the roots of radicalisation, how judges should sentence terrorists and how France can efficiently manage the cost of the extended state of emergency.

Politicians have only recently included terrorism in their debates. Questioning France’s response to terrorist attacks was almost taboo before the 14 July Nice attack. In moments of grief, the French population has gathered in solidarity, strongly uniting behind state security policies. Similarly, politicians didn’t challenge the government’s response to the attacks. That consensus no longer stands.

Nicolas Sarkozy, President of the ring-wing party Les Républicains and an official candidate in the presidential election, started the criticism. Sarkozy argues that President François Hollande has underestimated the means required for effective antiterrorist policies. But the Répulicains party is divided between two election strategies regarding terrorism. Sarkozy unveiled his program in his book published on 26 August, Tout pour la France. He demands less immigration and a strict assertion of France’s identity against the minority of Muslims who challenge secularism. Sarkozy’s strategy is to toughen his program to bring back his former electorate, which has partly turned to the far-right. On the other hand, Alain Juppé, Sarkozy’s main opponent in the party, follows a traditional centre-right strategy. He too criticises Hollande’s antiterrorist policies, but argues that Sarkozy plays on people’s fear and threatens France’s impressive solidarity.

On the other hand, Hollande focuses his communication strategy on the improvement of the French economy. Growth has—slowly—returned and unemployment is starting to decrease. Hollande still believes that economic and social issues should be core topics of his presidential campaign, over terrorism. Ministers even assert that challenging current anti-terrorist policies threatens national security.

By refusing to challenge or justify the government’s anti-terrorist policies, socialist candidates, and more broadly all left-wing candidates including the far left and the Greens, risk leaving this critical issue in the hands of right and far-right candidates. Such electoral strategies have been unsuccessful because they don’t address people’s real concerns about terrorism. This is detrimental to France’s democracy.

No candidate has a clear counter-radicalisation strategy, especially for teenagers and prisoners. Last June the General Inspector of French jails published a very critical report on the ability of prisons to reduce the increasing problem of penitentiary radicalisation. Candidates should fully tackle this problem, which deeply concerns the French public. There’s a broader question of how the French judicial system can firmly deal with members of terrorist groups without threatening the rule of law during the state of emergency. In a speech on 8 September, François Hollande tried to explain how his anti-terrorist policies haven’t weakened the French constitution and civil rights, but he was vague and unconvincing.

The candidates’ strategies should also respond to the population’s questions about the economic and human costs of security policies during an extended state of emergency. The first duty of democratic States is to ensure the protection of their population, whatever the cost. However, the state of emergency is increasingly expensive. For instance, the deployment of only military troops in France’s main cities, the Opération Sentinelle, costs €1 million a day. France’s budget has easily managed these costs so far, but future voters need to be reassured about how the budget impact of an extension of the state of emergency until the presidential elections next May.

The human cost of the state of emergency is also worrying, with soldiers and policemen exhausted after months of relentless patrols across French territory. The public expects concrete explanations on how the state of emergency will be extended. Presidential candidates should respond to these concerns in their strategies.

The public also wants to know the financial impact of terrorism on the French economy, which is just starting to improve after years of crisis. Tourism is a crucial activity for the national economy, France being the world’s first tourist destination. The impact of terrorist attacks has been considerable, with 9.9% fewer tourists in Paris so far this year.

Polls repeatedly show that a large majority of the population don’t want Sarkozy or Hollande as candidates, but none of the candidates’ declarations seem to tackle terrorism the way French public opinion expects. Instead, the most vocal candidates are currently playing on people’s fear, for instance with the burkini ban. French communities have remained united so far, but unaddressed political divisions on security policies and national identity are actually playing into the terrorists’ game.