A President Makes a Call to Arms Against ISIS, But Who Is Answering?
After the bloody terrorist attacks in Paris on November 13, French President François Hollande declared war on the Islamic State, also known as ISIS. But although he employed tougher rhetoric, Hollande didn’t necessarily make an about-face in French counterterrorism policy.
“The objective is clear, Daesh must be destroyed,” Hollande told his Defense Council the day after the attacks.
In the weeks that followed, the French president undertook a marathon transcontinental diplomatic blitz to rally reluctant world leaders against ISIS.
In a four-day stretch from November 23 to 26, Hollande received British Prime Minister David Cameron in Paris, flew to Washington to visit President Barack Obama, returned to Paris to meet with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and then flew to Moscow for a sit-down with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Hollande said the November 13 attacks—which killed 130, wounded 683 and were France’s worst mass casualty attack since World War II—were an “act of war . . . organized and planned from the outside.”
“We’re at war against jihadi terrorism,” Hollande said in a November 16 speech to the Congress of the French Parliament.
Call to Arms
Hollande’s recent call to arms contrasts with the French reaction to the terrorist attacks in January, when jihadists killed 17 across Paris, including 12 in a shooting at the office of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and four at a Jewish kosher supermarket.
Those attacks spurred an introspective, nationwide debate on integrating France’s Muslim minority. “There are fractures, huge, gaping, in our society that must be resolved,” Bruno Le Roux, leader of France’s Socialist Party, said in the wake of the January attacks.
Two key events highlight the evolution of French rhetoric since January.
First, in a televised speech Jan. 20, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls singled out domestic cultural rifts as a national security threat:
"These last few days have emphasized many of the evils which have undermined our country from within, or challenges we have to face. To that, we must add all the divisions, the tensions that have been brewing for too long and that we mention sporadically."
Referring to the condition of France’s Muslim minority, Valls added: “A territorial, social, ethnic apartheid has spread across our country.”
The second event was Hollande’s November 16 speech before the Congress of the French Parliament, a unified body of the National Assembly and Senate, which meets at the Versailles Palace for exceptional occasions. In it, the French president struck a more martial tone. He spoke about the eradication of terrorism and declared war on ISIS:
"We are going to lead a war, which will be pitiless. Because when terrorists are capable of committing such atrocities, they must be certain that they are facing a determined France, a united France, a France that is together and does not let itself be moved, even if today we express infinite sorrow."
On November 25, the French newspaper Le Monde reported:
"The Charlie Hebdo attacks raised questions about how French society could have produced these terrorists. The attacks of Nov. 13, even though they were perpetrated by French and Belgian nationals, were cast as the action of an external enemy, the Islamic State, which should be fought in Syria."
His rhetoric aside, Hollande’s declaration of war on ISIS wasn’t necessarily a sharp change in French counterterrorism policy.
France began bombing ISIS targets in Iraq in September 2014, the first European country to do so. France expanded its airstrikes into Syria a year later, on September 27. France also maintains 3,500 troops deployed to North Africa as part of an ongoing counterterrorism mission called Operation Barkhane.
After the November 13 attacks, French warplanes pummeled ISIS targets in a wave of retaliatory airstrikes. Hollande sent an aircraft carrier, the Charles de Gaulle, and its twenty-six warplanes to the Mediterranean, more than doubling France’s airstrike potential in the region.
Hollande did not, however, invoke Article V of the NATO charter, which would have taken the twenty-eight-country alliance to war against ISIS.
France also launched an offensive on the domestic front of its “war on jihadi terrorism.” Hollande declared a three-month national state of emergency, which includes a ban on public demonstrations.
New surveillance and intelligence gathering measures have gone into effect, including communications metadata collection under a July 2015 law. French authorities have wide latitude to make arrests, detain suspects and shut down mosques singled out as hotbeds of radicalization.
As of December 4, French authorities had shut down three mosques for links to Salafists, a radical form of Sunni Islam. Additionally, under France’s emergency measures, authorities have carried out 2,235 house searches, which led to 263 interrogations, taken 232 into custody and opened 346 judicial proceedings.
Defending the emergency measures, French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said: “Terrorism is the threat to freedom, not the state of emergency.”
Underlying the domestic security crackdown are larger, decades-old questions related to the integration of France’s Muslim minority. Some argue this cultural schism is at a tipping point, leaving disaffected French Muslim youth vulnerable to recruitment by extremist groups like ISIS.
According to French intelligence services, about 2,000 French citizens have joined jihadist networks in Syria and Iraq, with 571 still known to be on the battlefield as of November.