Post-Paris Domestic Dialogue: Posturing and Prejudice in France and the United States

By Lincoln Pigman, BA War Studies at King’s College London.

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In the immediate aftermath of the Paris attacks of November 13th, observers and analysts took to projecting the post-Paris world. Journalists and academics alike overwhelmingly focused on international cooperation against Daesh, ignoring the future of national security discourses in France and abroad. However, since the attacks, international dialogue has produced little save a United Nations Security Council resolution ‘calling upon’ and ‘urging’ member-states to counter Daesh, a document that serves only to license intensified French bombing of Syria and Iraq.[i] In contrast, domestic developments have seen an empowered right in France and the U.S., key coalition states, exploit pervasive insecurity and prejudice, winning popular support and forcing the left to grow more aggressive in its discussion of national security and counterterrorism policy. A hawkish shift bears significant implications for the future, risking full-scale intervention against Daesh and threatening the revitalisation of the post-9/11 surveillance state. The former promises a recruitment boom for Daesh; both undermine the West as a beacon of liberal and humanitarian values. As such, it is imperative that observers track and analyse the domestic impact of the Paris attacks.

In both the United States and France, the Paris attacks have played into the hands of rightist elements: the Republican Party and the Front National. Both occupy significant positions in their respective political systems. The Republican Party represents 41% of the American population,[ii] while recent political victories of the Front National, such as 2014’s European Parliament elections[iii] and December’s regional elections,[iv] reveal its increasing popularity. Much of the support enjoyed by the Republican Party, leaderless until primaries end in June, and the Front National, led by Marine Le Pen, comes from a conflation of narratives: of vulnerability to terrorism and the proliferation of Islam.

In France, where xenophobia runs high, Le Pen’s attacks on religious and ethnic diversity resonate with conservatives. In 2010, Le Pen appealed to historical memory and pervasive anti-Muslim sentiment when she equated the public practice of Salaat to the Nazi occupation of France:[v] an incursion both cultural and violent. In the wake of the Paris attacks, Le Pen returned to this theme, asserting that the diversification of France and the border policies of the European Union, whom she likens to the Soviet Union,[vi] had made France ‘no longer safe.’[vii] Le Pen successfully conflates issues of cultural diversity and national security, eliciting accusations of bigotry from the left. However, it is the response of the right that translates into political capital: praise for her honesty in a toxic climate of political correctness.[viii] Her tactics are mirrored across the Atlantic, where Republican presidential candidates exploit the Paris attacks to similar ends, appealing to misperception of Islam and fear of terrorist violence.

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With fourteen Republicans running for President, the GOP and its platform of hawkish foreign policy and anti-Muslim social policy enjoy no shortage of media coverage. In fact, candidates are rewarded by screen-time and a rise in the polls for bigoted statements and political posturing, a mechanism that has led to infighting as candidates attempt to out-offend one another. Unsurprisingly, few hesitated to take advantage of the climate of fear and insecurity produced by the Paris attacks. Donald Trump promised to implement a database of Muslims in the United States,[ix] predicating the policy on recollections of Muslims publicly celebrating (‘dancing on the streets,’ even[x]) during the attacks on the World Trade Centre on 9/11. Although Trump has yet to prove that anything of the sort occurred, his continued lead in the polls[xi] affirms the prevalence of anti-Muslim sentiment within the conservative base, and, more importantly, suggests that conservative constituents are open to the expansion of the post-9/11 surveillance state.

Other candidates have picked up on the latter, with Bush and Rubio calling for the restoration of the National Security Agency’s powers under the PATRIOT Act.[xii] In addition to embracing classics of the War on Terror such as ‘enhanced interrogation’[xiii] and state surveillance of Muslims,[xiv] the GOP has also tailored its discourse on national security to new developments: namely, the influx of refugees generated by the Syrian crisis, which neatly encapsulates concerns over terrorism and distrust towards Muslims. All fourteen GOP candidates backed the thirty-one governors who refused entry to Syrian refugees, a stance predicated on the discovery of a Syrian passport at the scene of one of the Paris attacks.[xv] That French and Belgian nationals perpetrated the Paris attacks bore no impact on the stance of the Republican Party and its support base. Nor did the fact that none of the perpetrators of jihadist attacks on U.S. soil during, or since, 9/11 entered the country as refugees,[xvi] leaving no precedent for refugees-cum-terrorists attacking the United States.

Whether empirically substantiated or not, it seems, Republican justifications for expansion of the American surveillance state and the curbing of civil liberties resonate with the conservative public. However, liberal observers would be remiss in dismissing the narratives of the right as mere rhetoric, particularly in light of the passage of the American Security Against Foreign Enemies (SAFE) Act, which stipulates additional background investigation of refugees entering the United States from Syria and Iraq.[xvii] The success of the SAFE Act affirms the potential for alarmist and inflammatory rhetoric to translate into policy, even in the face of vocal opposition from the President himself. This underlines an important point; having established the dominant narratives of the right in France and the U.S., it is crucial for observers to understand the impact of rightist narratives on the left-wing. For in both countries leftist politicians occupy the highest seat of political power, that of President. Their reactions to rightist discourses affect not only the future form, but also the present shape, of national security and counterterrorism policy.

The success of the Obama and Hollande administrations in offsetting fear and rightist narratives differs significantly. While impassioned, Obama’s response to post-Paris criticism of his Daesh strategy, delivered from the G2O Leaders Summit in Turkey, failed to resonate at home. An ‘unusually angry’ Obama (rightly) accused his critics of political posturing, and of favouring ‘shooting first and aiming later’ over a policy of containing Daesh.[xviii] However, his appeal to prudence, informed by the consequences of American operations in Iraq and Libya, did little to prevent the aforementioned passage of the SAFE Act, or to quell dissent against Obama’s plan for accepting ten thousand Syrian refugees.[xix] With post-Paris approval of his ‘handling’ of Daesh at forty percent[xx] and the revelation that Daesh sympathisers perpetrated the San Bernardino shooting of December 2nd, Obama’s flexibility and freedom of manoeuvre appear ever-tenuous.[xxi] Hollande, on the other hand, won a moral victory when he reaffirmed France’s commitment to accepting Syrian refugees—thirty thousand, no less.[xxii] However, two considerations leave the present author apprehensive concerning France.

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First, in terms of social policy, Hollande’s commitment to the ‘defence of freedom’[xxiii] and the very values assailed by Daesh in Paris has been inconsistent at best and negligent at worst. Much of the goodwill generated by Hollande’s pledge to accept refugees disappeared following the French government’s prohibition of the right to assembly, an act met by fierce resistance during the Paris Climate Conference.[xxiv] Likewise, the state’s decision to close down three mosques and four Muslim prayer rooms, ostensibly because of a risk of radicalisation, speaks to intolerance.[xxv] France’s application of broad new powers granted under an expanded state of emergency law, which has seen two-hundred and sixty-three people taken in for questioning and three-hundred and thirty put under house arrest,[xxvi] has also raised concerns among NGOs like Human Rights Watch, who warn that ‘Now more than ever, France should be irreproachable in its respect for human rights’ and that ‘Excessive restrictions would be a gift to those who seek to instil fear, undermine democratic values, and hollow out the rule of law in France and in Europe.’[xxvii] It seems callous to further erode Europe’s moral standing at a time when disillusionment over democracy and tolerance in Europe attracts so many to fighting with Daesh.

Second, Hollande has increasingly regressed into military language when discussing national security, a marked shift from his compassionate tone following January’s attacks. Yesterday, Hollande encouraged France to ‘not paint people with a broad brush, […] reject facile thinking, […] and eschew exaggeration,’[xxviii] but today, he promises to ‘destroy [the] army of fanatics,’[xxix] that ‘the Republic [will] destroy terrorism.’[xxx] ‘France is at war,’[xxxi] Hollande asserts, and one wonders whether his embrace of aggressive language owes more to the success of Le Pen’s hostility than to the urgency of France’s situation. Although Hollande has yet to militarise discussion of the refugee crisis, he would not be the first to. Not since October, when British Prime Minister David Cameron cited Chapter VII of the UN Charter, which addresses acts of aggression and threats to peace, in defence of Operation Sophia: a military operation ‘tackling’ the influx of refugees, who, it follows, pose a threat to European peace.[xxxii] The potential is there, and with Hollande’s coalition partner in London and his opponents in Paris behaving increasingly bellicose, his rightward shift is far from inexplicable.

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In the United States, Hollande’s rightward shift finds its counterpart not on Pennsylvania Avenue, but on the stages of Democratic Party televised debates. Since the Paris attacks, contenders Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Martin O’Malley have struggled to present a convincing plan for defeating Daesh, prompting harsh criticism from even leftist commentators. The Atlantic queried whether ‘Democrats have a strategy against ISIS,’[xxxiii] TIME characterised the three candidates as outright ‘incoherent on ISIS’[xxxiv], and The New Yorker concluded that ‘None of the Democrats has a strategy for ISIS’[xxxv]  While incoherent, all three candidates attempted to respond forceful. The otherwise pacifist Sanders promised to ‘rid our planet of this barbarous organisation,’ and Clinton similarly pledged to defeat ‘the scourge of terrorism’. O’Malley, however, went far beyond the platitudes of his rivals, insisting that the war against Daesh ‘actually is America’s fight.’[xxxvi] Compelled by pervasive fear of attacks on U.S. soil, the Democratic Party appears increasingly disinterested in maintaining its post-Iraq anti-war platform this election cycle, a problematic development given how militarising discourse on Syria makes non-military measures, like deterring states from purchasing oil and antiquities from Daesh, less appealing to policy- and decision-makers.

It remains unclear as to whether the newfound hawkishness of the Democrats extends to the expansion of the post-9/11 surveillance state, which C.I.A. director John Brennan called for shortly after the Paris attacks. Brennan denounced the ‘hand-wringing’ of political figures over intrusive government spying and implied that the Snowden revelations had primarily benefited the ‘murderous sociopaths’ of Daesh.[xxxvii] Brennan’s claims overlook both the presence of a significant surveillance system in France, which nonetheless failed to prevent the Paris attacks,[xxxviii] and Daesh’s use of encrypted communications, which complicates and often precludes government surveillance, as explained by King’s College London’s own Thomas Rid.[xxxix] However, practical considerations such as these have neither discouraged David Cameron from suggesting putting the Snoopers’ Charter on fast track[xl] nor kept politicians, American or otherwise, from taking measures that encroach on civil liberties while doing little to improve national security. It is therefore all the more imperative that post-Paris national security discourses remain grounded in reality, not misperceptions and misrepresentations of the security threat posed by Daesh, or thinly-veiled prejudice.

Pressured by terrified (terrorized, even) constituents and a bellicose right-wing in the wake of the Paris attacks, the liberal administrations and establishments of the United States and France stand on the verge of a rightward shift. Renewed interest in an American surveillance state and in cultural homogeneity in France bear implications for the shaping of social and national security policy alike, and in France’s case, European integration and the Schengen project, to which France has vocally committed itself. If the left is to preserve its platform of tolerance and democratic principles, it must assert said platform, welcoming refugees, cultural diversity, and resisting the temptation to regress into jingoism. It must pursue a course of action against Daesh predicated on diplomacy as equally as, if not more than, force, and avoid militarising discourses on Syria. As the language we utilise grows increasingly aggressive, so do the mindsets of our electorates. It cannot be forgotten that Daesh’s aim in committing acts of terrorism is to spur the escalation of foreign intervention: ‘boots on the ground,’ which would only serve to legitimise it within the region. Even if the truly liberal democracies of the West seek to avoid full-scale intervention against Daesh, they must take care to employ language that does not inadvertently eliminate all other options, an outcome facilitated by a climate of belligerence and fanaticism. In the words of Chatham House’s Ben Saul, ‘We need to hold our nerve and answer terror with liberty, and not the twilight of freedom’—or of rationality and prudence, for that matter.

[i] Reuters, ‘Security Council unanimously calls on UN members to fight ISIS,’ The Guardian, November 21, 2015.

[ii] Mladen Antonov, ‘More Americans identify with Democratic Party than GOP, poll shows,’ CBS News, July 6, 2015.

[iii] ‘France in shock: the National Front’s victory,’ The Economist, May 26, 2014.

[iv] Angelique Chrisafis, ‘Front National wins opening round in France’s regional elections,’ The Guardian, December 6, 2015.

[v] ‘Marine Le Pen: Muslims in France “like Nazi occupation,”’ The Telegraph, December 12, 2010.

[vi] ‘Marine Le Pen: “I don’t want this Soviet Union,”’ Spiegel, June 3, 2014.

[vii] Aurelien Breeden, ‘Le Pen: “The French are no longer safe,”’ The New York Times, November 14, 2015.

[viii] Ben Judah, ‘Marine Le Pen’s Power Will Grow After Paris, No Matter What Voters Do,’ The Independent, November 22, 2015.

[ix] Mehdi Hasan, ‘Why I Miss George W. Bush,’ The New York Times, November 30, 2015.

[x] Reuters, ‘Donald Trump: I was “100% right” about Muslims cheering 9/11 attacks,’ The Guardian, November 29, 2015.

[xi] Philip Bump, ‘Donald Trump is polling better than ever. Here’s why,’ The Washington Post, December 4, 2015.

[xii] Rebecca Kaplan, ‘The 2016 presidential candidates: how they’d fight ISIS,’ CBS News, November 23, 2015.

[xiii] Ed Pilkington, ‘Trump and Carson back use of waterboarding in fight against ISIS,’ The Guardian, November 22, 2015.

[xiv] Ibid. XII.

[xv] Patrick Healy and Julie Bosman, ‘G.O.P. governors vow to close doors to Syrian refugees,’ The New York Times, November 16, 2015.

[xvi] Sergio Pecanha and K. K. Rebecca Lai, ‘The origins of jihadist-inspired attackers in the U.S.,’ The New York Times, November 25, 2015.

[xvii] Elizabeth Williamson, ‘Refugee vote a failure for Obama,’ The New York Times, November 19, 2015.

[xviii] Dan Roberts and Patrick Wintour, ‘Obama rules out Syria ground invasion in passionate defence of ISIS strategy,’ The Guardian, November 16, 2015.

[xix] Eric Lichtblau, ‘White House affirms Syrian refugee plan despite Paris attacks,’ The New York Times, November 18, 2015.

[xx] Scott Clement, ‘President Obama’s approval drops in the wake of Paris attacks,’ The Washington Post, November 24, 2015.

[xxi] Dan Roberts, ‘San Bernardino shooter’s alleged Isis link: Obama’s worst political nightmare,’ The Guardian, December 4, 2015.

[xxii] Ishaan Tharoor, ‘France says it will take 30,000 Syrian refugees, while U.S. Republicans would turn them away,’ The Washington Post, November 18, 2015.

[xxiii] Francois Hollande speaking in Washington, November 24, 2015.

[xxiv] Anatoli Scholz and Christiaan Ate Paauwe, ‘Paris: Protests clash with police at cancelled COP21 march,’ Café Babel, December 1, 2015.

[xxv] Alissa J. Rubin, ‘France shuts down three mosques and four Muslim prayer rooms,’ The New York Times, December 2, 2015.

[xxvi] Ibid.

[xxvii] ‘France: New emergency powers threaten rights,’ Human Rights Watch, November 24, 2015.

[xxviii] Francois Hollande speaking in Paris, January 9, 2015.

[xxix] ‘Hollande: “We’ll destroy army of fanatics,”’ EU Observer, November 27, 2015.

[xxx] John Lichfield, ‘Paris attacks: Francois Hollande warns Europe must control borders to prevent “dismantling of the EU,”’ The Independent, November 16, 2015.

[xxxi] Ibid.

[xxxii] Jethro Mullen, ‘EU military operation against human smugglers shifts to “active” phase,’ CNN, October 7, 2015.

[xxxiii] Peter Beinart, ‘Do the Democrats have a strategy against ISIS,’ The Atlantic, November 17, 2015.

[xxxiv] Joe Klein, ‘The Democratic debate: incoherent on ISIS,’ TIME, November 15, 2015.

[xxxv] Ryan Lizza, ‘None of the Democrats has a strategy for ISIS,’ The New Yorker, November 16, 2015.

[xxxvi] Ibid. XXXIV.

[xxxvii] Scott Shane, ‘After Paris attacks, C.I.A. director rekindles debate over surveillance,’ The New York Times, November 16, 2015.

[xxxviii] Ibid.

[xxxix] Thomas Rid, ‘Mass surveillance can’t catch terrorists. That’s the uncomfortable truth,’ The Telegraph, November 16, 2015.

[xl] Ibid.

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