Who is the enemy?
After a busy night for the police, France woke on Monday to news that more than 20 people had been taken into custody and 104 placed under house arrest. In the evening Hollande proposed a raft of measures to the General Assembly and the Senate involving tweaks to the constitution that enable the government ‘to manage a state of crisis’ and deal with the new reality (‘we are at war’). He also proposed 5000 more police and soldiers on the payroll by 2017, 1000 more border staff, 2500 new prison staff. More citizens with dual nationality would have their French nationality removed and be subject to ‘expulsion’.
Through the blizzard of emergency rhetoric, Parisians are going about their business once more. The idea of waging a war without sustaining losses was an odd one. Even losses at home should have come as no surprise. The shock in France is all the more striking because most of the wars it fought in the last century – Indochina is the obvious exception – unfolded on French soil. The Algerian Front de Libération Nationale fought the French in what was technically part of the national territory. FLN bombings in the colony were as shocking then as events in Paris last week, but they signalled the price of colonialism. Then, too, there were attacks in France proper, often against police and strategic targets, and as matters came to a head in 1961, thousands of French citizens from the Mahgreb marching in Paris were arrested and interned: scores of protesters, possibly hundreds, were killed.
Leaders and functionaries know the dangers of asymmetrical conflicts for their own populations, though they’re always guessing the extent. Parts of the French press and the public, however, were genuinely puzzled when, in a war involving more than a thousand sorties and hundreds of air strikes, the enemy responded by inflicting casualties. Until last week the battle zones seemed far away as French combatants bombed the caliphate. For citizens at home, it was as though the sinister missions of non-state actors such as Isis had no more to do with France’s actions in the Middle East than a freak flood or an unfortunate fire in a hostel.
But from Paris, Isis looks less and less like a non-state actor. The idiom of emergency in France – the talk of unrelenting effort, intensification, total destruction – ought, on the face of it, to reinforce the view that Isis is a deadly public health issue, an infestation rather than a state: one state at war with another doesn’t talk of extermination; it talks of victory, defeat and coming to terms. Yet, perversely, the resolute tone of the pronouncements, and the ratcheting up of the airstrikes, enact the classic scenario of one state at war with another on roughly symmetrical terms. And at last there’s the relief of a war declared, more than a year after the event. We inch closer by the day to acknowledging that Isis is what it claims to be: a state with state-like attributes: identity, a jurisdiction, territory and institutions, including an army, and the capacity to project its will in distant places such as Paris.
A child at a toddler’s birthday party in Paris explained at the weekend how she’d looked from her window at the mayhem in the 10th arrondissement and seen ‘a person lying next to a bicycle’ before her mother drew the curtains. Parents have new and difficult stories to tell their children, and themselves. Will it help public morale if the enemy is no longer imagined as a brooding network of undercover cells, or an ‘Islamic’ retread of the American gun artist, primed on an arcane impulse? Some sense of a coherent, identifiable adversary, responding in warlike ways to acts of war, may make it easier for Parisians to adjust, as the British did at time of the IRA’s campaign.