On January 7, 2015, France suffered the worst terrorist attack on its soil in over 50 years when gunmen Said and Cherif Kouachi barged into the Paris offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, slaughtering 12. Over the next two days, another Islamic extremist, Amedy Coulibaly, killed a French policewoman as well as four hostages at a kosher supermarket in Paris.
In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, France appeared unified in its shock and grief. On January 10, 2015, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls declared war “against terrorism, against jihadism, against radical Islam, against everything that is aimed at breaking fraternity, freedom, solidarity.” The next day, at least 3.7 million people marched in anti-terrorism rallies in Paris and elsewhere in France.
The government’s reaction to the attacks was swift. France mobilized troops and deployed upwards of 10,000 security personnel to protect 830 “sensitive sites,” including synagogues, airports, railway stations and major tourist attractions. Nearly half of the security officers were sent to protect Jewish schools. Some mosques have also been given equipped with extra security after more than 100 ‘reprisal’ attacks' that targeted Muslim sites.
In the weeks and months since the attacks, France has maintained this high alert level. After a February 3, 2015 attack at a Jewish school in Nice left three soldiers wounded, the government decided to extend the alert level until at least April 10. Under this alert, the government will continue to deploy its more than 10,000 soldiers to sensitive sites throughout the country.
On January 21, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls paved a picture of what France’s domestic ‘war’ would look like. The Prime Minister announced new resources for France’s counterterrorism apparatus, and policy reforms that touch on a wide array of French institutions, including its school and prison systems.
The government also cracked down on suspected foreign fighters, barring a number of suspected jihadists from leaving the country for Syria. France has also arrested at least eight suspected jihadists since the January attacks and arrested at least 54 citizens for engaging in hate speech or supporting terrorism. One of the men convicted and sentenced was Dieudonne M'bala M'bala, a popular and notoriously anti-Semitic French comedian known for inventing a reverse Nazi salute. As authorized by an anti-terror law passed in the fall of 2014, France also began to implement censorship rules that allow the government to shut down websites promoting terrorism.
In the weeks following the January attacks, the French government also launched its “Stop-Djihadisme” (Stop Jihadism) campaign. Through a variety of resources and outreach tools, the campaign aims to empower citizens to identify and prevent violent jihadism in their own communities.
Meanwhile, in the wake of the January attacks, some French Muslims report feeling targeted and resentful of what they consider nationally-sanctioned suspicion. In France’s overcrowded and heavily Muslim-populated prisons, ongoing experiments to prevent radicalization by partially segregating dangerous Islamists do not necessarily promise success and may even serve to bolster and create new jihadist networks.
France post-Charlie Hebdo is at once a proud and highly suspicious country. It barrels down a road hastily paved and defined by what it refuses to accept: jihadism, Islamism and terrorism. Today, it remains unclear whether such a road can prove robust. In seeking a route around the country’s embedded and festering radicalization, France’s reaction to its internal threats could prove fruitful or short-sighted. Only time will tell.