France attack an early test for Macron

PARIS, France — Late morning today (March 23), an armed gunman opened fire on police before taking hostages in a supermarket in the small southern town of Trèbes. The incident broke the period of calm that had followed the spate of terrorist violence that struck the country in 2015 and 2016. By 3 p.m., officials had announced three dead and at least three wounded, one critically. The gunman was also killed by police.

The assailant—who yelled “Allauh Akhbar,” or God is great, in Arabic—pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group, and demanded the release of Saleh Abdeslam, the only survivor among the 10 attackers of the November 2015 attacks in and around Paris. The group subsequently claimed responsibility for the attack, calling the perpetrator a “soldier of the Islamic State.”

The authorities revealed that the attacker, Redouane Lakdim, was of Moroccan origin and previously known to intelligence services. He was 26 years old, lived in the nearby town of Carcassonne and had been notorious for small crimes. “We didn’t think he had radicalized,” Interior Minister Gérard Collomb said, but that he had “abruptly taken action.” Still, he was known to have been active on fundamentalist Salafi online chat rooms.

It’s not the first time someone already on the government’s radar successfully perpetrated violence on French soil. But it is the first such major incident to hit France under the leadership of President Emmanuel Macron (last October, a knife-wielding man at a train station in Marseille killed two), and how he responds will be an important moment for his administration.

 

It’s not the first time someone on the government’s radar perpetrated violence on French soil. But it is the first such major incident under Macron’s leadership.

 

After the previous attacks, it was revealed that prison officials had documented that Amedy Coulibaly, responsible for the shooting at a kosher supermarket in January 2015, had earlier radicalized in prison, information they failed to transmit to security forces. Said Kouachi, one of the armed gunmen who stormed the offices of the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo directly prior, had previously been under surveillance, but the monitoring was lifted when he moved from Paris to the northeastern city of Reims. And Samy Amimour, one of the men behind the attack at the Bataclan theater in November 2015, had traveled freely from France to Syria in 2013, despite a travel ban.

In July 2016, just a week before Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, a Tunisian-born man living in France, drove a truck through densely packed crowds celebrating Bastille Day in Nice, a parliamentary committee had called for an overhaul of the intelligence services. That was in response to an investigation that exposed numerous intelligence failures that lawmakers argued could have thwarted the attacks at Charlie Hebdo, the Bataclan and other sites in and around Paris.

Upon taking office, Macron had announced a new “national center for counterterrorism” that would report directly to the executive, aiming to avoid the kind of coordination gaps that led to past failures. That the Trèbes attacker had been known to the security services is likely to renew criticism of the French security apparatus, and Macron—who’s already the target of significant public discontent for his social policies—will have to respond carefully.

Shortly after he took office, a state of emergency that had been declared after the November 2015 attacks under then-President François Hollande, was set to expire. To the consternation of human-rights advocates, the new president passed a sweeping counterterrorism law last October, supplanting the state of emergency but integrating some of its elements into common law. Critics said the law would institutionalize discrimination against French Muslims, who, following the attacks, were disproportionately subjected to home raids, placed under house arrest and subject to police profiling.

But despite that controversial law, Macron has generally tried to ease the tense climate that had reigned since the 2015 and 2016 attacks. He has attempted to distance himself from the previous government, which many considered fueled hysteria around terrorism in relation to French Muslims. Former Prime Minister Manuel Valls, for example, is notorious for his attempt to ban “burkinis” on French beaches in the name of laïcité, or French secularism; he defended the measure even after it was rejected by the European Court of Human Rights. Since leaving office, he has become a regular on TV and radio talk shows, espousing a certain vision of laïcité that seeks to minimize Muslims’ visibility in the public space.

In what some considered a veiled reference to Valls, Macron, during a meeting with representatives of major religions in France, warned against the “radicalization of laïcité”—a statement that generated an outcry from the far right, but also from Valls and his followers on the left, whose positioning I described in-depth in my January newsletter.

The Trèbes attack is still fresh. But once the dust settles, it will be an early test for Macron, who must both reassure the French public, once again on edge over future violence, and ensure a level-headed response that doesn’t deepen the already-high tensions around Islam in France.

Image credits here.