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France's trauma: a hard question

The Paris massacre and its aftershocks must also be considered in the context of the larger war being fought in the Middle East and Africa.

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
11 January 2015

The attack in Paris on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo on 7 January 2014 continues to have a profound effect, most sharply in France and western Europe. Both the massacre itself and the events that followed - pursuit, hostage-taking, and further killings - are hugely amplified by the concentrated drama of twenty-four news coverage in and around a densely populated capital city.  

Also amplified are many familiar arguments about freedom of speech, the role of satire, the rights and risks of deliberate offence and provocation, all of them accentuated by the fact that a media organisation of a singular character was targeted. These themes will go on being aired and discussed, not least in openDemocracy. Alongside, it is worth addressing a more direct but no less urgent question, namely: "why?".

The French role

It is a question that has been asked many times in recent years after previous incidents of comparable magnitude or effect, several of them now known by their shorthand dates: 9/11 (New York and Washington, in 2001), 3/11 (Madrid's Atocha rail terminus, in 2004), and 7/7 (London, in 2007). "1/7" in Paris now joins that sequence. In each case, the answers are in part complex, because of the particular circumstances and people involved. Yet they are also in part straightforward, because of the context that binds these assaults. The latter aspect is in some cases hard for people in the west to face, though the need to try and do so is pressing.

This dimension is reflected in the statement from France's prime minister Manuel Valls that the country and its allies are now at war with militant Islamists. The use of the word "now" is significant, in that from an Islamist perspective such a war has been going on for many years. It's true that France itself was less substantially involved in the Afghan war after 9/11 and careful to stay right out of the Iraq war in 2003, but it was at the forefront of the campaign to oust Gaddafi's regime in Libya in 2011 and in instigating the war against Ansar Dine and other Islamist militants in Mali.  Most recently, it has deployed 3,000 military personnel as part of Operation Barkhane in Mali and across the border into Chad. 

This change of direction has also been reflected in Paris taking the lead among the United States's allies in the war against the Islamic State (IS), with its strike-aircraft operating out of bases in Jordan and the United Arab Emirates. The French navy is also now deploying its nuclear-powered aircraft-carrier Charles de Gaulle to the Gulf at the head of a task-group to support the anti-IS campaign in Iraq, using its air wing of Super Etendard and Rafael strike-aircraft (which doubles the size of French air-power in the war) . Even before the latter escalation, France's air-force had by the end of December 2014 flown over a hundred sorties, including a number of actual attacks (see "French military will be on the frontline against Islamic extremists for years to come", The Conversation, 8 January 2014).

The country's military role in the Middle East and the Sahel is far better known across these regions than in France itself. In the former region, this aids the perception of France as part of yet another western assault - which, again, has a far greater impact than realised, since the air-war being fought in Iraq and Syria by the US-led coalition is far more intense and on a far larger scale than is reported in the established western media.

The Islamist reality

By one of those grim coincidences, the day before the Charlie Hebdo atrocities the Pentagon gave an update on that war. In the five months since the bombing started, there have been 3,222 air-strikes using 5,886 bombs and missiles (see Air Force Times, 7 January 2014). This compares with 5,471 weapons used by the US in Afghanistan in 2011 - the heaviest of the past five years in the country. 

The air-attacks have been directed at over 1,900 targets. These include a small number of tanks, artillery, armoured fighting vehicles and Humvees, but the vast majority are checkpoints, bunkers, fighting positions, and barracks and other buildings. The effect has been to blunt the Islamic State advances, though not seriously limit them; yet if the Pentagon does not "do" body-counts (or at least does not publish them), the numbers killed must be considerable.

Even were just one person killed and one person injured for every bomb dropped, that means thousands of casualties, inevitably including civilians. All of this is doubtless chronicled in great detail in the various social media from Islamist sources, to the extent that the Charlie Hebdo and other attacks are readily seen as retaliation.

From the perspective of the Islamist propagandist, there is yet more to it than this. As Islamic State seeks ever more would-be jihadists to join its cause, it will welcome any increase in inter-community tensions, whether in France, Germany, Britain, Sweden or elsewhere. The more young Muslims feel under threat, the more the propagandists are satisified, since some of the threatened and vulnerable might be just that little bit more likely to take up the cause. Even better are the divisive political responses of Marine Le Pen, Nigel Farage and others - indeed, anything that contributes to conflict will be welcomed.

At a time like this, with the French experience still raw, such a dispassionate analysis may seem too blunt. Perhaps it is, but at some time - and preferably sooner than later - what is happening must be recognised. A powerful coalition of western countries is now engaged in a large scale air-war against extreme Islamists, among whom will be people who want to bring that war home to the west. The Charlie Hebdo attack is the most potent western example of this decade, but it will most certainly not be the last. Trying to answer that question - “why?” - is more important than ever.

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