‘France has problems but it’s not on brink of civil war’

While certain French politicians and security chiefs have openly talked of the nightmare prospect of civil war in France, one expert tells The Local the country is too resolute to go down that path.

'France has problems but it's not on brink of civil war'
A French police officer stands in front of a Muslim prayer room after it was destroyed by a fire, suspected to be arson, in Ajaccio.. Photo: AFP

Since the brutal murder of a French priest by two homegrown French jihadists, talk of the prospect of a kind of civil war in France has increased.

Hervé Morin, the president of the Normandy regional council, talked of a “risk of the fracturing of French society.”

“We have lived in peace since 1945 but that is changing,” said Morin. “We need to respond to this accumulation of violence, if not French society will explode.”

His words echoed recent statements to a parliamentary inquiry by the head of France's internal security agency Patrick Calvar who talked of a risk of civil war in France if right wing extremists start launching revenge attacks against the Muslim community.

This week there was a sign that perhaps Calvar wasn't far off the mark when a group of Corsican militants who have been involved in armed struggle warned “Islamic radicals” they would respond in the case of an attack.

Numerous right wing authors have also evoked the prospect of France's communities turning on each other along ethnic lines as the result of cracks opening up with each terror attack. 

For its part the government and religious leaders are repeatedly stressing the need for unity, but even that suggests ministers are increasingly worried that one-off terror attacks could lead to sustained civil conflict.

After each terror attack, Muslim groups have noted a rise in Islamophobic incidents but these usually consist of verbal abuse as we saw in Nice or racist graffiti scrawled on mosques.

There has been no major act of violence or storming of a mosque although there were worrying anti-Arab riots in Corsica in over Christmas which saw copies of the Koran burned. The trouble followed an ambush of firefighters in an immigrant quarter rather than any terror attack, but were a clear sign of community tensions.

But are France’s communities really on the verge of turning against each other?

Simon Reich a visiting researcher at Institute of Strategic Research and at the Ecole Militaire (IRSEM) in Paris, believes “all this talk of civil war is just rhetoric.”

When the head of France’s internal security force Patrick Calvar told a parliamentary committee that he believed France was “one or two attacks” away from a civil war between extremist groups, Reich believes his words, as well as those of ministers who have talked of war, were probably motivated by a desire to gain support for extending the state of emergency and for justification for military raids in the Middle East.

While France has numerous issues that are all crisscrossing, Reich, a professor from Rutgers University in the US, believes the country’s population and its democratic institutions are resolute enough.

“France still has consensus among political parties for universal values that doesn’t include turning to violence,” Reich told The Local.

“It still has resolute democratic institutions and is a capable military power and powerful security forces, whether police or gendarmes who are trained to deal with the first signs of insurrection,” he added.

“This is not a failed state where we don’t have the capacity to stop these things from happening,” said Reich.

And then there’s the majority of the public at large who up until now have mourned the victims of terror rather than sought revenge.

“The people of France are saying we will not be scared, there is a certain amount of resolve and defiance to say let’s continue to live as usual,” Reich said.

“Are all those National Front supporters going to take to the streets with arms? No.

“France has universal values that people strongly subscribe to.”

Reich however warned that it all this doesn’t preclude the possibility that “some right wing splinter group could do something crazy”.

While it may be resolute enough to stop a civil war breaking out, France still faces a number of issues it urgently needs to deal with, Reich said, not least high unemployment but also finding way to economically and politically integrate its immigrant communities so they can feel they have a stake in French society they want to be a part of.

“The fundamental problem is that the French want an integrationist model but are not implementing the kind of policies that would extend opportunities to North African communities,” he said.

If France can achieve that then there would be perhaps far less fear and rhetoric around the prospect of civil war.


US vice president lays wreaths at site of 2015 Paris terror attacks

US Vice President Kamala Harris and French Prime Minister Jean Castex laid wreaths at a Paris cafe and France's national football stadium Saturday six years since deadly terror attacks that left 130 people dead.

US vice president lays wreaths at site of 2015 Paris terror attacks
US Vice President Kamala Harris and her husband Doug Emhoff lay flowers after ceremonies at Le Carillon bar and Le Petit Cambodge restaurant, at which 130 people were killed during the 2015 Paris terror attacks. Photo: Sarahbeth Maney/POOL/AFP

The attacks by three separate teams of Islamic State group jihadists on the night of November 13, 2015 were the worst in France since World War II.

Gunmen mowed down 129 people in front of cafes and at a concert hall in the capital, while a bus driver was killed after suicide bombers blew themselves up at the gates of the stadium in its suburbs.

Harris, wrapping up a four-day trip to France, placed a bouquet of white flowers in front of a plaque honouring the victims outside a Paris cafe.

Castex attended a minute of silence at the Stade de France football stadium, along with Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo, before laying wreaths at the sites of the other attacks inside Paris.

In front of the Bataclan concert hall, survivors and relatives of the victims listened to someone read out the names of each of the 90 people killed during a concert there six years ago.

Public commemorations of the tragedy were called off last year because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Last year we weren’t allowed to come and we all found it really tough,” said Bruno Poncet, who made it out alive of the Bataclan.

But he said the start of a trial over the attacks in September meant that those attending the commemoration this year felt more united.

‘Overcome it all’

“We’ve really bonded thanks to the trial,” he said. “During previous commemorations, we’d spot each other from afar without really daring to speak to each other. We were really shy. But standing up in court has really changed everything.”

The marathon trial, the biggest in France’s modern legal history, is expected to last until May 2022.

Twenty defendants are facing sentences of up to life in prison, including the sole attacker who was not gunned down by police, Salah Abdeslam, a French-Moroccan national who was captured in Brussels. Six of the defendants are being tried in absentia.

Poncet said he felt it was crucial that he attend the hearings. “I can’t possibly not. It’s our lives that are being discussed in that room, and it’s important to come to support the others and to try to overcome it all.”

Survivors have taken to the witness stand to recount the horror of the attacks, but also to describe life afterwards.

Several said they had been struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder, grappling with survivor’s guilt, or even feeling alienated from the rest of society.

Saturday’s commemorations are to wrap up with a minute of silence at the Stade de France in the evening before the kick-off for a game between France and Kazakhstan.

It was during a football match between France and Germany that three suicide bombers blew themselves up in 2015.

Then-French president Francois Hollande was one of the 80,000 people in the crowd, before he was discreetly whisked away to avoid triggering mass panic.