‘Democracy stronger than barbarism’, Hollande tells attacks trial

Former French president Francois Hollande on Wednesday told the trial held over the November 2015 Paris terror attacks he had no regrets about ordering airstrikes against the Islamic State group, which the assailants claimed as justification for the bloodshed.

'Democracy stronger than barbarism', Hollande tells attacks trial
In court, Hollande launched an impassioned defence of the air strikes that France had been carrying out in Syria against IS, which claimed the Paris attacks as vengeance. Photo by Ludovic MARIN / AFP

Hollande, who was president from 2012 to 2017, also said that while the government knew further attacks were being planned after the massacre of a group of cartoonists in January 2015, “we did not know where, when and how they would strike.”

A 10-man jihadist cell evaded detection to carry out the worst attacks in France’s post-war history on the night of November 13, 2015.

Hollande was attending a France-Germany football friendly at the Stade de France stadium in Paris when the first suicide bomber detonated his vest, prompting security agents to whisk him away as two more blasts went off.

Gunmen later opened fire on cafes and restaurants in a lively part of the capital and stormed the Bataclan concert hall, killing indiscriminately and taking hostages in a slaughter which by the end of the night left 130 people dead.

In court, Hollande launched an impassioned defence of the air strikes that France had been carrying out in Syria against IS, which claimed the Paris attacks as vengeance.

“This group struck us not for our actions abroad but for our ways of life at home,” said Hollande.

“Democracy will always be stronger than barbarism.”

Acknowledging that he had reflected on his own responsibility, he said: “I would do exactly the same thing (in Syria). I say this in front of the plaintiffs who are suffering, those who have lost loved ones. This is France, we owed it to the populations who were being massacred (in Syria).”

‘A message’

It remains unclear how many of the assailants or their accomplices entered Europe via the migrant trail and remained at large despite being on the radar of intelligence services.

Some of the victims’ families have questioned whether the bloodshed could have been prevented, prompting one victims’ association, Life for Paris, to request that Hollande be brought in as a witness.

All attackers were killed or eventually gunned down by police except for Salah Abdeslam, a French national of Moroccan origin, who did not detonate his suicide vest and was later captured in Brussels.

When the trial got underway in September, Abdeslam accused Hollande of encouraging the attacks by going to war against IS.

“Francois Hollande knew the risks he was taking in attacking the Islamic State in Syria,” Abdeslam said.

In a sound recording of the attacks found in the Bataclan, the gunmen can be heard telling their victims “they only had Francois Hollande to blame” as they spray the theatre with bullets.

“How did you feel about that?” asked Jean-Marc Delas, a lawyer for Life for Paris.

“It sounded like a kind of refrain, like a signature,” Hollande said.

It was “a message to make us renounce our interventions in Iraq and Syria” and create “a rupture, a religious war” between the French.

Marathon trial

France had been on high alert for jihadist attacks since the massacre of 12 people at the satirical Charlie Hebdo newspaper and of four others during a hostage-taking at a Jewish grocery store over three harrowing days in January 2015.

“Every day we were under threat. We knew that there were operations being prepared, individuals who mixed with the flow of refugees, leaders in Syria. We knew all that,” Hollande told the court.

“Unfortunately, we did not have the information that would have been decisive in preventing the attacks.”

The court rejected the objections from some defence lawyers to allowing Hollande to testify.

His testimony is the latest chapter in a marathon trial expected to last until May 2022.

In October, the court heard weeks of sometimes harrowing testimony from survivors and relatives of victims.

The trial is the biggest in France’s modern history.

Some of the 20 defendants, including Abdeslam, face life sentences if convicted. Six of the accused are being tried in absentia.

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Burkini: Why is the French interior minister getting involved in women’s swimwear?

Bikini, topless, swimsuit, wetsuit, burkini - what women wear to go swimming in France is apparently the business of the Interior Minister. Here's why.

Burkini: Why is the French interior minister getting involved in women's swimwear?

It’s a row that erupts regularly in France – the use of the ‘burkini’ swimsuit for women – but this year there is an added wrinkle thanks to the country’s new anti-separatism law.

What has happened?

Local authorities in Grenoble, eastern France, have updated the rules on swimwear in municipal pools.

French pools typically have strict rules on what you can wear, which are set by the local authority.

For women the rule is generally a one-piece swimsuit or bikini, but not a monokini – the term in France for wearing bikini bottoms only, or going topless. For men it’s Speedos and not baggy swim-shorts and many areas also stipulate a swimming cap for both sexes.

These rules typically apply only to local-authority run pools, if you’re in a privately-owned pool such as one attached to a hotel, spa or campsite then it’s up to the owners to decide the rules and if you’re lucky enough to have a private pool then obviously you can wear (or not wear) what you want.

READ ALSO Why are the French so obsessed with Speedos?

Now authorities in Grenoble have decided to relax their rules and allow baggy swim shorts for men while women can go topless (monokini) or wear the full-cover swimsuit known as the ‘burkini’. This is essentially a swimsuit that has arms and legs, similar in shape to a wetsuit but made of lighter fabric, while some types also have a head covering.

Is this a problem?

No-one seems to have had an issue with the swim shorts or the topless rule, but the addition of the ‘burkini’ to the list of accepted swimwear has caused a major stir, with many lining up to condemn the move.

Those against it insist that it’s not about comfy swimwear, it’s about laïcité – that is, the French secularism rules that also outlaw the wearing of religious clothing such as the Muslim headscarf and the Jewish kippah in State spaces such as schools and government offices.

READ ALSO Laïcité: How does France’s secularism law work?

The burkini is predominantly worn by Muslim women, although some non-Muslim women also prefer it because it’s more modest and – for outdoor pools – provides better sun protection. 

Grenoble’s mayor Eric Piolle, one of the country’s highest profile Green politicians who leads a broad left-wing coalition locally, has championed the city’s move as a victory.

“All we want is for women and men to be able to dress how they want,” Piolle told broadcaster RMC.

Is this France’s first burkini row?

Definitely not, the modest swimsuit has been causing a stir for some years now.

In 2016 several towns in the south of France attempted to ban the burkini on their beaches. This went all the way to the Constitutional Court, which ruled that such a ban was unconstitutional, and the State cannot dictate what people wear on the beach.

The situation in municipal pools is slightly different in that local authorities can make their own rules under local bylaws. Most pools don’t explicitly ban the burkini, but instead list what is acceptable – and that’s usually either a one-piece swimsuit or a bikini. These decisions are taken on hygiene, not religious, grounds.

The northwestern city of Rennes quietly updated its pool code in 2019 to allow burkinis and other types of swimwear, which seems to have passed unnoticed until the Grenoble row erupted.

Why is the Interior Minister getting involved?

What’s different about the latest row is the direct involvement of the Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin. He appears to have no objection to topless swimming in Grenoble, but he is very upset about women covering up when going for a dip.

No, he’s not some kind of creepy beauty pageant judge from the 1970s – he’s upset about laïcité.

Darmanin called the decision “an unacceptable provocation” that is “contrary to our values”.

He has ordered the local Préfet to open a review of the decision, and later announced that prosecutors had opened an inquiry into Alliance Citoyenne, a group that supports the wearing of burkinis in pools.

And the reason that he gets to intervene directly on the issue of local swimming pools rules is France’s ‘anti-separatism’ law that was passed in 2020.

This wide-ranging law covers all sorts of issues from radical preaching in mosques to home-schooling, but it also bans local councils from agreeing to ‘religious demands’ and among its provisions it allows the Interior Minister to intervene directly on certain issues.

So far this power has been used mostly to deal with extremism in mosques, several of which have been closed down for short periods while extremist preachers were removed.

Darmanin’s foray into women’s swimwear seems to represent an extension of the use of these powers. 

Is this all because there is an election coming up?

Parliamentary elections are coming up in June and the political temperature is rising. It’s certainly noticeable that in Darmanin’s initial tweet about the matter he referred to Grenoble mayor Eric Piolle as a “supporter of Mélenchon”, although Piolle is actually a member of the Green party.

Mélenchon and his alliance of leftist parties are currently the main rival for Macron’s LREM at the parliamentary elections.