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Bataclan 6 Years On: The Attacks That Changed France

Bataclan 6 Years On: The Attacks That Changed France
 Mahaut de Fougières
Head of the International Politics Program
 Hakim El Karoui
Former Senior Fellow - Arab World, Islam

November 13 marked the 6th anniversary of the Paris attacks - a series of simultaneous jihadist terrorist attacks that took place in 2015 outside the Stade de France during an international football match, in the Bataclan theatre during a concert, and in a crowded area of cafés and restaurants in the 10th and 11th arrondissements. The attack, which caused the death of 131 people and injured 416, was the deadliest in France since World War 2. It occurred only a few months after the January 2015 attack on Charlie Hebdo offices and other smaller attacks throughout 2015, including the stabbing of three soldiers guarding a Jewish community centre in Nice in February, the attempt to blow up a factory near Lyon in June and the attack on a train from Amsterdam to Paris in August. On September 8, 2021, the trial of the November 2015 attacks began. The biggest trial in modern French history is due to last nine months, bringing together twenty defendants, including French-Moroccan Salah Abdeslam, the only one of the ten November 13 commando members still alive. 

A Quick and Multi-Dimensional Response

The psychological consequences of the attacks were dramatic. According to a Public Health Survey, 54% of the people directly threatened during the November 2015 attacks suffered post-traumatic stress disorder in 2016, and depressive symptoms were observed in 49% of bereaved families. The general feeling of insecurity grew significantly following the attacks and according to a poll conducted in 2017, 63% of the inhabitants of the Parisian region thought terrorism should be the government’s first priority. 
Strong measures were adopted to fight terrorism and to reassure the population. Just a few days after the January 2015 attacks, public authorities announced an unprecedented strengthening of human and material resources in several ministries (Interior, Justice, Defense and Finance). The French government invested in preventative control and detection tools. For instance, it increased its communication around the "green phone number", created in 2014 to signal concerns over the radicalization of individuals and launched the "Stop Djihadisme" website to counter terrorist propaganda. The law was also adapted accordingly: a bill was adopted in July 2015 to reorganize and reinforce the means of intelligence services, and another one in June 2016 was aimed at strengthening the means for security services to fight organized crime, terrorism and their funding. It especially improved the efficiency of the penal procedure and increased the statute of limitations: whereas a common-law crime has a prescriptive period of 20 years within which legal proceedings can be initiated, that period is now 30 years for a terrorist crime. Another bill put forward in October 2017 allowed several state of emergency measures to enter the common law, such as some individual administrative control and monitoring measures. The justice system was also transformed, with the creation of a National Anti-Terrorism Office in July 2019. Due to the specificity and intensity of terrorism in France, a national counter-terrorism prosecutor was appointed. In 2019, the office processed 700 cases.

The response also came from the military, both at home and abroad. Following the attacks, an additional 3.8 billion euros were added to the French military budget in 2015, and 2.2 billion euros in 2016.

The response also came from the military, both at home and abroad. Following the attacks, an additional 3.8 billion euros were added to the French military budget in 2015, and 2.2 billion euros in 2016. President Emmanuel Macron pursued this effort after his election in 2017. The military programming law for 2019-2025, based on the 2017 Strategic Review, which gives top priority to the fight against terrorism, intends to increase the defense budget by 15.8 billion euros during this period (from 34.2 billion in 2018 to 50 billion in 2025). At home, the reinforcement of the Vigipirate plan (a government vigilance, prevention and protection plan, which brings together all the public sectors of the country) was accompanied by the launch of Opération Sentinelle in January 2015. 

Over 10,000 soldiers and 4,500 law enforcement officers were then mobilized to secure sensitive sites on French soil. The operation became permanent in April 2016, and was reduced to 3,000 soldiers in March 2021. 

Abroad, then French President François Hollande decided to intensify efforts in the international coalition formed in 2014 against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, which had claimed responsibility for the 2015 attacks. On November 15, France launched the biggest airstrike of Opération Chammal: 12 Rafale fighter bombers struck the Islamic State stronghold, Raqqa. In 2016, France engaged its artillery to support the takeover of Mosul. Similarly, Opération Barkhane, which began in 2014 to fight the spread of Islamist groups in the Sahel, is part of France’s effort to fight jihadist terrorism abroad. 

A New Normal

It is striking how the French population has adapted to these measures that were put in place following the 2015 attacks. It is for instance the case for some measures that used to be specific to the state of emergency, that went into force overnight from November 13-14, 2015. It ended two years later when President Emmanuel Macron replaced it with a strong anti-terror law that cemented a number of emergency measures, for example granting law enforcement agencies extended powers to search homes, close religious sites viewed as promoting radical ideas and restrict the movement of suspected jihadist sympathisers. This was met with complaints by human rights activists arguing that these measures encroach on civil liberties and discriminate against minorities, in particular Muslims, and triggered some debates within the political class. But the law was adopted at first reading by the Parliament and the wider population seemed to widely support it, according to polls conducted at the time

The same goes with respect to the military. Opération Sentinelle appears as one of the main tools in the fight against terrorism, even though its effects are difficult to quantify: how many attackers were actually deterred by the fact that a patrol was passing by? But again, the operation is widely supported by the French population, which seems to have easily become accustomed to seeing the military on the street on a regular basis: according to a poll conducted in October 2017, 83% of people still approved of Opération Sentinelle, over two years after it was launched.

The population is also accustomed to the military operating on national soil, out of its traditional perimeter, and is asking for more.

The population is also accustomed to the military operating on national soil, out of its traditional perimeter, and is asking for more: a poll conducted in March 2021 reveals that a significant part of the population (4 out of 10 respondents) called for a greater involvement of the army in the fight against the pandemic and the vaccination campaign. The 2015 attacks have even triggered an important increase in interest in the military among the population: according to the Army Recruitment Office, over 1,400 Internet users logged on to the ("enrol") website every day, in the week following November 13th, compared with an average of 400. 

A New Response to a New Phenomenon

However, since 2015 and the shock of mass terror attacks, other challenges have emerged, thereby relativizing jihadism as a top priority. Firstly, the military is increasingly concerned with the return of military power worldwide, as shown by the military spending figures. In the context of the increasing likelihood of a major conflict between states, it is important to preserve a specific role for the military, which challenges the nature - or at least the scale - of domestic Opération Sentinelle. Similarly, intelligences services (both internal and external), although still very much dedicated to the fight against jihadist terrorism, are increasingly looking into the terrorist threat posed by violent groups from the far-Right and the far-Left. The same goes for the population, which is now more worried about climate change than terrorism, as a July 2021 poll shows.  

The threat is endogenous, so the response should adapt accordingly. The security approach is no longer sufficient and needs to be coupled with prevention measures.

Furthermore, the jihadist threat is evolving. The Islamic State no longer controls any territory. That means that, unlike in 2015, radicalized individuals do not necessarily have a link with a jihadist structure. They rather feed on jihadist propaganda online and act individually, without any complex strategy or material means. This was the case for more recent attacks, such as the assassination of French history teacher Samuel Paty in October 2020 or the April 2021 attack on a police station in Rambouillet. This is part of an evolution towards ideological jihadism, described in Les militants du djihad (January 2021).

Ideological jihadism is based on a binary vision of society with the "good" Muslims (the salafists) on one side, and the rest (all other French people, including Muslims) on the other. They are motivated by the belief that French society is threatening, permissive and corrupt: the state, embodied by the police, is Islamophobic and dangerous. These individuals intend to impose their vision of Islam by force, but without necessarily committing violent acts - except in somes cases such as the two mentioned above. 

The threat is endogenous, so the response should adapt accordingly. The security approach is no longer sufficient and needs to be coupled with prevention measures. It is imperative to prevent radicalization by ensuring that the second generation of French Muslims, who compose the majority of individuals who were recruited by the Islamic State, feel fully integrated into the nation. First, the State must work hand-in-hand with the Muslims and civil society to promote, particularly on social media, an alternative vision of Islam, one that is compatible with the identity and values of the French Republic. It should also encourage better training for imams, finance research about Islam, and intervene in prisons (among the 1,300 radicalized individuals in France, 250 became so in a prison environment), for example by allowing Arabic or Quran reading classes. Finally, the State must help set up a financing system for French Islam, through the establishment of a tax on economic activities related to Islam (halal food, Mecca pilgrimage). 

This evolution in the response to an increasingly endogenous phenomenon is particularly pressing as the campaign for the 2022 presidential election is starting, and the narrative of likely candidate Eric Zemmour risks reinforcing the feeling among potential jihadists of an Islamophobic France. 

Authored with the help of Assistant Policy Officer, Maud Lelou. 



Copyright: Benoit PEYRUCQ / AFP

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