The wave of terrorist attacks that hit France in the last 18 months underscores that the country is a primary target for radical Islamist militants, while also having a deep political and economic impact.
Two deadly terrorist attacks made July 2016 one of the bloodiest months so far in France’s modern history. A lone-wolf radical Islamist militant rammed his heavy lorry truck into crowds participating in Bastille Day events along the coastline of Nice, killing 85 people. The attack came only a day after President Hollande had hinted at a possible end to the state of emergency under which France has been since November 2015. The special legal measure has now been extended until January 2017.
Less than two weeks after the Nice attack, two Islamic State-linked militants assaulted a Catholic church in the northern city of Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray near Rouen. The perpetrators assassinated the local priest. The killing shocked the French public opinion and marked the first terrorist attack in the country specifically targeting Christian personnel.
The two aforementioned Islamic State inspired attacks highlight the fact that France is constantly exposed to an elevated terrorist threat. The reactions after these incidents also came as a stern reminder of the growing political tensions in a country that has experienced major attacks in its territory over the last 18 months.
Expansion of lone-wolf attacks
While much attention has rightfully been given to the radical Islamists’ operational strategic shift following the complex and coordinated attacks that hit Paris in January and November 2015, recent months have exposed the enhanced risk posed by lone-wolf terrorist attacks.
In June, as France was under tight security surveillance for the Euro 2016 football championship, a Sunni extremist killed two police officials in their residence in the Paris region. The attack underscored the issues linked with the increased presence in the French territory of radical Islamists willing to carry out individual attacks. This was later confirmed by the Nice assault.
As the Islamic State repeatedly called for all Muslims to wage attacks wherever they live, there is a heightened risk that radicalized individuals may try to conduct further terrorist acts in the country in the coming months. While these may not be as sophisticated as more complex operations, by nature they are more difficult to prevent and may still have a high impact.
A prime target for terrorists
The last 18 months have confirmed that France is among the Islamic State’s top priority international targets. The Middle East-based terrorist organisation has repeatedly used its vast francophone militant base to issue calls for attacks against the French territory, the national government and French oversea interests. The latest to date was a propaganda message issued from Iraq in which French speaking militants called for attacks in Paris, Nice and Marseille.
The Islamic State has a two-tier strategy in regards to France. On the one hand, it relentlessly tries to plan and carry out complex terrorist attacks similar to the ones that hit Paris on November 2015. On the other hand, the group aims at increasing the number of lone-wolf assaults in a bid to portray itself as having far-reaching power projection capabilities and instilling a greater feeling of insecurity in the country.
The stated objective of the Islamic State for Western Europe, and especially for France, is to create a larger divide between Muslim and non-Muslim populations in order to fuel sectarian tensions within which radical Islamism may find fertile ground to prosper.
Loss of confidence in government action
The ongoing terrorist threat comes against the backdrop of greater political uncertainties. The Nice attack shocked the French public and further drove a wedge between the government and the French people. According to a Le Figaro poll issued on July 17th, 67% of people asked do not trust the government in the ongoing fight against terrorism. The feeling was clearly echoed when Prime Minister Manuel Valls was met by a booing crowd at the Nice memorial service.
This rift between the government and the French people is symbolic of the ongoing political crisis that France is facing. The ruling Parti Socialiste (PS) is torn by the prospect of the 2017 presidential elections, and President Francois Hollande became the most unpopular president the country has ever had since the beginning of the Fifth Republic.
In this climate, it is increasingly difficult for the government to push forward much needed security and judicial reforms that are required to adapt to the evolving terrorist threat.
A weakened tourist sector
The wave of terrorist attacks that hit France in the last 18 months is not only having an impact on the country’s political sphere, but it is also negatively affecting its economy. In the first semester of 2016, France reported a decrease of 10% of the overall number of hotel bookings in comparison to the same period last year. Over the summer season, there has been 20% drop in bookings of international flights to the country. The tourism sector is likely to remain the most affected by the ongoing terrorist threat. However, a decrease in international tourists to France would have greater structural impact to the country’s economy, as it would result in an overall decrease in the demand for tourism related services. Given the current economic risk, the government is putting forth a tourism promotion plan aimed at solidifying France’s international attraction, regardless of the ongoing security risk.