SHORTLY after the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January, Manuel Valls, France’s prime minister, visited a high school and told pupils: “your generation will have to get used to living with the danger” of terrorism. Since then, Paris has been on high alert. Parisians have indeed grown accustomed to the presence of soldiers patrolling streets, railway stations and places of worship, and the appearance of metal barriers preventing parking outside all schools. But nothing could have prepared the French for what happened last night: the indiscriminate murder of people sitting outside eating pizza, watching a rock concert or attending an international football match. In total, at least 128 were killed and the death toll is likely to keep rising.The French awoke this morning in a state of shock. “Carnage in Paris” read the front page of Libération newspaper. “This time it’s war” was Le Parisien’s headline. Television stations broadcast non-stop scenes of the dead and wounded being carried away in the darkness. President François Hollande went during the night to the Bataclan, a concert venue stormed by terrorists where more than 100 people were killed. He described the events as “a horror” and, having already declared a state of emergency and reintroduced emergency border controls, vowed to lead a “pitiless” war against terrorism.
Mr Hollande blamed Islamic State (IS), the jihadist group that rules large parts of Iraq and Syria. In a statement, the group said it had carried out the “blessed attacks” in retaliation for France’s involvement in allied air strikes against IS. Some suggest the Bataclan, which has been threatened in the past, was targeted because the owners had connection to Israel (and the American band playing had toured Israel in the summer), but such speculation may be ascribing too much forethought to the killers.
The Paris town hall has today closed all schools, museums, libraries, town halls, gyms and markets. The capital’s police chief advised Parisians to stay at home. Many places were quieter than usual, yet there was also a strange sense of defiant normality this morning in Paris. Metro stations near where the attacks took place remained closed. But otherwise trains were running normally on the metro and RER suburban railway. Air France said that it was maintaining flights in and out of the capital and the Eurostar train to London continued to run. Locals were trying to go out and about as usual.
It is hard to know what getting used to terrorism means. The January attacks were shocking enough, a deliberate series of attacks on specific targets: a satirical newspaper, a Jewish supermarket, a policewoman. But last night’s horror was indiscriminate. It had been an unseasonably warm evening for November, and the three attacks on Paris restaurants took place in a busy neighbourhood, around the 11th arrondissement, popular for its bars and nightlife. Tens of thousands of football fans were packed into the Stade de France to watch France play a friendly match against Germany, holders of the world cup. They included Mr Hollande, who was exfiltrated during the match after three explosions around the stadium. The slaughter at the Bataclan took place during a packed rock concert. In each case, these were Parisians enjoying a Friday night out in largely unsecured public places. The idea that even this can no longer be considered safe, as in Tel Aviv or Beirut, comes as a deep shock.
It is also hard to know precisely what Mr Hollande means by a “war” on terrorism. French security sources have been concerned for some time about the possibility of such an attack. Their worries were twofold: forthcoming scheduled events (particularly the Paris climate talks, which start at the end of November) and indiscriminate attacks in public places. Up to a point, tight security measures can be put in place for the first category. The second is far more difficult. It is much easier to get hold of handguns and even automatic weapons in France, part of the borderless Schengen zone, than it is in Britain, an island that retains passport and customs controls at its borders. As recently as August a heavily armed gunman was overwhelmed by fellow passengers as he tried to open fire on a high-speed Thalys train from Amsterdam to Paris. Moreover, among the eight terrorists who died last night were a number of suicide bombers—the first attack of this sort on French soil, posing a new threat to the country.
The French government is well aware that, given these new threats, the best form of prevention is better intelligence. It has already tightened counter-terrorism laws, and Mr Valls, a former interior minister, has boosted the intelligence budget to allow more agents to be recruited. But it takes time to make new trainee analysts fully operational. As it is, French intelligence services are understood to have some 5,000 people with links to terrorism on a watch list; the Thalys gunman had been among them. It is simply not possible to keep anything like that number under surveillance.
As the French try to come to terms with the latest attack, and make sense of what happened, the unpopular Mr Hollande will need unusual political skills to reassure a shaken nation. After the January attacks he emerged as a far more statesman-like leader than many had imagined possible. Back then Mr Valls, too, gave a powerful speech to parliament, urging unity and vowing defiance against terror. He was careful to stress that France was at war with “Islamist terrorism”, not Islam itself, and to recall that the vast majority of France’s Muslims were deeply shocked by the attacks. Indeed, one French policeman shot dead by the Charlie Hebdo gunmen was of Muslim origin.
Even then, however, there was trouble in some schools, where pupils refused to observe a minute’s silence for the victims. France is home to Europe’s biggest Muslim minority, some 5m-6m strong, and some of those in the outer-city estates, where unemployment is high, are young and impressionable. Jihadist recruiters, using French air strikes in Syria and Iraq as a pretext, have been particularly successful in luring French citizens, including converts and young girls, to join IS. France supplies more would-be jihadists than any other European country.
Now Europe’s refugee crisis makes managing the politics even more delicate. Inevitably, some have already tried to point the finger at migrants, even though this latest sort of attack would presumably have been carefully planned and long predated the current exodus of asylum-seekers to Europe. In fact, France has been on the sidelines of the influx, as the vast majority of refugees head to Germany. Robust French foreign policy probably has far more to do with France’s vulnerability to terrorism than refugees.
Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front (FN), was due to make a statement later today. She is likely to do her best to sound responsible, as part of her effort to reinvent the FN as a respectable party ready to govern. She announced on Twitter that she would suspend her election campaign until further notice.
Ms Le Pen is currently favourite to win election to the presidency of the Nord-Pas-de-Calais-Picardie, in northern France, and will make a formidable campaigner in the presidential election of 2017. For now she will probably dwell more on what she sees as the errors of a borderless Europe. In many ways she does not need to sound inflammatory about immigration in order to win support. If anything, these ghastly attacks in Paris will strengthen her further still.