France and the Bataclan attacks: a British perspective by Paul Swallow @ CCCU

For many people, the terrorist attacks in Paris in January and November 2015 brought home memories of similar events such as the 9/11 attack in New York, the 2004 train bombings in Madrid and the 7/7 and 21/7 attacks in London, and the question will be asked if such Bataclan type attacks could happen again. The short answer regrettably is, yes, an attack could and probably will happen again, and the apparent similarities between all of these attacks brings home that very point.

What really lies behind these attacks? Are they motivated by religious tensions or caused by something more fundamental? Issues relating to the wealth and economic strength of the so-called ‘developed world’ and the poverty of ‘Third World’ countries are well known. In terms of life expectancy, education, access to medial support even in terms of safety from attack and having enough food to eat, the developed world has a significant advantage. These factors contribute to immigration from such states, and issues relating to the relative inability of immigrant communities in the developed world to settle quickly, to become accepted and to enter easily into the social and political life of their adopted states. It is easy to see how this can foment into resentment against the power and exclusiveness of the ‘West’, and how resentment can develop into anger and ultimately violence.

In the above-cited attacks, the terrorists came from such immigrant communities. All the attackers shared similar backgrounds. They were frustrated, angry young men perhaps feeling disadvantaged and excluded by their ‘host’ countries and all evidently susceptible to radicalisation by extremist elements and prepared to kill and be killed for an unattainable, ultimately pointless cause. All claimed to be taking revenge on behalf of oppressed people abroad in the name of religion.

France is one of the most successful countries in the world. Its contribution to the arts, to music and culture, to engineering, to literature and to cuisine, and its reputation for intellectual debate are unparalleled. France is unique in many respects, and in view of the recent attacks, some of this uniqueness and the differences between France and the Anglo-Saxon world will be explored. We will look briefly at aspects of the political and judicial landscape in an attempt to see if they differ from other countries targeted by terrorists to discover whether the risks of further attacks are more significant there than elsewhere. In particular it will highlight three issues, the concept of ‘laïcité’, the structural fragmentation of the policing services, and the relationship between the police and the judicial system.

Laïcité’ is the ‘neutrality’ of the French State towards religion of any kind. This concept is not so well understood in the English speaking world where the best translation is often given as ‘secularism’. The first article of the Constitution of the 5th Republic, is ‘La France est une République indivisible, laïque, démocratique et sociale’ (France shall be an indivisible, secular, democratic and social Republic). Compare this to the United Kingdom, where for example the Queen is Head of the Church of England, and Anglican Bishops sit in the upper chamber, the House of Lords. Other religions do not have this automatic right.

The concepts of laïcité and of egalité (equality) are deeply rooted in French law and administration and in France’s idea of itself. Once granted ‘nationalité française’ (French nationality) a French citizen is an equal member of French society, and her or his religion, ethnicity or sexual orientation are nothing to do with the state. A well known manifestation of this is that the only marriage ceremony officially recognised in France is the state ceremony, conducted often by the locally elected ‘Maire’ in the Town Hall. Religious wedding ceremonies are not recognised by the state, and thus many couples will have two ceremonies, the second according to their faiths and traditions. This is not the case in the UK.

Laïcité caused France in 2004 to introduce legislation to ban the wearing of religious symbols in schools. The law, the “loi … encadrant, en application du principe de laïcité, le port de signes ou de tenues manifestant une appartenance religieuse dans les écoles, collèges et lycées publics” (Act … governing, in the application of the principle of secularism, the wearing of symbols or clothing which show religious affiliation in public primary and secondary schools).

Linked to this is legislation introduced in France in 2010 banning the covering of the face in public. The much-criticised “Loi interdisant la dissimulation du visage dans l’espace public”, (Act prohibiting the concealment of the face in public areas) bans the wearing of the Burqa and the Niqab, traditional headwear for some Muslim women. These laws may have been interpreted by some as an attack on religious expression.

Although conceptually an admirable concept, ‘laïcité’ does cause issues for the French government when tackling the social problems it has in common with most Western states: unemployment, disaffection and racism etc. in that France cannot collect data relating to these issues. For example, whilst France would be able to state with accuracy the percentage of young people between the ages of 18 and 25 who are unemployed, it would not be able to state officially how many of them were from immigrant communities or from particular religious or ethnic groupings. France would not hold official statistics on for example the number of police or Gendarmerie officers there are from minority ethnic communities or how successful people from such backgrounds are in gaining access to the professions or to political power. In a sense France is blind to such issues. Of course, sociologists would be able to give a fuller picture, but France, owing to the concepts of laïcité and egalité, may be less able than other countries to take targeted action to counter the causes of the problems it encounters.

Thus France is unable to say with accuracy the numbers of immigrants or people from ethnic minority backgrounds there are in France. For Muslims, estimates range from a commonly quoted 5% to the 15% or more claimed by the right-wing groups.

In the UK and in other countries, statistics on ethnicity, religion and sexuality are widely available. For example, in 2011, the British government published data that there were 2,706,066 Muslims or Muslim converts living in England and Wales. Similarly the Government published data showing that of the 129,584 police officers in England and Wales, 5% (6,537) were from minority ethnic groups.

It is argued that having such information available, the British authorities are more able to take remedial action. This is not to say that the UK is more or less successful than France in this respect, but the issue is perhaps more publicly understood. Whether the UK is more successful in dealing with such issues is another debate.

Moving on from ‘laicité’, a second important difference lies in the structure and role of policing and judicial services.

It must be said at the outset that France has very effective, well resourced and highly experienced intelligence and counter-terrorism agencies, supported by strong anti-terrorist legislation. Until the 2015 attacks, France had been safe from such acts for over 20 years, since the Paris metro and rail network attacks in the mid-1990s.

France has three main police services, the ‘Police Nationale’ (PN), which policies large towns with over 20,000 people and of course all major cities, the ‘Gendarmerie Nationale’ (GN), a military police service which is more prominent in the countryside and smaller towns, and the smaller ‘Police Municipale’ forces operating under the authority of the ‘Maire’ in many towns and cities. The police in Paris, the Préfecture de police de Paris, or the ‘PP’, can be considered almost as a separate police force. The Head of the PP is a ‘Préfet’, a senior-level political appointment, holding the same rank as the Head of the PN.

The PN are arguably the most visible force of the national and international scene, undertaking most cross-border communications, and as we shall see below, the most prominent force in dealing with counter-terrorism.

It is well documented that these police forces do not cooperate well together, and this can only hinder their efficiency. The so-called ‘guerre des polices’ (‘war between police forces’) does exist in reality. Under Nicolas Sarkozy in the early 2000s, attempts were made to bring the PN and the GN closer together, for example, the GN reported to the Interior Ministry and no longer the Ministry of Defence, but the overall success of these initiatives is debatable.

Notable among the several police nationale counter–terrorism agencies is the ‘Direction générale de la Sécurité intérieure’ (DGSI – General Directorate of Internal Security). This body was set up in 2008 by the merger of two earlier PN services, the legendary ‘Direction de la Surveillance du territoire’ (DST – the Central Directorate for Territorial Surveillance) and the ‘Direction centrale des Renseignements généraux’ (RG – the Central Directorate of General Intelligence). The RG was purely an intelligence gathering body, reporting to central government on a wide range of social activities, not all linked to criminality. Their nickname was ‘Big Ears’. The DST had both an intelligence and a judicial role, and is France’s primary force dealing with counter terrorism, working to a specialist judicial investigation team discussed below.

The DCRI is part of the PN, although the GN has an equivalent team, the ‘Bureau de la lutte anti-terroriste’ (BLAT – The Counter Terrorist Bureau). Needless to say, the PP has its own anti-terrorist team.

It should also be noted that not all French police officers have full investigative powers, as the term would be understood in the UK. Here all constables, even members of the volunteer force, the Special constabulary, have full police powers in terms of arrest and investigation, from the outset. In France, investigative and arrest powers are linked to a legal qualification. Most police officers will have the legal ‘quality’ or ‘status’ of ‘Agent de la Police Judiciaire’ (APJ) and fewer, mainly those in senior ranks will have the legal status of ‘Officier de la Police Judiciaire’ (OPJ). Only officers holding the qualification of OPJ are able to exercise full police powers of arrest and detention, and the role of the APJ cadre is to assist OPJs and to respond to their orders. Municipal police officers, traffic wardens and junior or trainee police and Gendarmes will hold the lower status of “Agent de Police judiciaire adjoint” (APJA – Deputy agent of the judicial police), with even fewer powers.

A second difference is the investigative role of the ‘Ministère de la Justice’ (Ministry of Justice), perhaps France’s equivalent of the UK’s ‘Crown Prosecution Service’ (CPS). The ‘Ministère’ is responsible for the conduct of criminal investigations and the prosecution of offenders. Once the police have conducted the initial investigation, the ‘Ministère’ is informed, and in serious cases such as terrorism, the case file will be delegated to a specialist investigating magistrate, the ‘juge d’instruction’, who will then take over the investigation using the OPJ officers as investigators. This investigative power resides in but a few specialist and highly trained individuals, who of necessity have a very high workload.

In the British legal system, the investigation will be led by a police officer, a senior detective referred to as the ‘Senior Investigating Officer’ (SIO), who will conduct the investigation calling on the advice of the CPS, the body which will eventually prosecute the case.

The differences here are that the French system is highly centralised, and highly specialised, with expertise resting with a few highly specialist police officers and investigating magistrates. Although there is some centralisation in the UK, for example the intelligence gathering role of the Security Service (MI5) and New Scotland Yard, the headquarters of London’s Metropolitan Police, houses the Counter-Terrorism Command (CTC). This is a highly experienced team of police officers, but the absence of a national police force means that this team can only be deployed outside London if invited by the local Chief Constable. In many cases, large city police forces have set up their own teams of counter-terrorist specialists

Despite this, by comparison the UK system seems more decentralised and devolved, with expertise residing within a greater number of arguably less-specialist officers more widely available to carry out investigations. Whether decentralisation is better or worse when comparted with France’s centralisation is debatable.

This paper is intended to highlight some of the characteristics of political, legal and cultural life in France which may have lead it to being attacked recently in such a violent way. Very little research has been conducted into these areas and whether they make a difference or not, but it may provide some background for those considering risks from and responses to terrorism.

Paul Swallow

Senior Lecturer

Canterbury Christ Church University

November 2015

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One Response to France and the Bataclan attacks: a British perspective by Paul Swallow @ CCCU

  1. Gary Cordner says:

    Paul, this is very informative. There was a news article suggesting that the highly centralized and formalized French system caused a delayed and rather ineffective response to the Bataclan attack: see Of course a news article is not the same as evidence, but it helps describe the difference between the French system and Anglo/American systems.


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