Post-Paris revenge: François Hollande’s November speech reveals blind spots

By Philip MacFie

On November 16, French President François Hollande addressed both houses of the French Parliament in the wake of the Paris terror attacks three days before. His speech is nothing short of a call for revenge on the Islamic State in Syria.

France’s 9/11

Daniel R. Depetris writes of Hollande’s “9/11 moment.” Just as the World Trade Center attacks caused the United Sates to rethink its foreign policy on al-Qaeda terrorism and Afghanistan, so the Paris attacks have led France to reevaluate its approach to Islamic State terrorism and the Syrian conflict.

With the world listening, Hollande issued an unyielding response to the horrific events in Paris. The French President stated in no uncertain terms, “Our Republic is not in the grasp of despicable killers.”* He vowed, “My will is to use all the power of the state to protect our citizens.”

Hollande knew that the French people would look to the state for security and reassurance. He understandably addressed these needs in his speech.

Hollande linked the Paris attacks to a larger struggle against terrorism: “We are in a war against jihadi terrorists who menace the whole world and not only France.” In this war, France was prepared to take a leadership role: “The sponsors of the Paris attacks must know that their crimes, far from shaking France’s resolve, strengthen our determination to destroy them.”

The President declared that France would combat terrorism everywhere. To begin, France would deploy bomber aircraft to attack the Islamic State stronghold of Raqqa in Syria. Violence would be repaid with violence. Hollande’s November 16 address was a call to revenge.

Hollande called for allies, including the United States and Russia, to join this war of vengeance. And he revealed France’s plans to invoke Article 42.7 of the European Union’s Lisbon Treaty, which says: “If a Member State is the victim of armed aggression on its territory, the other Member States shall have towards it an obligation of aid and assistance by all the means in their power.”

The cycle of revenge

Revenge is a never-ending cycle. Retired Canadian Forces General Michel Gauthier observed, “every time you kill a local who is not a fighter, an innocent civilian … you are creating tens or maybe hundreds of new enemies.”

In Syria, civilian casualties are common. Chris Woods and colleagues estimate that between August 8, 2014 and June 30, 2015 a minimum of 459 civilians died from coalition air strikes in Iraq and Syria. Bombardment by France will only exacerbate the problem of unintended deaths. The result will be at least some bereaved family members who chose to take vengeance on the West by joining Islamic State.

Nowhere in his speech does Hollande take the cyclical nature of revenge into account. It seems that he simply assumes that targeted airstrikes will beat the enemy into submission.

Hollande oversimplifies the Syrian conflict. He makes clear that France is going into Syria to fight not the Assad regime but Islamic State. The emphasis on combating this terrorist organization is understandable, because it was responsible for the Paris attacks. But Project Ploughshares’ 2015 Armed Conflicts Report identifies Islamic State as just one of 20 state and non-state actors involved in the Syrian civil war. A realistic view of the Syrian conflict must take the complex web of Syrian armed groups into account.

French involvement in an overseas war on terror takes the focus off activities at home. While Hollande mentioned that the Paris attacks were organized in Brussels and supported by French accomplices, his speech before Parliament concentrated on the threat from without, especially from Syria, which was seen as a factory for terrorists.

The New York Times reports that six of the perpetrators of the Paris attacks had spent time in Syria. However, the NYT website also identifies these six as French or Belgian nationals, pointing to a problem of homegrown Islamic extremists. Hollande spent little time in addressing the danger posed by French nationals who become radicalized.

Moving beyond payback

Hollande’s November speech provides a glimpse into the thinking of French leaders following the Paris terror attacks. He articulated a policy of payback. This can sound appealing on the surface, but when probed carefully comes across as shortsighted.

France needs to examine itself and address the domestic factors that contribute to terrorism. In addition, the country must take a holistic approach to the Syrian crisis that takes into account the humanitarian as well as the security needs of the local population.

Payback is a quick fix to a complex problem. Retribution exacerbates, oversimplifies, and ignores elements of the problem.
* Quotations by President Hollande are translated by Philip MacFie.