PARIS — Days after the worst terrorist attack in the country’s history, a siege mentality has gripped France. Thousands of policemen toting automatic weapons patrol public areas around Paris while nearly 300 anti-terrorism raids have been conducted across the country since Sunday. “France is at war,” President François Hollande told an extraordinary session of parliament on Monday, as he announced a three-month state of emergency.
The attacks that killed at least 129 and wounded a further 352 last Friday have become France’s 9/11 moment — a galvanizing point of no return that will likely set the tone of French politics for some time. Much like the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York ushered in years of patriotic fervor, muscular foreign policy, and sweeping legal measures to fight terrorism in the U.S., the attacks in Paris have seen France’s political spectrum shift considerably rightward.
Hollande, the mild-mannered leader of the center-left Socialist Party, is attempting to stave off criticism that France failed to anticipate the attacks after the Charlie Hebdo killings in January, with a dramatic policy turn that includes constitutional changes, an alliance against ISIS with Vladimir Putin and Bashar al-Assad, and closures of French mosques that invite “hate preachers.” French officials openly speak of ending the European Union’s Schengen open-border policy, a view rarely heard beyond the country’s anti-immigrant fringe. “We have no real official control inside the EU because of Schengen,” Jean-Louis Bruguière, a leading French counterterrorism official, told BuzzFeed News. “It doesn't work anymore.”
The sharp shift in mood, however, is most likely to benefit France’s right and ultra-right, which were already expected to make strong gains in local elections next month. Former President Nicolas Sarkozy is attempting a comeback with a rebranded party and policies that go further than Hollande’s, including détente with Russia and electronic tagging of all 11,500 people on France’s extremist watch list. And the Front National, the outsider far-right party whose poll numbers are surging on the back of growing anti-immigrant sentiment, believes the attacks show the party’s time has come.
“This is how French politics worked for decades: You say, ‘France and French people first,’ you say, ‘We need a different immigration policy,’ you say, ‘We need to pay attention to illegal immigrants,’ and they tell you, ‘Shut up, you’re a racist,’” Front National Treasurer Wallerand de Saint Just told BuzzFeed News in an interview at the party’s headquarters in the Paris suburb of Nanterre. “It’s awful that it took this important year of death, with Charlie Hebdo and now more than 100 victims, for French people to realize we were right, but that’s how it is.”
Despite Hollande’s declaration of a three-day period of national mourning, the days following the attacks have seen Sarkozy and his allies compete to make American-style declarations of patriotic fervor. Sarkozy has told members in his the Republican Party, “We can’t talk about national unity anymore” after the attacks, because French people “don’t understand that,” according to Agence France-Press.
Laurent Wauquiez, secretary general of the party, is calling for “un Patriot Act à la Française,” aping the measures passed in the U.S. after 9/11, that would involve detaining the entire terrorism watch list, creating a kind of French Guantanamo Bay. Nadia Hamour, the party’s integration secretary, told BuzzFeed News that France needs to instill cultural values nationwide by bringing in a pledge of allegiance to the Tricolore in schools and reintroducing mandatory military service. “France is a republic where communities are not recognized. There are only citizens. France is not the sum of any communities,” she said when asked about the country’s Muslims.
Sarkozy’s strong turn rightward is a key ploy for primaries to be the party’s presidential candidate in 2017, where he faces strong competition from the centrist former Prime Minister Alain Juppé, said Paul Ariès, a political scientist who edits an anti-Sarkozy political magazine whose name translates to “The Sarkophagus.”
“On the one hand, the government is growing in the polls because they represent the state and the country and benefit from the growth in patriotism. On the other hand, the extreme right will also grow in the polls because security and immigration are their topics. As a result, Sarkozy has no other alternative than acting short term, changing his communication and going further right than he ever has,” Ariès said.
The rise in right-wing sentiment may have consequences for France’s foreign policy, including Hollande’s key role in passing sanctions against Russia over the war in Ukraine and brokering a ceasefire there. Sarkozy, once thought of as so brash and media-friendly for a French politician that press dubbed him “Sarko l’Américain,” went to Moscow last month to visit Putin, whose record, he told a group of Russian students, had been “more positive than negative.”
Christian Estrosi, the popular mayor of the Southern French city of Nice, has called for lifting the sanctions in exchange for Russian cooperation in the war against ISIS. That puts the party in close company with the Front National: Marine le Pen, the party’s leader, is a regular visitor to Moscow and accepted a nearly 10 million euro loan from a Russian bank.
The first litmus test for France’s post-attack politics comes in December, when local elections are expected to land the Front National unprecedented victories in the north and the southeast. The Republicans, on the other hand, are caught in a political bind that may see them struggle to make inroads with voters, according to Bruno Cautres, a French political scientist. “When they talk about immigration, they lose centrists, and when they talk about the economy, they lose rightists,” he said.
Gaetan Dussausaye, an activist who leads the Front National’s youth wing, expects his party to profit as a result. “Unlike others, we don’t change the color of our jackets according to the latest headlines,” he said. “It’s fair enough to see [Socialist leaders] Valls and Caseneuve and Sarkozy pumping their muscles just like they did in 2007, but all those people showed their own results. They had the instruments of power at a certain point, and they didn’t do anything.”
Emmanuel Aumonier and Annabelle Azadé contributed reporting.