Just two days after terrorists carried out a series of deadly attacks across Paris, France struck back, with bombing raids aimed at ISIS’s own capital city, Raqqa.
But what else must be done? That’s the big question facing France and its allies as they emerge from shock and mourning to pursue a renewed public debate on counter-terrorism, domestic surveillance, immigration, and countless other issues that suddenly look quite different in the aching aftermath of last week’s tragedy.
Why was France targeted in the first place?
France has been a leading partner in the US-led fight against ISIS. For over a year, French planes have been bombing targets in Iraq, and beginning this September they started flying sorties into Syria.
That alone would suffice to make France a key ISIS target, but there are other reasons France is vulnerable, too.
The country has a large, and somewhat disaffected Muslim population. As an indicator of the marginalized status of Muslims in France, consider that they make up around 10 percent of the population but 60 to 70 percent of inmates in French prisons.
For some time, a steady stream of radicalized French Muslims has been leaving the country to fight in Syria and Iraq. The possibility that these recruits might return home to launch attacks within France has long been a cause for concern.
How far will the French counter-attack go?
In an address to the nation after Friday’s events, French President Francois Hollande used some strikingly martial language, calling the terrorist attacks “an act of war” and adding that France would be “merciless” in its response.
What exactly this means, on the battlefield, is hard to say. But the fact that French planes have already escalated their bombing campaign against ISIS in Syria demonstrates the seriousness of Hollande’s words.
And though France has a reputation as an antiwar gadfly, it has actually played a leading military role in several recent conflicts, including the civil war in Mali, where French troops helped dislodge a regnant Al-Qaeda group.
Thus far, the prospect of a ground offensive against ISIS isn’t being discussed openly, but one way France could expand the fight is by invoking the core NATO principle that an attack on any one member of the alliance is an attack on all of them — thereby pushing NATO to commit more of its vast resources.
How might French politics change?
France has a fairly popular right-wing party, the National Front, with a strongly anti-immigrant bent. Their leader, Marine Le Pen, called this weekend for France to “expel foreigners who preach hatred in our country as well as illegal migrants who have nothing to do here.”
The fact that the attacks seem to have been organized and executed by French Muslims and Muslim immigrants provides a real opening for her party, perhaps enough to let le Pen seriously contend for the Presidency in 2017.
Galvanizing tragedies, however, can also benefit incumbents, as people rally around existing leaders. In that case, it’s Hollande’s left-leaning socialist party that would enjoy the boost.
Could the attacks shake up American politics?
With months before the primaries and a year before the presidential election, this weekend’s tragedy may be a slight concern by the time voters actually start making decisions.
Still, the candidates have quickly begun weighing in. In Saturday’s Democratic debate, Hillary Clinton pressed for a multi-pronged effort to defeat ISIS, including everything from military operations to development aid.
Republican candidates have been more pointed. Marco Rubio painted the conflict in manichean terms, saying that the fight against ISIS was a “clash of civilizations. And either they win, or we win.” A number of others Republicans insisted that the United States should stop accepting Syrian refugees.
Are there other issues at play?
Long, indeed, is the list of policies that could be reevaluated in the aftermath of last week’s attacks. Here are just a few examples:
Refugees. This year alone, hundreds of thousands of refugees and other migrants have fled the Middle East for Europe. They have not always been warmly welcomed, but in fits and starts the major western European nations have been working to find a durable, humane solution. Now, however, that limited good will could easily be lost, particularly if the early evidence is confirmed and it turns out that one of the Paris attackers really did enter France posing as a refugee.
Open borders within Europe. Some of the planning for these attacks seems to have taken place in Belgium. But the attackers didn’t have to go through customs when crossing into France, since there are no border controls between most European nations. If that comes to seem too dangerous, we could see the return of ubiquitous passport controls.
Surveillance and encryption. France already gives its intelligence agencies a lot of surveillance power, the result of an expansive law passed after the Charlie Hebdo attacks. But there’s some suggestion that these attackers used encrypted systems to communicate and plan — systems that intelligence groups can’t crack. If that proves to have been decisive, it may give new life to an old argument, namely that governments should always get a backdoor key to encrypted systems.
For comparison, how did the US change after 9/11?
Some of the biggest changes took place in the world of intelligence. Before 9/11, there was no Department of Homeland Security, no NSA effort to vacuum up telephone records, and no secret CIA program for “enhanced interrogation.”
More generally, though, Gallup polls from the months after 9/11 showed a distinct surge of patriotism, greater faith in government, higher religious feeling, and stiffened anti-immigrant sentiment.
What if nothing changes?
When London suffered a series of terrorist bombings in 2005, British counter-terrorism measures became far more severe. But the political landscape wasn’t wholly transformed.
Likewise in January, after the Paris Charlie Hebdo attacks. French intelligence agencies expanded their purview, but deeper social changes have been less apparent.
This time may well be different. The scale of the assault was grander, and ISIS seems determined to expand its sphere of aggression, having recently taken down a Russian passenger jet and launched suicide attacks in Beirut.
But in the end, social and political change is hard to predict. As the shock of Friday’s murderous rampage wears off, the people of France, Europe, and the United States will have to figure out which of their existing policies still make sense, and which need to change.