How France Will Respond to the Nice Attack

5 MINS READJul 15, 2016 | 13:46 GMT
How France Will Respond to the Nice Attack
French President Francois Hollande delivers a speech to first responders at the Prefectoral Palace on July 15. The Nice attack was only the latest in a string of terrorist plots targeting France.

After a large truck plowed into crowds and killed at least 84 people in Nice late on July 14, French President Francois Hollande announced that the country's state of emergency would be extended for another three months. Hollande also said that border controls would be tightened and that France would show "real force and military action in Syria and Iraq." French authorities confirmed that the main suspect is a 31-year-old Franco-Tunisian man who had a police record for petty crimes but who apparently had not been flagged for terrorist activity and was unknown to intelligence services. The Nice attack is the latest in a series of terrorist plots to target France over the past year and a half and will influence both the country's upcoming presidential campaign and the political debate within the European Union.

The first round of France's presidential election, scheduled for April 2017, will begin in just nine months. With the January 2015 terrorist attack against the Charlie Hebdo magazine and the November 2015 attacks in downtown Paris still fresh in the minds of French citizens, issues such as domestic security, border controls, the fight against terrorism and the role of minorities in France will factor prominently into the campaign. The issue of terrorism at home and abroad will play an important role in the political agenda of the center-right Republican Party, which traditionally focuses on issues of security and law and order, and in that of the right-wing National Front, which has a strong anti-Muslim stance. Both parties are likely to accuse the incumbent Socialist government of failing to protect France.

To different degrees, the Republicans and the National Front are both critical of the Schengen Agreement, which eliminated border controls in most Western European countries. The Republicans have promised to reform Schengen and to give France greater control over its borders, while the National Front wants to annul the agreement altogether. The terrorists involved in the November 2015 attacks in Paris moved freely between France and Belgium, and both parties will use this fact to justify their criticism of the agreement. If the Brexit leads to a significant deterioration of the British economy, the National Front could decide to focus on security issues instead of the economy, as it has done in the past, to attack the legitimacy of the European Union.

The Republicans and the National Front probably will not be alone in criticizing Schengen: Other conservative and Euroskeptic forces in Europe are also critical of the agreement. Some parties are demanding the end of the agreement, while others want to expel member states that fail to control their borders appropriately. (Greece and Italy have been accused of this.) Terrorism is not the only fear; countries shuttered their borders along the Balkan migration route and in countries including Austria, Germany, Denmark and Sweden because of concerns over immigration. The most recent attacks will only further conflate the immigration and terrorism debates and will be used by nationalist parties across the European Union to propel their anti-Muslim agendas.

Greater Europe

The Nice attack will also factor into two ongoing debates in the European Union: proposals to increase cooperation on security issues and plans to enhance European military coordination. In the weeks leading up to the Brexit referendum, France and Germany began to discuss proposals to unify Europe. These conversations intensified after the British public voted to leave the bloc. Since Euroskeptic sentiments are currently strong, Paris and Berlin decided not to focus on controversial issues such as enhancing integration in the eurozone. Instead they are working on areas such as improving control of the union's external borders and increasing cooperation on security issues. The Nice attack will probably reinforce the European Union's focus on pushing these efforts instead of the more divisive issues such as economic integration.

When it comes to military cooperation, after the Paris attacks, France asked its European peers to help the overstretched French military in its operations abroad. France is one of the few EU members with a truly global military reach, and the United Kingdom's withdrawal from the bloc will diminish the union's clout on foreign affairs. This explains why France and Germany have been discussing a greater military role for Berlin. On July 13, Germany's Federal Defense Ministry announced plans to increase military spending during the next decade and to adopt a more active role abroad. For historical reasons, however, France and other EU members will tolerate a more active Germany only if it happens within the EU framework.

But while France, Germany and other EU members will pledge to increase security and military cooperation in the coming days, their actions will be constrained by several factors. To begin with, the European Union's 28 member states have different priorities, resources and levels of expertise when it comes to fighting international crime and terrorism. Countries such as France, the United Kingdom and Germany have significant counterterrorism experience and have enough resources to maintain relatively robust anti-terrorism and intelligence agencies. That is not the case for smaller countries with less expertise and smaller budgets, especially in times of economic crisis, when governments have to balance financing security apparatuses with keeping deficits under control.

There are additional constraints to creating an EU security union: Despite their continued pledges to improve transnational cooperation, European governments are still reluctant to share intelligence and information. Even after six decades of Continental integration, countries are wary of giving up sovereignty on sensitive issues such as national security. Bureaucracy also plays a role; the European Union and national governments have separate pools of data that are often unlinked. As a result, the European Union will continue to deal with problems related to its fragmented security environment, for the simple reason that its structure makes responding coherently difficult. Finally, France and Germany will hold general elections in 2017, which will divert their attention from implementing significant reforms in the European Union.

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