French police last foiled an ISIS plot last week for a knife rampage during Christmas celebrations, showing the country remains under constant threat from terrorists. The two men arrested had ISIS propaganda in their Paris homes.
The arrests came as the country continues to prosecute 20 people for the 2015 coordinated Paris attacks which left 130 people dead and 416 injured. Last month, testimony by former President Francois Hollande revealed a number of critical weaknesses within French policies.
French authorities were informed about possible terrorist attacks before the rampage, but they had no idea when or where they would strike. And several decisions made that day continue to be second-guessed.
A lawsuit filed on behalf of victims' families seeks to find out why soldiers were ordered not to engage during at the Bataclan music hall, where terrorists slaughtered concert-goers and held others hostage. No special forces were deployed at the scene and members of France's elite counter-terrorism force Gendarmerie Intervention Group (GIGN) later accused their commander, Col. Hubert Bonneau, of cowardice for not sending them in sooner.
"While there were 40 of us ready for action ... ready to lead the assault, ready to halt the killing," Bonneau "quietly waited to be called in while hiding behind a tale about geographic responsibilities," claimed an anonymous letter from GIGN members to their chief.
The terrorists held the Bataclan under siege for two hours before authorities went in.
As first responders flocked to the scene, other terrorists opened fire on Paris diners, and stormed the Bataclan Theater during a rock concert, where most of the casualties took place.
The Hollande government's performance in the Bataclan crisis was criticized throughout the rest of his presidency, and escalated after the 2016 Nice terrorist attack, which left 86 people dead, including children, and hundreds wounded. A parliamentary inquiry into the Paris attacks found a "global failure" by French security. Georges Fenech, the head of the commission, criticized the dense bureaucracy that kept information about radicalized suspects from being shared with relevant security agencies.
"Our country was not ready, now we must get ready," said Fenech.
Hollande drew more criticism following his testimony. Far-right leader Eric Zammour, who is running for president, claimed Hollande's incompetence lead to the attacks: "He knew there would be terrorists and did not protect the French and took the criminal decision to leave the borders open," said Zemmour.
The testimony came as France marked the sixth anniversary of its deadliest attack since World War II. Twenty suspects went on trial in September, including Salah Abdeslam, a 32-year-old French-Moroccan man who is believed to be the only surviving terrorist from the attacks. Six of the defendants will be tried in absentia.
The rest of the 19 suspects are accused of aiding and facilitating the attackers by providing guns or cars or plotting. Most face life in prison if convicted.
Hollande is not the only official still drawing criticism. Former French Prime Minister and Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve also was under fire for the security breach that enabled the terrorists to execute their attacks.
"Not a day has passed since the attacks occurred that I didn't wonder if I could have done something that I didn't do. This question haunts me constantly." Cazeneuve testified.
Open immigration policies are seen as instrumental in the attacks. In 2015, Hollande announced that France was ready to take in 24,000 refugees as part of the European Union's efforts to solve the refugee crisis caused by the rise of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.
But about two months later, the Bataclan attacks struck Paris and left the Hollande administration in great trouble.
Since then, France has been plagued by a string of other terrorist attacks, including the 2020 stabbings of two citizens near the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo that linked to asylum seekers.
Emmanuel Macron was elected president in 2017. But immigration policies didn't change much until 2018. That year, the French parliament passed a bill restricting the influx of refugees entering the country.
France now opposes immigration and refugee quotas suggested by other EU members, noting that it is one of just five member countries that has taken in 75 percent of the asylum seekers.
Last April, the Macron administration proposed a plan to use algorithms to track extremists online.
The terrorists tend to be "[I]solated individuals, increasingly younger, unknown to intelligence services, and often without any links to established Islamist groups," said French Minister of Interior Gerald Darmanin. The algorithms would allow security officials to potentially pick up a person who repeatedly searched online for a topic such as beheadings.
The law's breadth generated criticism.
"It is so broad that we don't really know what the law allows," said attorney Arthur Messaud, who represents a French association that defends online rights and freedoms.
"For us, this is clearly algorithmic surveillance, a mass surveillance measure," he said.
Moreover, Macron increased the national security budget by €1.5 billion ($1.8 billion).
In October, Macron announced moves to overhaul the French justice system which is criticized for being too slow and lax towards the mounting terrorist attacks and threats. The fact that the Bataclan attacks trials started nearly six years after the terrorist attacks is a testament to the lackluster performance of the system towards handling such cases.
"French people no longer have confidence in the country's justice system," French Justice Minister Eric Dupond-Moretti said last April.
Macron vowed last year to fight Islamist extremists and what he called "Islamic separatism." He proposed techniques that wouldn't have been fathomable a few years earlier in an effort to curb extremism and integrate the Muslim population. Those efforts include upholding French traditions of secularism in all public services. Public school education is now compulsory for all children ages 3 years and older, which reduces home schooling, especially for Muslim children. France also is reducing its dependence on foreign imams, requiring imams to be partially trained in France.
Despite these strict measures, France is still suffering from waves of extremism that have found its way to a sector of its 5.4 million Muslim population.
Hollande's policies resulted in national security breaches which forced Macron to adopt stricter measures. These measures are controversial to some, but the continuous terrorist threats the country is facing make these measures imperative to secure the country.
IPT Senior Fellow Hany Ghoraba is an Egyptian writer, political and counter-terrorism analyst at Al Ahram Weekly, author of Egypt's Arab Spring: The Long and Winding Road to Democracy and a regular contributor to the BBC.
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