Four years ago, the world watched in horror as the Paris office of Charlie Hebdo, a well known satirical magazine, was targeted for attack by two terrorists linked to al-Qaeda in Yemen. The two attackers struck Charlie Hebdo claiming they were upset by the magazines publication of an image critical of the Prophet Mohammed. The attackers, who killed 12 people in Paris, were killed two days later by French police, the same day another terrorist killed four innocents at a Kosher grocery store in a Parisian suburb. While this was not the first attack France faced by radical Islamic extremists, it wouldn’t be the last either, with the worst attack in French history in November of 2015 followed by another in Nice in July of 2016.
Ever since the Charlie Hebdo attacks, France hasn’t been the same. The Charlie Hebdo attacks put a nation and its people on alert, but the November 2015 attacks in Paris made a nation angry and scared. In response to the attack, French President Francois Hollande instilled a State of Emergency, which would last nearly two full years, when newly elected President Emmanuel Macron enacted new counter-terrorism measures and lifted the State of Emergency on November 1, 2017.
Recently, the frequency and size of these attacks have thankfully decreased significantly, but they unfortunately still occur, including a shooting a a Christmas market in Strasbourg last month by an ISIS-inspired terrorist known to French police.
Despite fewer attacks and the State of Emergency being lifted, most images that the world has seen of France in recent weeks have been of violent and frequent protests, many of which have turned into full scale riots. These protests, deemed as “yellow-vest demonstrations” for some of the clothing protesters have been wearing, were noted as a rebellion against a diesel tax proposed by Macron and the high cost of living in the nation. However, with Macron’s recent announcement to dump the proposed tax, and the continuation of the protests, it shows there is certainly more to the frustrations.
One of the main causes of the election of Emmanuel Macron in 2017 was the low approval rating with former President Hollande. Following attacks in Paris and Nice, Hollande’s approvals dumped into the single digits. The nation’s fears gave rise to far right leader Marine Le Pen, and newcomer Macron, who pitched an aggressive middle ground. In the end, Macron came out victorious with 66 percent of the vote, a clear mandate.
However, the recent protests suggest one major development in the beautiful, historic Republic, the mandate was for new, clear and strong leadership, not Macron himself. One noticeable change to France since 2015 has been the increase in the presence of the French military across the country, especially in major cities such as France. Macron’s counter-terrorism laws also included provisions that strengthened the power of the French police, including increased surveillance authority. Despite these powers, a recent report by GLOBSEC indicated 97 percent of those who committed terrorist acts in France since 2012 were known to police, with 80 percent on a specific watch list.
On the economic front, France continues to boast one of the highest tax burdens in the world, coupled with unemployment rising above 9 percent (the numbers look even worse for youth) and slow economic growth. With these factors, any nation would face an upset populace. However, most would simply express their concerns at the ballot box, not 50,000 strong in the street, each weekend, fighting with police.
The reality in France is that Macron’s recent diesel tax was simply a spark, a spark that gave many frustrated French citizens a reason to express their anger. While the French have always lived with high taxes, every citizen in the world has the right to be safe in their own homes, while being a free society. The slew of attacks since the beginning of 2015 only served to rob the French of their feeling of safety. While the new laws and the increase in the presence of the military is meant to calm such concerns, it only makes a free citizenry feel trapped in a police state, and that they are still targets. The recent protests are simply the culmination of several years of increased fear and anger by the French people, which would explain why Macron’s recent attempts to calm the protests have failed.
In truth, there are few things that will actually lower the tension in France. The first is time. The people will remain angry for a long time, and as shown above, have the right to do so. However, the second is up to the government, introduce economic freedom to the French people. This includes easing excessive regulations and lowering taxes. This impact is twofold, with the obvious of lowering taxes, but also attracting business outside of France, that can come in and create more, good paying jobs, dropping the unemployment rate and raising the low median income.
Finally, the French government must also find an important balance between the safety of its citizens and the first tenant of its national motto, Liberty, as Charlie Hebdo symbolizes. This is no easy feat, but can be done in due time by enforcing its borders, its counter-terrorism laws and standing tall against terror.
Having been to France in recent years, I can say it is one of the most beautiful country’s in the world. The French people have so much potential, but are being held back by struggles like this. It is my hope that in the coming years, they can implement reforms that help restore the faith of the French people in their government and nation.