Until recently, France’s politicians had largely presented a united front against terrorist attacks. Rarely did they use tragedy to score points off each other. But that has started to change over the past year. Now a political controversy has erupted in the wake of the massacre in Nice on Bastille Day 2016. It will no doubt be further fuelled by the killing of a Catholic priest near Rouen.
Within hours of the incident at a fireworks display in Nice, opposition politicians were rounding on the government. How was it that Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel was able to kill 84 people and wound hundreds by driving a truck into a festive crowd, even as the country lived under a state of emergency?
One was Christian Estrosi, the former mayor of Nice and a Republican right winger who supports former president Nicolas Sarkozy. Estrosi is currently leading the offensive against the government. “Lies are fuelling the controversy,” he said, referencing the contested number of national police and soldiers in Nice on the night of the attack. “If the state stops lying, there will no longer be a controversy.”
There are, of course, real and serious concerns about the state of the French security services. Debate had already begun on that subject before Nice. A parliamentary investigation into the Paris attacks of November 2015 put forward a series of recommendations on security and intelligence, all of which were rejected by Bernard Cazeneuve, the embattled interior minister.
But then there are more political concerns. At the end of November, the Republicans will hold their presidential primary race to decide who will stand as their candidate in April 2017. The original front runner was Alain Juppé, the moderate conservative mayor of Bordeaux. His lead has recently been eaten into by the hardline former president, Nicolas Sarkozy.
Juppé remains the most popular candidate with the French electorate in general, but is losing ground to Sarkozy among the party faithful.
And coincidentally, Juppé has been uncharacteristically outspoken about the socialist government’s failure to prevent the Nice attack, arguing that “if all the means available had been used, then this atrocity could have been avoided”.
His sudden foray into this type of politics can really only be read as an appeal to the more authoritarian right of the party, which may be slipping into Sarkozy’s hands.
Ironically, Sarkozy criticised Juppé for being too speculative, before himself drawing attention to failed security. As the moderate Juppé shows his teeth, so the normally robust Sarkozy shows his presidential chops.
He is keen to underline his understanding of the realities of his former executive domain. That said, he is also not above playing the emotion card. After Nice, he said: “France cannot let her children be murdered”.
The Republicans are all too aware that, inevitably, the most likely political beneficiaries of the attack are Marine Le Pen and her party, the Front National (FN).
The FN made significant headway in the most recent regional elections, which were held less than a month after the Paris attacks. The party capitalised on heightened fears over security and immigration by running on a platform of closing France’s borders and pushing the idea of an imminent threat of Islamisation. It ultimately took more than 40% of the vote in its southern and north-eastern strongholds.
As polls suggested, most of the FN’s electoral boost came from former Republican voters increasingly fearful of Islam and immigration. And as right-wing voters increasingly lean towards the FN’s far right strong immigration and security policies, political consensus with the left is simply not an option for the French conservatives.
Despite falling popularity ratings (down some 10 points from a peak of 30% approval in December 2015) Le Pen remains very well placed to reach the presidential run-off in 2017 – at least if voter intentions are to be believed.
Both sides of the political mainstream need to reduce this possibility by whatever means necessary over the next few months. Neither camp can afford to let the FN steal a march by owning security and immigration issues any more than it already does.
But both sides are in strategic gridlock. On the left, the government’s national security agenda risks alienating part of the socialist electorate, as well as the communists and the greens. On the right, Sarkozy’s failure to win the presidency in 2012 demonstrated the limits of his hardline strategy as a weapon to use against a mainstreaming FN.
On a political level, there is no optimal solution. On a social and human level, a series of incidents that should have brought the country together in collective grief and outrage has become grist to the political mill.