Year in review 2015: Lessons to be learnt from France’s tragic year

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As 2015 ends with France under a prolonged state of emergency, the spectre of terrorism has introduced a sombre note to the seasonal festivities.

This year has been a truly terrible one for the French people. There was bloodshed even before November’s shootings and bombings that killed so many in the capital. On January 7, 17 people – including a Muslim police officer – were murdered in the attack on the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo by the French-Algerian Kouachi brothers, Said and Cherif, and in related attacks in the Paris area by their accomplice Amedy Coulibaly.

In June, a “lone wolf” with ISIL links decapitated his boss and tried unsuccessfully to blow up a gas factory near Lyon.

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Then, in August, three people were wounded when a Moroccan, Ayoub El Khazzani, allegedly tried to commit mass murder on a high-speed train from Amsterdam to Paris. Passengers overpowered the gunman soon after the train crossed from Belgium into France.

No one in France, from the president François Hollande to the man or woman on the street, now thrust into the front line of a war between extremism and civilised society, considers the country safe from further outrages.

But one piece of serious misreporting since the grotesque slaughter of 130 on November 13, by men falsely claiming to be acting in the name of Islam, offers the French establishment an urgent reminder of an issue that needs be addressed as part of the wider fight to destroy the roots of radicalisation.

When the media described the Paris atrocities as France’s worst suffered since the Second World War, they were overlooking another day that ended in an appalling loss of life. On October 17, 1961, more than 200 Algerians died, according to human-rights activists as well as Muslim groups, when French police attacked a peaceful political demonstration in the capital, during the turbulent period that led to France granting independence to its North African colony. France has only recognised an official death toll of 40 in the incident.

The media was not alone in failing to acknowledge that stain on a country that likes to portray itself as a champion of the rights of man. The British prime minister, David Cameron, was among leaders who lazily described the ISIL-inflicted carnage as “the worst acts of violence in France since the Second World War”.

In the ongoing struggle for the hearts and minds of France’s Muslim population, Europe’s largest at as many as 7 million, there is need for greater care on matters of moral equivalence. The vast majority of French Muslims and their responsible community leaders unreservedly condemn any and all terrorist attacks, but they would more easily dissuade those tempted to follow extremism if they were able to show that the government cared about their grievances, too. More attacks, or attempted attacks, seem inevitable. Making French Muslims feel more valued will not end them, nor stop all recruitment to terrorist groups, but would help in combating radicalisation.

France has also been alerted to a second lesson that needs to be learnt. In case after case, perpetrators turn out to be known to counter-terrorism agencies. Many feel the country would be safer if suspects did not live their lives untroubled by the security services. Even mainstream politicians now argue that if round-the-clock surveillance of thousands of individuals is impractical, preventative detention – internment – is not.

Colin Randall is a foreign correspondent at The National.