The Bastille Day truck attack in the French city of Nice sparked the predictable response from Hollande’s government of ‘retaliating’ in the form of air strikes in Iraq and Syria. This is despite the fact that neither ISIS nor the French government have so far shown any evidence that the attacker, Tunisian-born Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, had any organizational link to Islamic State.
It was claimed over the weekend that French aircraft have subsequently massacred 120 civilians – mostly women, children and the elderly – in a single air strike.
President Hollande’s approval ratings in April dropped to at the lowest of any French head of state since records began, 14%, and his public standing has languished below 20% in the polls almost consistently for the past two years. A week before the Bastille Day attack he was embroiled in a bizarre scandal known as ‘coiffeurgate’, in which it was discovered that his personal barber is paid 10,000 euros a month. Hollande’s electoral appeal when he won the presidency in 2012 was that he was a dependable ‘Monsieur Normal’ against the tasteless razzle-dazzle of Nicolas Sarkozy’s ‘President Bling Bling’ persona. Having his underwhelming haircut kept in shape by someone earning four times as much as the average French citizen has not helped to maintain what’s left of his everyman reputation.
The resemblance of Bouhlel to the Orlando shooter is stark
After the Charlie Hebdo massacre in 2014 and the Paris attacks last year, President Hollande’s approval ratings soared, having previously been in their usual doldrums in either case. In each aftermath Hollande went on the offensive, using militaristic language and employing militaristic policy, directing the national mourning into a sense that something was being done. It’s likely the government was expecting the same dynamic would work in their favor this time…and yet it hasn’t, so that instead Hollande is under sustained anger from voters. Why?
So far the only significant interests that openly believe ISIS’s wholly unsubstantiated claims that Bouhlel was reporting to Islamic State are 1) the fascist right 2) liberal imperialists like Francois Hollande & Hillary Clinton and 3) ISIS themselves. The resemblance of Bouhlel to the Orlando shooter Omar Mateen is stark: Bouhlel ate pork, drank alcohol, never showed up at a mosque, and was described by people who knew him as not religious. Mateen, too, claimed at the last minute that he was operating for ISIS, but the CIA told the Senate that they had found no evidence to support this. ISIS at first tried to claim Mateen was one of theirs, but quickly disowned him when it transpired he may have been gay.
A significant section of the French public just isn’t buying it
It took an entire day for the Islamic State’s news agency to claim Bouhlel, without supplying any evidence – and the French government’s official stance was to believe their enemy, despite ISIS clearly having form in claiming attacks to which they were unconnected, and despite a top minister saying Bouhlel’s ISIS link was “yet to be established”. Even with Bouhlel’s “express radicalisation” being suspect, Hollande’s second in command, Prime Minister Manuel Valls, flippantly told the press that Bouhlel “is a terrorist probably linked to radical Islam one way or another” on the grounds that he just sort of feels like it might be true but why bother checking.
And a significant section of the French public just isn’t buying it. The day after the attacks a trending hashtag surfaced, #DaeshRevendique (“Isis claims”), in which French Twitter users gleefully mocked ISIS for claiming things to which they have no relation. Some favorites include “#DaeshRevendique Le Red Wedding”; “#DaeshRevendique le Brexit”; “#DaeshRevendique #Coiffeurgate”; and “#DaeshRevendique le café des machines de la SNCF”, because nothing undermines French nationhood like the god awful coffee machines on their trains.
This entirely unnecessary creation of fear and desperation forms the perfect conditions for fomenting extremism
In reality, Islamic State are on the back foot. They are in dire economic and military straits, and have ended up forming terror networks outside of their territory in Iraq and Syria in order to distract from their monumental strategic failings at home. Terrorism expert Will McCants tweeted, “ISIS has sent out its Bat signal and assholes round the world are responding”. Or perhaps they are more like Heath Ledger’s Joker: a baddie whose insane project depends on goading you into punching him in the face.
This is why they lay claim to lone wolves and desperate criminal associations who are only nominally Muslims, about as Islamic as Theresa May is a feminist: because they are desperate for secular liberals in rich Western nations to feel like they are under attack by all Muslims. French prosecutors are now investigating five suspected accomplices of Bouhlel, but none of them are from Iraq or Syria. The confusion about Islam suits ISIS because they can get the war they need, it suits the liberal imperialism of people like Hillary Clinton and Tony Blair because if there’s no widespread belief in some clash of civilizations then their lucrative foreign policies lose public legitimacy – and it suits the extreme right because it helps them to demonize minorities in the political mainstream.
This was was a cynical attempt to extract political capital from the corpses of civilians
Hollande succumbing to the temptation to bomb civilians in Syria is precisely what ISIS needed for their terrorism strategy to work. France ‘retaliated’ not against some nefarious mastermind in Syria but against a barely Islamic loser living by himself in France, with a rough family connection to Tunisia. The families of those 120 women and children reported dead after last week’s air strikes might have had little sympathy for France beforehand. Now they are likely to have none at all. This entirely unnecessary creation of fear and desperation in the Middle East forms the perfect conditions for fomenting extremism.
The French president’s calculation is based on a racist hysteria that is deeply coded in the machinery of the French state: that brown bodies are not simply a threat but a resource. That air strike was not a strategic necessity, it was a cynical attempt to extract political capital from the corpses of civilians whose bodies are deemed worthless for anything more than a cheap distraction from a tawdry scandal about an overpaid hairdresser. They were murdered because they were Arabs, and nothing more. And it didn’t even work.