Sunday, 17 July 2016
FIVE REASONS WHY FRANCE IS A PRIME TARGET FOR JIHADISTS
People pass French flags lowered at half-mast in Nice on July 16, 2016, following the deadly Bastille Day attack
In 18 months France has been the target of three major terrorist attacks claimed by jihadists in which more than 230 people have died.
The country has also been kept on edge by a succession of shocking but less bloody attacks and attempts to kill, often by lone extremists.
With the Islamic State group claiming responsibility for the latest massacre in Nice in which 84 people were killed, we ask why France has become such a target for jihadist violence:
Fight against terror
From sub-Saharan Africa to the Middle East, France is in the front line of the fight against radical Islamist groups.
It is the second biggest contributor to US-led airstrikes against IS in Iraq and Syria.
Ahead of Thursday's Nice attack, President Francois Hollande announced that the Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier, a symbol of French military power, was being deployed anew in the Middle East.
France has declared itself "at war" since the November 13 attacks in Paris in which 130 people died, which investigators believe was planned by Islamic State from Syria and Iraq.
In sub-Saharan Africa France has 3,000 military personnel on the ground taking part in Operation Barkhane, targeting several jihadist groups such as Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)
But despite being weakened by French military intervention in Mali in 2013, AQIM continues to mount spectacular attacks such as those in the Burkina Faso capital Ouagadougou and at Grand Bassam in the Ivory Coast.
Hated secular model
France's strict secular laws which ban the Islamic veil in schools and covering the face in public have outraged Islamic hardliners, according to religious historian Odon Vallet.
"For them France's clear-cut secularism is incompatible with Islam," he added.
The country's commitment to freedom of speech, which allows unfettered criticism of religion, has also put it in the jihadists' crosshairs.
The deadly attack against the Charlie Hebdo magazine in January 2015 came out of the assailants' fury at the satirical weekly's controversial cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed.
"France is the country where the debate over Islam" gets the most heated, argued sociologist Raphael Liogier.
But "history is also a hidden reason", Vallet said, pointing out France's "role in the break up of the Ottoman empire" in 1920 which led to the end of the caliphate.
The Sykes-Picot agreement that carved up Iraq and Syria between France and Britain is often cited by Islamic State as the root of the region's problems.
This "colonial history makes France one of IS's principal enemies," Vallet added.
France is home to the biggest Muslim community in Europe, estimated at five million people.
Most are descended from families from the country's former northern African colonies, with which France has a painful shared history, with hundreds of thousands dying during the Algerian war of independence.
Job discrimination has further hampered integration, with some third- and even fourth-generation immigrants claiming they are not made to feel properly French.
Tensions with the police are never far from the surface in some of the rundown suburban housing estates with large immigrant populations, where youth unemployment runs at more than 40 percent.
Prime Minister Manuel Valls went as far as to talk of "a territorial, social and ethnic apartheid" on some of the estates that exploded into three weeks of rioting in 2005.
As many as 600 French citizens have rallied to the IS flag in Iraq and Syria as well as many French-speaking Tunisians and Moroccans.
Returning fighters "can slip very easily into the country", said Patrick Calvar, head of the French domestic intelligence agency. "There are multiple targets and the terrorists can strike at the easy ones."
The suspected mastermind of the November 13 attacks in Paris, the Belgian Abdelhamid Abaaoud, is one such returning fighter. He first came to notoriety in Syria filming IS atrocities there.
Just as security experts say France is the Western country most at threat from attack, the authority of its Socialist government is wavering as a 2017 presidential election looms.
Francois Hollande is one of the most unpopular French presidents on record and, as in other European countries, the far-right is on the rise.
Jihadist attacks, which are designed to divide and polarise, have added to the febrile atmosphere with polls putting the far-right ahead in the first round of the presidential vote.
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