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France Remains On High Alert After Third Attack in 18 Months


This week's attack was the third major terrorist incident in France in the last 18 months. The country is still in a state of emergency, which has now been extended by 90 days. For more on the mood in France, we're joined by Sophie Peder. She is the Paris bureau chief for The Economist. She's in Paris. Charlie Hebdo, the coordinated attacks in Paris and now Nice - Sophie Peder, what is the mood in France like right now?

SOPHIE PEDER: I think the country just feels battered by, you know, these extraordinary events that have come every - almost every sort of six months or so. You know, each time they think it's as bad as it can possibly get, and then there's another one.

And each time, it feels like an assault on French life. You know, there was the attack on a football stadium, there was an attack on the streets, the cafes - the cafe Comptoir - and concert hall last November, and now on Bastille Day, which is the French national independence day, the way. And it was, you know, people out there having fun in the south of France.

So it's this sort of sense that, you know, what - it goes to the very heart of what France is all about - you know, enjoying life, going out, celebrating, having a festive time. But that's been - that's been under assault. I suppose that the large question now is, you know, how, going forward, do you actually get used to this or start considering this normal? This is a question that the French are really having to grapple with. You know, what is normality now? Is it constantly living in fear, or is it constantly worrying about going out? Or are you going to be defiant and keep going like before?

WERTHEIMER: And do it. Yeah. The attack in Nice was carried out by a Tunisian citizen. The other attacks were carried out by French citizens of foreign descent. How does this - how is this playing politically for President Hollande?

PEDER: Well, it's very difficult. I mean, for him, personally, after the previous two terrorist attacks, he actually got a bit of a boost in the polls because he's come across as very sort of dignified. And he has had a very sort of solemn and responsible reaction, and that's actually helped him politically. But the great difficulty is that, you know, any president over time starts becoming weakened if he can't guarantee the security of his country.

And although it's an extremely difficult problem that they're having to deal with - you know, the number of people who are living in France, with French citizenship or not, but who are considered either - you know, they're being watched for potential terrorist activity or they're considered on the verge of radicalization - is - if the scale is such, it's almost impossible for the intelligence services to keep an eye on every one of them. And these people have themselves become more and more clever at sort of keeping under the radar screen. So I think that really, over time, weaken Hollande's standing.

At the same time, the National Front is the extremist party in France. It's nationalist. It's anti-immigration. It's anti-Islamification. (Unintelligible) All of these terrorist attacks play into her hands because, you know, she can conflate in the mind the idea of immigration and terrorism. And that goes down with public opinion at times when people are very nervous. So she plays with those fears, and she (unintelligible) and does well out of it.

WERTHEIMER: You're talking about Marine Le Pen, the leader of the National Front.

PEDER: Yes. Sorry. Sorry. (Unintelligible). The National Front under Marine Le Pen - exactly.

WERTHEIMER: France has been under a state of emergency that's now been extended. Do you think that - do you think - do you think that the people of France believe that there is any security solution to this on - this ongoing threat? Is it just - President Hollande sounded so discouraged about it, though, right after the Nice attack.

PEDER: It is - it's incredibly difficult. I mean, right at the beginning when the state of emergency was forced into place - that was last November - it looked like an appropriate solution because there were individuals that the police were wanting to sort of either put under house arrest, or they wanted to raid the premises, pick up documents and check them out. But as time has gone on, the usefulness of the state of emergency has really been brought into question because - is it just to make people feel more secure because they feel that there is a sort of security solution? Or is it actually useful in practical terms?

I think there was a parliamentary committee which was reported a few weeks ago. And I think that their confusion was very sensible - that - to say that actually after a while, you know, it's more to do with reassuring the public than it is with actually using the powers that the state of emergency grants in any sort of productive way. I think now you're dealing with public anxiety - the management of public anxiety - as much as you are with the use of the powers that the state of emergency brings and allows you to do.

WERTHEIMER: Sophie Peder - she is the bureau - the Paris bureau chief of The Economist. Thank you very much for doing this. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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