Frida Ghitis Thursday, Nov. 19, 2015
In the initial hours and days after the Paris attacks, the world reacted with a moving show of support for France. The messages of solidarity came from all corners of the globe in verbal, visual and symbolic form. As diplomats and officials pledged unity with France, millions bathed their Facebook profiles in the blue, white and red “tricolore” of the French flag. Major international landmarks were also lit in the tricolore, and the stirring notes of the Marseillaise, the French national anthem, rose from teary-eyed faces in gatherings from Trafalgar Square to Madison Square Garden. We are all French, they signaled, with heartfelt solidarity.
The shows of sympathy are still much more visible than the recriminations, but as the response to the Nov. 13 attacks takes shape, it is already becoming evident that it will deepen and embitter existing rifts and create new ones. That will probably intensify as attention shifts from the somber scene of the massacres to the political stage.
The differences of opinion, philosophy, strategy and tactics will focus on four main areas: the military and security response; refugee and immigration policy; attitudes toward Muslims and Muslim communities; and privacy and surveillance policies.
The outlines of the coming political confrontations started to emerge almost immediately after the attacks, when it became apparent that the newfound shared resolve against the Islamic State could not paper over the disagreements that preceded them.
While French President Francois Hollande declared that his country was “at war” with the group, officially escalating the terms of the confrontation, U.S. President Barack Obama reaffirmed a commitment to his existing restrained policy of limited, multilateral military engagement against the group. That came as a stark surprise to those who thought the West would unite behind a far more aggressive military stance to defeat the perpetrators of the attacks, which Hollande was already launching via airstrikes on the Islamic State’s bastion in Raqqa, Syria.
By the time French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian asked other European Union countries to increase their military participation in the campaign against the Islamic State, it was clear that the commitments to stand together in this fight would remain largely rhetorical, at least for some of France’s friends.
In fact, the military response to the Islamic State remains just as controversial today as on Nov. 12. In Britain, Prime Minister David Cameron wants to expand airstrikes against the group to Syria, but the British Parliament has only authorized action over Iraq. And the new opposition leader, Jeremy Corbyn, remains recalcitrant on the issue, saying that such a move would bring “more mayhem and more loss.” Corbyn even criticized the killing of “Jihadi John,” the British citizen who decapitated Western hostages in Syria on behalf of the Islamic State, saying he should have been arrested instead. Cameron derided the idea, suggesting Corbyn is living in a fantasy world.
Another immediate impact of the attacks is a sharp escalation of divisions over the EU’s refugee policy, with significant domestic political consequences. Anti-immigrant parties gained enormously by the discovery that one of the Paris attackers entered Europe among the mass of Syrian refuges coming ashore in Greece, apparently traveling to France by way of the Balkans route.
Poland’s new minister of European affairs announced that the country’s newly elected government would reject previously approved refugee quotas, calling their implementation “very hard to imagine today.”
In the Netherlands, a poll found that 70 percent of the Dutch want stronger border controls, and a majority believe there’s a chance that the Netherlands will be attacked the way France was. That view boosts Geert Wilders’ anti-immigrant Party for Freedom, already leading in the polls and sure to grow stronger. In contrast to Prime Minister Mark Rutte, whose post-attack statement did not even mention Islam, Muslims or jihad, Wilders declared, “This is all to do with Islam,” and renewed his call to stop all immigration from Muslim countries. By contrast, a local Imam, Yassin Elforkani, said, “We cannot continue to say this has nothing to do with Islam,” while urging Muslims to fight extremist ideologies.
There is little question that the attacks strengthen the position of anti-immigrant parties and fortify the resolve of governments that have been trying to resist the EU’s Germany-led push to open Europe’s doors.
In France, Hollande may gain some political protection from the right as a result of the rally-round-the-flag effect as well as from his muscular military response to the attacks. But the refugee issue remains, and the anti-immigrant National Front’s leader, Marine le Pen, is now bolstered by the newly stoked fears, just in time for regional elections.
Even Germany, the principal proponent of open immigration, is feeling the impact of the Paris attacks. A new report says the total number of refugees settling in Germany may total 1.5 million by the end of the year, almost double the original estimates. After Paris, Bavaria’s finance minister said it’s time for Chancellor Angela Merkel to acknowledge that her refugee policy was a mistake, and called for her to reverse it. The statements triggered intra-party recriminations.
The infighting even extends across the Atlantic, where the Paris attacks provoked criticism of newly elected Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as well as of Obama, and ignited even hotter debate over refugees.
In Canada, Trudeau came under attack for his decision to withdraw Canadian fighter jets from missions against the Islamic State, with calls to reverse that decision and reconsider plans to accept 25,000 Syrian refugees. Obama was criticized for not adopting a more pro-active military posture against the group in Syria and Iraq, while more than 30 U.S. governors declared they would seek to deny Syrian refugees, of whom the U.S. has committed to take in 10,000 next year, from being resettled in their states.
These are just the early tremors of what is sure to become a series of political earthquakes. The debates ahead will also certainly bring up the contentious subject of government surveillance, which evokes powerful emotions on both sides of the issue. And Europe will have to make difficult decisions about its largely open internal borders, along with security at its external borders.
People may continue to sing the Marseillaise and raise the “tricolore,” but they are likely to do it in rival street demonstrations over divisions intensified by the Paris attacks. Will the attacks make the West respond as one? Au contraire.
Frida Ghitis is an independent commentator on world affairs and a World Politics Review contributing editor. Her weekly WPR column, World Citizen, appears every Thursday. Follow her on Twitter at @fridaghitis.