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Why France and why Paris? A Reflection on the Attacks in Paris

November 16, 2015

On Saturday, the director of the Institute for European Studies, Dr. Timothy Hellwig, was asked to reflect on Friday’s attacks in Paris in an interview by the Herald Times. His reflections are below.

“First, there is the question of why France and why Paris?  Less than a year since the targeted attacks at the weekly satirical newspaper, Charlie Hebdo, we have another, much much larger and less targeted attack, or now massacre, in the very same city.  One reason may be the ease of access: Paris, relative to some other Western capitals, is easy to get to and to mobilize about.  But I think it’s more than that.  It seems clear that ISIS and other radical groups see France, in particular, as embodying Western, and anti-Muslim values. This is brought to the fore in politics by the strength of a far-right party, the Front National, which commonly professes anti-immigrant views. But even more deeply, I think French traditions of public protest and their sense of nationalism over multiculturalism plays into this sentiment.  So there is a challenge in France today: do these horrific events change what it means to be French?  Will the French way of life change as a result?  Up until now, the answer has been no.  But this could be France’s 911.  The French military will be much more of a presence in Paris now – and this will persist, I think, beyond the short term.

The other issue is what does Hollande’s description of these attacks as an “act of war” on the part of ISIS.  Hollande’s language from today was very strong – I think it took some people by surprise, especially because we are not sure what the basis for his intelligence was.  Now that he has characterized the attacks as planned by and coordinated from abroad (and not a local manifestation of radical elements), the French president will need to mount a much more aggressive stance in Syria and Iraq, lest he be viewed as weak.  He will likely try to persuade Washington, Berlin, and Brussels to join France in the effort.”

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