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NIAS Europe Monitor
France: Paris Terror Trial

  Sourina Bej

As much as the trial will make the perpetrators accountable for their horrid acts of violence, will it ensure a more inclusive society? 

Newspaper headlines on 9 September 2021 called it: "a historic trial" as it began in Paris. A special criminal court in France is now in session for nine months prosecuting 20 accused and listening to 1800 plaintiffs. More than 330 lawyers are involved in the trial of those accused in the terror attacks of 13 November 2015, and the session will be in a criminal court that was built to hold 550 people at the cost of 8 million euros. 

The logistics detailed above only signifies how France's legal, security, political and social institutions have come together. The trial would aim at finding how terror attacks unfolded in 2015, and the rationale behind the religious extremism will be tried and understood. 

The trial also poses other questions: will the trial heal the victims or create more social divisions? Is the trial another response to State's pre-emptive measures to combat domestic terrorism? Will the trial be an example of how religious terrorism, most importantly Islamist terrorism, be nibbed in the Western democratic countries?  

Paris terror attacks: The perpetrators and the victims

As the court sits to weigh on the testimonies of the accused and the 300 witnesses, a stark reality comes to the fore while decoding the social background of the accused and the victims. While those accused have an immigrant background and are digitally radicalized, those impacted are French nationals from a mixed ethnic background who work in the busiest economic quarters in Bataclan, Paris. The attacks in 2015 were planned in Syria and carried out by the French nationals who had joined ISIS. They were able to travel back and forth undetected with the flow of migrants. The attackers were primarily French and Belgian citizens, born in Europe to immigrants from North Africa. 

Salah Abdeslam is considered the mastermind behind the attack. He was arrested in Belgium in 2016; he is French-Moroccan facing life imprisonment.[1] Thirteen others, ten of whom are also in jail, will be in the courtroom, accused of crimes ranging from helping the attackers with weapons or cars. Six more, primarily Islamic State members, will be judged in abstentia for providing other logistical help to the attackers. 

The multiple attacks in Paris on 13 September 2015 was unexpected. It was the beginning of a rollercoaster Friday night when three coordinated mass bombings exploded in the heart of Paris. The Eagles Death metal rock concert was underway at the Bataclan theatre, a friendly football match between France and Germany was cheered by none other than President Hollande, and the streets of Paris was drowned from the crowded cafes and restaurants until the shooting claimed more than 130 individuals. Those who witnessed the shooting are amongst the 300 plaintiffs ranging from some who lost their family members to small and large enterprise business owners. For the victims, the trial is the moment where facts could be re-examined, the ferocity of the act could be acknowledged. For them, it is also about justice prevails and not only compensation for the loss. 

A similar trial is underway for those accused in the Charlie Hebdo terror attack in France. It is an important step towards the beginning of the memorialization of the event at the individual and societal levels. In this the role of the Judiciary as an institution to identify and open pathways for healings is significant. Plaintiffs not attending the hearings could follow via streaming radio: the first time such a tool is used for a criminal trial. The secure link will be audio-only and subject to a 30-minute delay.[2]

Paris terror attacks: Four issues

The 2015 attack has wounded France's national psyche and also affected its body politic. A country with deep institutional roots for individualism, civic liberalism and secular values, the terror attacks have tested the people's ability to comprehend multiculturalism and multi ethnicism in France truly. The attack also eroded the tolerance towards political Islam, and the trial highlights four issues beyond the immediate aim of justice and reconciliation. 

1. Group attacks as an exception amid lone wolf attacks

The 2015 attack for the first time highlighted the expanse of local networks radicalized by international Islamic terrorist ideology. Not only did the ideology have a cross border influence, but the individuals had also crossed the border to plan the attack. It was the largest attack the ISIS had carried out in the West, and the modus operandi of the attack differed from other such Islamic State claimed operations. 

The attack was an exception as the patterns had moved beyond the lone-wolf attackers. The attacks were well planned and executed under the direct orders of the ISIS operatives in Syria. It also indicated logistical support that was based on an operational infrastructure in France with a backup in Belgium. 

Since 2015, France has witnessed terror attacks led by lone operatives professing radical violent beliefs. The Nice truck attack in 2016 was lethal, with 86 dead. The attack on the Charlie Hebdo office (2015) and the beheading of Samuel Paty (2020), a school teacher who showed his class a satire comic of Prophet Mohammad, underlines the new threat to France from terrorism.  

2. The long hands of law strengthened by State's security policies

Pre-emptive measures have been the core of France's counter-terrorism laws. France declared a state of emergency on 13 November 2015; it remained in place till 2017. During this period, the government pushed fresh anti-terror laws, granting police and intelligence agencies extensive search and arrest as terror attacks continued. 

With each attack, President Emmanuel Macron imposed tougher anti-terror laws. France had a long history of anti-terror legislation, since the 19th century when the State adopted special provisions under wartime regulations. A wave of Iran-sponsored terrorist attacks in 1986 in Paris led the French government to lay the groundwork for its anti-terror legislation, which has provided the foundation of the country's anti-terror legal architecture. The trial is a product of this sizeable legal infrastructure that has systemized accountability and intolerance for any form of religious extremism. 

The legal and security-centric intolerance had also led political actors to debate on the need for social policing. A debate had long raged in early 2016, when former President Hollande had proposed to strip dual-nationality terrorists of their French citizenship and deport them. The proposal never reached its legal end, but it has fueled a social debate on what constituted in identifying one as a French over one's multiple group identities. During 2020-21, the new anti-separatism law has eroded the multi-ethnic contours of the demography in France, especially its Muslim communities. The legislation includes several provisions against online hate speech, the protection of civil servants, and tightened oversight of NGOs and religious associations deemed suspect by the State. It also strengthens the State's arsenal against forced marriages, polygamy, and the delivery of virginity certificates. Individual choices to wear hijab and consume halal food in public has been restricted as the State went on to ban the practices quoting it as anti-secular. The Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin hailed the new separatism bill as "excellent news for the Republic." In several cases, adopting new anti-terror laws is a way for the government to appear tough in its response to Islamist attacks. Also, it is often a political communication exercise.[3]. Thus, French nationalism steeped in civic liberalism supported by legalistic constitutionalism had made its minorities invisible in the society. 

3. Widening social divisions

Even though politicization of the terrorist events has pushed for anti-terror laws, the immediate fallouts have been a social divide where one community's practices stand to be scrutinized and treated exclusively against the whole. For several decades, France has struggled to deal with the fissures within its multi-ethnic and multi-religious demography. The issue of a bourgeoning Muslim citizenry has now become a part of the political discourse on account of the terrorist attacks. The French colonial legacy in North Africa has pushed the labour migration of several Muslim families from the region into Paris. Their segregated housing has long prevented their social integration, let alone the groups' social mobility. In times of economic and political crises, this social exclusion has resulted in communal disharmony and riots. The social rubric was further divided when the French conception of more assertive secularism has now generated a sense of insecurity among the religiously devout sections of the ethnic Algerian community. [4] A growing sense of socio-economic marginalization is seen to have probably worsened the divide. The trial and the probable persecution of the terrorist could also go ahead and instil a likely social alienation.  

The 1986 law had instituted a centralized counter-terrorism system that involves specialized prosecutors and investigating judges working in close cooperation with the intelligence services. However, civil rights defenders have often criticized these laws as one that compromises liberties and procedural guarantees that is necessary to ensure fair trials.[5]. Similarly, Macron's anti-terror law promulgated on 30 October 2017 is highly restrictive. The law allows police to establish "security perimeters", where individuals and vehicles can be searched. Other measures include the closure of religious establishments promoting radical ideas and the use of passenger name records to monitor suspicious travellers. 

Amid these stringent security laws, the ongoing trial and widening mistrust between different groups, the cohesion stands to be fractured. But with the above issues, the trial does peg one to question what outcome the trial would bring? As much as the trial will make the perpetrators accountable for their horrid acts of violence, will it ensure a more inclusive society? 

4. Questions to the collective consciousness

While defining collective consciousness, French sociologist Emile Durkheim famously wrote, "the totality of beliefs and sentiments common to the average members of a society forms a determinate system with a life of its own." The social norms form the basis of collective consciousness. However, when does the anomie break? The terror attacks are a vivid example of one such social rupture, but then could the trial bring in wholistic social norms, or will it build on social anxiety? As the nation awaits justice, a path towards collective memorialization has formed the core of the national consciousness. One could collectively agree on what needs to be condemned and also uphold the values that form social cohesion with equal support from the socio-political institutions. 

When the French society and the different groups within are searching for a common ground for integration, where does the trial leave one? The intra and inter-group cohesion in French society have never been simplistic. Will the trial facilitate a social dialogue in combating religious extremism? On the other side of the spectrum, where lensing and seeing the act of one Muslim man as the burden of a whole ethnoreligious community is also painfully problematic. This marks the beginning of a social perception bordering on social exclusion. 

Indeed, this remains a trial to watch. 

[1] "Paris attacks of 2015: The logistics behind a historic trial," France24, 07 September 2021

[2] "ibid

[3] "How the November 2015 attacks marked a turning point in French terror laws," France24, 05 September 2021

[4] "Trial of the 2015 Attacks: France's Pre-emptive Counter Terrorism," IDSA Comment, 22 September 2021

[5] "How the November 2015 attacks marked a turning point in French terror laws," France24, 05 September 2021


About the author
Sourina Bej is a doctoral candidate and KAS-EIZ scholarship holder at the University of Bonn. Her research interest extends from studying migration, group identity, conflicts, politics of integration to discourses on social exclusion in developing countries. 

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