PARIS (RNS) The urgent pleas for national unity heard after every terrorist attack in France are sounding ever more strained as the killers inspired by the Islamic State group nimbly shift their tactics and targets and confound the politicians struggling to combat them.
President François Hollande appealed on Tuesday (July 26) for support from a nation shocked by Islamist militants who slit the throat of an 86-year-old Catholic priest at the altar of his church in a suburb of the northern city of Rouen. It was the fifth such attack in a year and a half.
The French share his rejection of this violence, but the issue of how to confront what one security expert called “this epidemic of terrorism” is deeply dividing a society that now wonders not if but when, and where, the next outrage will occur.
Hollande’s Socialist government has stepped up its military action against the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq, imposed a state of emergency and reinforced security to unprecedented levels. But the attackers keep outwitting the authorities with ever-new ways to shock the population.
“We must realize that we are in a different era,” said the Rev. Christian Delorme, a Catholic priest active in dialogue with Muslims. “France has lived for about 70 years in peace, but that’s finished. The violence of the world has reached us.”
“A few months ago, this kind of dramatic news came from Mosul or Baghdad, evoking our compassion for the unfortunate Middle Eastern Christians being martyred in their chaotic countries,” the daily Le Figaro said in a front-page editorial. “This horror scene happened yesterday in a little village in Normandy.”
The impressive unity seen after the attacks on Charlie Hebdo magazine and a Jewish supermarket in January 2015, highlighted by Hollande’s mass march against terrorism attended by 40 foreign leaders, has dissolved under the pressure of the continued shocks.
With next year’s presidential and parliamentary elections firmly in mind, conservative politicians are now loudly accusing the country’s Socialist leaders of failing to protect it and proposing solutions the government says are unconstitutional.
Former President Nicolas Sarkozy, hoping to make a comeback after losing to Hollande in 2012, has called on the government to be “merciless” in its response.
“Our enemy has no taboos, no limits and no morals,” he declared. “Legal quibbles, precautions and excuses for incomplete work can no longer be tolerated.” Among the measures he demanded was preventative detention for suspected jihadists, which is not now legal.
Herve Morin, a former conservative defense minister, said France should “Israelize” its security system, copying the tough approach taken there. He proposed making Facebook and other social media punishable if they carry jihadist propaganda and locking up anyone returning from a stay in Syria. “If we don’t (react), this could end in a civil war,” he said.
Marine Le Pen, the far-right National Front leader and serious challenger for the presidency, responded with a typically anti-Muslim tweet: “They’re killing our children, murdering our policemen and butchering our priests. Wake up!”
In his televised address, Hollande acknowledged that France faced an unprecedented threat of terrorism. “This war will be long,” he said. “It is aimed at our democracy. That is the target, but it is also our shield. Our unity will be our strength.”
Prime Minister Manuel Valls warned in a tweet that the jihadists wanted to “set the French against each other, attacking a religion to provoke a war of religions.”
The Islamic State group’s French-language magazine Dar al Islam outlined that strategy early last year under the headline “May Allah curse France.” It encouraged French Muslims to stage attacks in any way possible to provoke an anti-Muslim backlash that would drive the Islamic minority into the radicals’ arms.
It cited France’s long history of fighting in the Muslim world, from the Crusades through its colonial period to the present day, and accused Paris of discriminating against its Muslim minority with bans on headscarves in state schools and face veils in public.
An attack on a church has been expected since at least April 2015, when police found evidence that a failed terrorist had staked out three churches in the Paris area. But nobody expected it to occur near Rouen, where the Rev. Jacques Hamel was killed as he was celebrating morning Mass.
The Charlie Hebdo and the Hypercacher supermarket attacks claimed 17 lives and targeted journalists and cartoonists who had lampooned the Prophet Muhammad, and France’s Jewish minority.
By contrast, the next assault struck indiscriminately at popular entertainment sites such as the Bataclan rock music hall, a soccer match at the Stade de France and bars and cafes in a hip Paris neighborhood. The massacre ended with 130 dead and over 400 injured.
The government imposed a state of emergency and tried to pass a law stripping dual nationals of their citizenship. But the deeply unpopular Hollande could not muster a majority and the controversial measure was dropped.
When the European soccer championships held in France from June 10 to July 10 passed off without a terror incident, Hollande used his annual Bastille Day television interview to announce that the state of emergency imposed in November would soon be lifted.
That evening, a nonpracticing Muslim with no apparent link to jihadists plowed through crowds after a Bastille Day fireworks show in Nice with a rented refrigerator truck, killing 84. Hollande had to reappear on television to say the state of emergency would be renewed.
Flustered politicians said the Tunisian-born man had “radicalized very rapidly,” an admission that intelligence services could not have caught him.
By targeting a Catholic priest in his church, Tuesday’s attack struck at a symbol of traditional French life that even non-Catholics could identify with. The town’s communist mayor was in tears as he met Hollande -- a native of Rouen -- who rushed to the scene.
In another embarrassing twist for the authorities, it turned out that both attackers were listed as security risks by the local police. One of them even wore an electronic ankle bracelet after serving 10 months in prison for two failed attempts to travel to Syria to join the Islamic State group.
Hollande received leaders of France’s main religions at the Elysee Palace on Wednesday. Paris Grand Mosque Rector Dalil Boubakeur said the group asked for more security measures, since “even the most humble house of prayer is a target.”
But the Rev. François Clavairoly, head of the Protestant Federation of France, admitted, “It’s obvious that putting guards before every church in this country is absolutely unimaginable and undoable.”
(Tom Heneghan is a correspondent based in Paris)