Living in France is a lottery. The chances of getting a losing ticket are very slim, but a chance it is all the same. Twenty four hours before the slaughter in Nice, I took my daughter to the Bastille celebrations in the southern suburb of Paris in which we live. The centrepiece of the celebration was a parade through the town centre finishing in the town square. On arrival the kids in the parade leapt up on stage and sang La Marseillaise before trooping off into the embrace of their parents.
Next up on stage was a pop band, and as they launched into their first number my 11-year-old daughter began dancing with her friends. I sat on the other side of the square, outwardly relaxed and at ease, but vigilant all the same. I know the square well, know its nooks and crannies, and the best exit routes. I sipped at my wine, chatted and laughed, but one eye never left my daughter.
Suddenly there was a loud bang and we all jumped. Merde! cursed the man next to me, as we saw a group of lads laughing at the smoke from the firework. The two policemen on duty marched over and gave the teenagers a verbal rocket of their own.
Since last November’s attacks in Paris I don’t sit down in a theatre, cinema or restaurant until I’ve familiarised myself with all available exits. Last month I took my daughter to see the British indy band, James, play in Paris. It was a small venue, ‘intimate’, I believe is the vernacular. We got to the venue as early as possible. Why? asked my daughter. I lied. It was her first concert so I nonchalantly told her it was always good to arrive early to soak up the atmosphere. Let the anticipation build. The real reason was I wanted to find a good spot that was close to the stage and close to the emergency exit.
In November I wrote for The Spectator of the ‘camaraderie born of defiance’ among Parisians in the days after the massacres in the Bataclan and in the restaurants and bistros of the 11th arrondissements. Nine months on the defiance has turned to anger, anger against a Government that is unable to protect its people let alone produce a coherent strategy to tackle homegrown Islamic extremism, other than extending the State of Emergency. That was President Hollande’s immediate reaction to the attack in Nice, along with a promise to step up France’s military campaign in Syria and Iraq. It won’t do any good. The enemy is within, and there are many of them, all living unnoticeable lives until they decide to strike.
Earlier this week members of France’s Gendarmerie Intervention Group (GIGN), an elite counter-terrorism unit of Gendarmes, published an anonymous letter in which they accused their chief, Colonel Hubert Bonneau, of failing to do his duty during the November attacks in Paris. Describing Bonneau as a man of ‘little courage’, the authors of the letter said: ‘For two years we have submitted to the unjust and barely legitimate command of Colonel Bonneau . . . a bad leader who does his best to minimise the intervention force.’ The letter was symptomatic of the malaise within the French security services, which was highlighted at the start of this month in a French parliamentary investigation into last year’s Paris attacks. The report described a ‘global failure’ of French intelligence which it attributed to the fact that there are six intelligence units answering to the interior, defence and economy ministries.
France has always been beholden to bureaucracy but its layers of administration are now proving deadly. ‘Our country was not ready; now we must get ready,’ declared Georges Fenech, head of the commission. Unfortunately most of the French see the intelligence services as representative of Francois Hollande, this rabbit-in-the-headlights president whose muddled party can’t even agree on what to do with convicted terrorists holding dual nationality.
In fairness to the President, none of his political opponents have come up with any plan to defeat homegrown extremists either. Marine Le Pen, head of the Front National, spoke on Friday of waging war on ‘Islamist fundamentalism’. Not surprisingly, she was short on details on how she would win this war.
So as the politicians grandstand, the security services quarrel and the Twitterati virtual signal, it’s left to the rest of us in France to get on with our lottery lives and hope that next time it’s not us in the wrong place at the wrong time.