Where ever one looks in France at the start of 2019 one sees only ominous signs. In his New Year’s message to his people Emmanuel Macron issued a robust warning to the gilets jaunes, elements of which he described as ‘a hate-filled crowd’. Accusing them of having attacked the police, the media, Jews and homosexuals, the president vowed that ‘Republican order will be ensured with no leniency’.
That drew a swift retort from one of the self-styled yellow vest movement leaders, Maxime Nicolle, who in a facebook post, predicted an ‘armed uprising’, adding that ‘a lot of people are ready to lose their lives in the hope of a better future’.
Nicolle is one of the most bellicose of the movement’s leaders, along with Eric Drouet, who in December called on the people to storm the Élysée Palace, although he claimed subsequently that his words had been misinterpreted. Drouet, already facing a charge of carrying a weapon (a baton) on a previous demonstration, was detained again in Paris on Wednesday evening, as he headed toward the Champs-Elysées to place a candle to remember those who have died during the gilets jaunes protests. A video posted online shows Drouet being bundled into a van by several policemen.
Opposition MPs are outraged at Drouet’s detention, which they regard as Macron taking his revenge on the 33-year-old lorry-driver. The far-left leader, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, claimed on twitter that the arrest was the work of a ‘politicised police targeting and harassing the leaders of the yellow vest movement’, while Marine Le Pen accused the president of a ‘violation of political rights’.
The government is adamant, however, that the weeks of violence – what one minister, Gérald Darmanin, described this week as ‘anarchy’ – are over. The Interior Minister, Christophe Castaner, has ordered préfets across the country to be more robust in removing protestors from the hundred roundabouts that are still occupied.
Drouet’s arrest has enraged elements of the gilets jaunes, not least the man himself, who says he has had enough of peaceful protests. Describing many of his fellow protestors as ‘care bears’, Drouet believes that 2019 requires a different approach. Act eight of the movement will take place tomorrow and Paris is once more the main target. There are some strident messages being posted on social media, about what should be done to the city hall and the financial district, but many of these will be the battle cries of keyboard warriors.
But there are other warriors menacing France in 2019, these ones loyal to the black flag of Isis, such as Fabien Clain, a notorious convert still at large in Syria. In his New Year message to France, broadcast on Islamic State radio on December 28, he urged Islamists back home to ‘avenge’ those Muslims killed in coalition air strikes.
Macron has been lucky in the first twenty months of his presidency. Compared to the wholesale slaughter of 2015 and 2016, France has escaped relatively unscathed in the last couple of years. The major terrorist incidents in 2018 were in Trèbes, where an Islamist killed four, and at last month’s Strasbourg Christmas market attack, when one of the Islamic State’s ‘soldiers’ shot dead five shoppers. That pair slipped through the security net but six other plots were intercepted in 2018 by the tireless intelligence services before they could be put into action.
In total, 55 Islamist plots have been thwarted by the DGSI (Direction générale de la sécurité intérieure) since November 2013 but this year may be their busiest yet. Since the summer of 2018 a steady trickle of the 512 convicted Islamist terrorists in French prisons have been released after serving their sentences. Twenty were freed last year and thirty are due for release in 2019.
These are committed Jihadists, young Frenchmen with an average age of 24, some of whom went to Syria in support of Isis and others who remained in France providing logical or moral support to the terror group. In addition around 450 prisoners will walk out of prison after serving time for offences unrelated to terrorism. However, as Nicole Belloubet, France’s Minister of Justice, confirmed in an interview last year, these men are known to have been radicalised in prison. Belloubet has promised that a close eye will be kept on them once they are freed, but how much faith should the French people have in their politicians?
Cherif Chekatt, the perpetrator of the Strasbourg atrocity, was on a terror watchlist (known as the Fiche S) but he still managed to carry out his attack. Radouane Lakdim, responsible for the carnage in Trèbes, was also able to kill despite being on the list. Of the 251 victims of Islamist terror attacks since January 2015, sixty per cent were killed by people on the Fiche S surveillance list. But don’t blame the intelligence agencies. There are 11,000 names on that list and to keep a permanent tail on just one extremist requires twenty law enforcement officers. Such is the size of France’s Fifth Column it is inevitable that a few will evade detection.
The tenacious French police, like the country’s intelligence agencies, is being stretched to breaking point. Last year 61 Gendarmes and police officers took their own lives. Given their exhausted state, the president should prioritise pursuing those whose allegiance is to a black flag and not a yellow vest.