Will the Charlie Hebdo Attack Bring France Out of Its Corner in the War on Islamist Terror?

And how will the free press feel, after it supported Edward Snowden or Julian Assange, if it discovers that closer state surveillance could have foreseen the Paris massacre?

Seth Lipsky
Seth Lipsky
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French soldiers patrol near the Eiffel Tower in Paris as part of the highest level of "Vigipirate" security plan after a shooting at the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo, Jan. 7, 2015.
French soldiers patrol near the Eiffel Tower in Paris as part of the highest level of "Vigipirate" security plan after a shooting at the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo, Jan. 7, 2015.Credit: Reuters
Seth Lipsky
Seth Lipsky

The big question in the wake of the massacre at Charlie Hebdo is whether the slaughter will bring France out of its corner in the war on Islamist terror. France has seen some appalling crimes – including attacks against Jews – that could be linked, broadly, to the global war against Islamist terror. But the attack on the satirical weekly takes, by dint of its body count, things to a new level. It’s hard to see how France, or any country, will be able to revert to the status quo ante.

In France, there has been a kind of quasi war measured by what is known as the Plan Vigipirate. The plan was started in the 1970s by President Giscard d’Estaing and established a national alert system. Things were stepped up under the Plan Vigipirate in 1995, after a Jewish school was bombed and attacks began on the Paris Metro. The latter, which killed eight persons and injured scores, were the work of the Armed Islamic Group, which aimed to set up an Islamist state at Algeria.

It’s too soon to know the details of the attack on Charlie Hebdo, but French Francois President Hollande has declared it terrorism. The alert under Plan Vigipirate has been raised, at least in the Ile de France, to its highest level, after the assault on the Charlie Hebdo headquarters in the Rue Serpollet, which is among a labyrinth of narrow streets in the 20th arrondissement. The target can, in Charlie Hebdo, be seen as a kind of marker of the ideology of secular France.

The magazine has been particularly unbridled in its mocking Islamists from a left-of-center perspective. It stood, courageously in the view of many, for the right of satire in the wake of the publication of the Danish cartoons. In 2011, Charlie Hebdo was fire-bombed after it issued one of its most famous covers, which “renamed” the magazine Charia Hebdo. The paper, while stridently secular, had also – particularly under its previous editor, Philippe Val – tilted toward Israel.

I was reminded of that by an ex-colleague, Michel Gurfinkiel, a Paris-based pro-Israel journalist who characterized Val, a comedian, as having gone in the opposite direction of, say, Sine, another writer for Charlie Hebdo, and the comedian Dieudonné M'bala M'bala, who mocks Jews, uses a parody of the Hitler salute, and is banned from performing in France. Val left Charlie Hebdo several years ago. While at the paper, he took what Gurfinkiel calls a hard line that it was inappropriate to demonize the Jewish state.

If it is confirmed that the attack was by Islamist terrorists – the audio of one film that was uploaded to the Internet appears to capture gunmen shouting "Allahu Akbar"("God is greatest" in Arabic) – all eyes will be on France to see what happens next. It’s not that France has been entirely out of the fight on Islamist terror. A few hours before the attack on Charlie Hebdo, Agence France Press reported that the Charles de Gaulle, the aircraft carrier that is the flagship of the French fleet, would be deployed to the Gulf to take part in operations against the Islamist State.

France, though, has always seemed to hang back a bit. Gurfinkiel calls this a “tradition,” with the French authorities “hoping to know more” by leaving hostile elements at large in France while keeping an eye on them. That starts to look like a risky strategy in an era of so-called “lone wolf” terrorist attacks. France is still more than two years away from its next presidential election, but already its former president, the relatively hardline Nicholas Sarkozy is trying to position himself for a comeback.

The impact of the attack on Charlie Hebdo could also be felt far from France, particularly because it targeted the press. The press has sought largely to stay neutral in the global war on terrorism or has tilted against the hawkish camp. But what position will the newspapers take after having expressed support for Julian Assange or Edward Snowden, if it turns out that this attack could have been foreseen by more aggressive collection and mining of the metadata?

Seth Lipsky is editor of The New York Sun. He was a foreign editor and a member of the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal, founding editor of The Forward and editor from 1990 to 2000.

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