Flags flying at half-mast in Nice after the July 14 terror attack
Angelique Negroni

PARIS — How much is the life of a victim of terrorism worth? How do you quantify the loss of children taken from their parents? Of husbands or wives torn from their spouse by the bullets of a madman?

These are harrowing questions that require reflection but also a dose of cold economic reasoning. The French government, as a base, offers the victim's family several thousand euros in damages. While the pain and shock felt by loved ones can never be replaced by money, funds are often crucial for families who might suddenly find themselves without a breadwinner.

Someone has to decide not only how much a terror victim's life is worth but also the price of a mutilated arm or a horrific facial injury. In France, this delicate responsibility is given to a 30-year-old institution called the Guarantee Fund for Victims of Terrorism and Other Crimes, also known by the French acronym FGTI, a little-known agency that burst into the spotlight after recent terror attacks in the country, including the Nov. 13 killings in and around Paris and the July 14 attack in Nice.

The French government founded the FGTI to provide "full compensation" to victims after a series of deadly terror attacks in Paris in 1986. "This organization still represents national solidarity for victims," says Julien Rencki, FGTI's current director.

But FGTI, which is based in the Parisian suburb of Vincennes, has also attracted a firestorm of criticism from terror victims and their lawyers for the allegedly opaque and unfair way it operates. French President François Hollande recently declared the 300-employee organization in urgent need of reform.

Terror victims and FGTI members at the Elysée presidential palace — Photo: FGTI via Twitter

"Work needs to be done to establish public confidence in the FGTI and make its operations more transparent," says Juliette Méadel, a government official charged with monitoring aid to terror victims. "You never know how compensation is determined," says Antoine Casubolo Ferro, a lawyer for the French Association of Victims of Terrorism.

Gérard Chemla, lawyer for another such group, the National Federation for Victims of Terrorism and Accidents asks: "Why does one mother who lost her son receive 35,000 euros and another 45,000?"

Chemla says the process for receiving money should be made much easier. "Victims can feel ashamed to receive money," he says. "We lawyers have to work with people while FGTI employees have work with their available budgets, so it's difficult for us to reach common ground."

Supply and demand

Therein lies another problem: the agency's finances. While other countries mainly rely on public donations to compensate victims of terrorism, France uses a general 1.4 billion euro fund that's financed by a 4.30 euro tax on property insurance contracts, a so-called "terrorism tax." But the devastating attacks the past two years have left the FGTI with a shortfall as it has offered more compensation than the revenue it receives at a rate that would leave it empty in the next eight years. Indeed, FGTI's finances led to a decision to raise the "terrorism tax" to 6.50 euros.

FGTI meeting — Photo: FGTI via Twitter

Still, there are problems. The July attack in Nice has led to disagreements about the criteria to determine the victims from the 30,000 people who had attended the Bastille Day celebrations on the southern city's Promenade des Anglais when a truck plowed into the crowd. According to the FGTI, all those who were in the truck's murderous path have a right to compensation, although some other exceptional cases may be considered.

But what about the heroic restaurant owner who received and treated the injured throughout that night who wouldn't receive any compensation under this rule?

"These decisions encourage a kind of society where we don't help those who are in need," says Stéphane Gicquel. "Should we support those who were traumatized by the attack and those who helped out or should we instead place them alongside the bystanders who filmed it on their cellphones?"

Rencki became FGTI director just three days before the events in Nice. He hasn't hesitated to respond to his critics. "We will engage in consultations with victims to learn about their needs and establish a better relationship," he says.

On the third floor of the FGTI building, large brown folders are stacked high on office desks. This is where the fund established a "terrorism center" manned by 20 employees in the wake of last November's Paris attacks.

In the face of intense public pressure, FGTI employees are trying to accelerate compensation claims. The agency dispatched teams to Nice immediately after the attack there.

"We went to visit a victim who will soon return home after having both legs amputated," says Rencki. "We need to adapt the home of the victim with work paid for by the FGTI."

Sometimes, the stress of dealing with grieving victims and public indignation gets too much for employees. The fund also provides them with psychological support. "This fund is a good institution," says Ferro, the lawyer. But since it represents the state, it absorbs all of the public's anger at it."

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Economy

European Debt? The First Question For Merkel's Successor

Across southern Europe, all eyes are on the German elections, as they hope a change of government might bring about reforms to the EU Stability Pact.

Angela Merkel at a campaign event of CDU party, Stralsund, Sep 2021

Tobias Kaiser, Virginia Kirst, Martina Meister


-Analysis-

BERLIN — Finance Minister Olaf Scholz (SPD) is the front-runner, according to recent polls, to become Germany's next chancellor. Little wonder then that he's attracting attention not just within the country, but from neighbors across Europe who are watching and listening to his every word.

That was certainly the case this past weekend in Brdo, Slovenia, where the minister met with his European counterparts. And of particular interest for those in attendance is where Scholz stands on the issue of debt-rule reform for the eurozone, a subject that is expected to be hotly debated among EU members in the coming months.

France, which holds its own elections early next year, has already made its position clear. "When it comes to the Stability and Growth Pact, we need new rules," said Bruno Le Maire, France's minister of the economy and finance, at the meeting in Slovenia. "We need simpler rules that take the economic reality into account. That is what France will be arguing for in the coming weeks."

The economic reality for eurozone countries is an average national debt of 100% of GDP. Only Luxemburg is currently meeting the two central requirements of the Maastricht Treaty: That national debt must be less than 60% of GDP and the deficit should be no more than 3%. For the moment, these rules have been set aside due to the coronavirus crisis, but next year national leaders must decide how to go forward and whether the rules should be reinstated in 2023.

Europe's north-south divide lives on

The debate looks set to be intense. Fiscally conservative countries, above all Austria and the Netherlands, are against relaxing the rules as they recently made very clear in a joint position paper on the subject. In contrast, southern European countries that are dealing with high levels of national debt believe that now is the moment to relax the rules.

Those governments are calling for countries to be given more freedom over their levels of national debt so that the economy, which is recovering remarkably quickly thanks to coronavirus spending and the European Central Bank's relaxation of its fiscal policy, can continue to grow.

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive.

The rules must be "adapted to fit the new reality," said Spanish Finance Minister Nadia Calviño in Brdo. She says the eurozone needs "new rules that work." Her Belgian counterpart agreed. The national debts in both countries currently stand at over 100% of GDP. The same is true of France, Italy, Portugal, Greece and Cyprus.

Officials there will be keeping a close eye on the German elections — and the subsequent coalition negotiations. Along with France, Germany still sets the tone in the EU, and Berlin's stance on the brewing conflict will depend largely on what the coalition government looks like.

A key question is which party Germany's next finance minister comes from. In their election campaign, the Greens have called for the debt rules to be revised so that in the future they support rather than hinder public investment. The FDP, however, wants to reinstate the Maastricht Treaty rules exactly as they were and ensure they are more strictly enforced than before.

This demand is unlikely to gain traction at the EU level because too many countries would still be breaking the rules for years to come. There is already a consensus that they should be reformed; what is still at stake is how far these reforms should go.

Mario Draghi on stage in Bologna

Prime Minister Mario Draghi at an event in Bologna, Italy — Photo: Brancolini/ROPI/ZUMA

Time for Draghi to step up?

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive. That having been said, starting in January, France will take over the presidency of the EU Council for a period that will coincide with its presidential election campaign. And it's likely that Macron's main rival, right-wing populist Marine Le Pen, will put the reforms front and center, especially since she has long argued against Germany and in favor of more freedom.

Rome is putting its faith in the negotiating skills of Prime Minister Mario Draghi, a former head of the European Central Bank. Draghi is a respected EU finance expert at the debating table and can be of great service to Italy precisely at a moment when Merkel's departure may see Germany represented by a politician with less experience at these kinds of drawn-out summits, where discussions go on long into the night.

The Stability and Growth pact may survive unscathed.

Regardless of how heated the debates turn out to be, the Stability and Growth Pact may well survive the conflict unscathed, as its symbolic value may make revising the agreement itself practically impossible. Instead, the aim will be to rewrite the rules that govern how the Pact should be interpreted: regulations, in other words, about how the deficit and national debt should be calculated.

One possible change would be to allow future borrowing for environmental investments to be discounted. France is not alone in calling for that. European Commissioner for Economy Paolo Gentiloni has also added his voice.

The European Commission is assuming that the debate may drag on for some time. The rules — set aside during the pandemic — are supposed to come into force again at the start of 2023.

The Commission is already preparing for the possibility that they could be reactivated without any reforms. They are investigating how the flexibility that has already been built into the debt laws could be used to ensure that a large swathe of eurozone countries don't automatically find themselves contravening them, representatives explained.

The Commission will present its recommendations for reforms, which will serve as a basis for the countries' negotiations, in December. By that point, the results of the German elections will be known, as well as possibly the coalition negotiations. And we might have a clearer idea of how intense the fight over Europe's debt rules could become — and whether the hopes of the southern countries could become reality.

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