PARIS — France is at war. At war against a terrorism that is totalitarian, blind and horribly murderous. We've known it since the attacks against Charlie Hebdoand the kosher supermarket in Paris in January.
And yet, despite the French population's exceptional show of unity four days after those attacks, despite the shows of solidarity from the leaders of all the world's democracies, President François Hollande, Prime Minister Manuel Valls and France's top security officials had warned repeatedly: the threat still exists. It wasn't a matter of whether there'd be more attacks in France, but when.
So it happened this Friday, November 13. More bloodshed in and around Paris. And this tragedy demonstrates that these terrorists who have decided to target France have set no limits to their deadly endeavour.
The result of their massacre — 128 people dead and more than 300 wounded, including 80 in serious condition, at the time of writing — is odious and unprecedented in our country. They triggered what senior police leaders feared more than anything else: several simultaneous attacks in the capital and its surrounding suburbs. Near the Stade de France stadium, where 80,000 people including President Hollande were gathered to watch a friendly soccer game between France and Germany, in front of four cafés and restaurants in central Paris and finally even inside the Bataclan venue, where more than 1,000 people were watching a concert and ended up being taken hostage before the police launched a raid.
For the first time in France, some of these terrorists didn't hesitate to turn themselves into human bombs. They wanted to plunge France into panic and fear. They wanted to break France.
This folly calls for only one response. To show dignity in the face of panic. To show resolution against the sowers of death. To show lucidity in the face of chaos. And as the President of the Republic rightly said during the night, to show sang-froid the "cold blood" of steely calm and determination in the face of terror. And above all, to again show the nation's unity in the face of our ordeal.
Up to the task?
There's no shortage of questions. They are legitimate and they must be answered. The first is this: Is France's general security threatened? It's also the most pressing issue, especially less than three weeks before the COP21 climate conference in Paris, where dozens of international leaders are expected to gather, and before regional elections planned for December.
The government has declared a state of emergency and reinforced border controls. These were essential measures in this war that the jihadists want to wage on us and our country. But maintaining the climate conference and the elections is just as essential. Delaying, postponing or cancelling them would mean giving in to the terrorists.
The day after. Photo: Maya-Anais Yataghene
The second question regards the ability of the government and law enforcement to successfully combat terrorism on our territory. Is our policy up to the challenge of this threat? Is it efficient enough? Over the past two years, France hasn't stopped reinforcing the powers of the justice department and the police. All democracies have done the same, doing their best to preserve the balance between safety and freedom.
We are not without means nor determination. The French police have foiled many planned attacks over the past few weeks and months. What that tragic night of November 13 showed us, alas, is that there isn't one obvious way of preventing such attacks, not without becoming a police state or selling illusions.
The third concerns France's foreign policy and its military interventions in the Middle East and Africa. Are they the cause of this deadly spiral? Should those choices be reconsidered? Of course, France is targeted because it stands on the front line of the fight against jihadism.
A chosen target
In sub-Saharan Africa, it's fighting alongside others to prevent an immense desert area from falling into the hands of criminal networks. France's intervention in Mali in early 2013 probably saved the capital city, Bamako, from an Islamist assault. Without it, the city could have become what Kabul, the Afghan capital, was for al-Qaeda until 2001, namely a crucial supply base for terrorist operations all over the world.
Paris, as well as some 50 other countries, also responded to Baghdad's request, and French warplanes have been taking part in the war there against ISIS. But the international coalition's involvement in the region isn't justified by the sole abomination of this barbaric organization's actions. Again, it's also about defending Europe's and France's strategic interests. The oil fields controlled by ISIS provide it with the means to carry out its attacks in the West. European involvement in Iraq can therefore be seen as a form of self-defense.
Since early this autumn, France has also been carrying out airstrikes in Syria, declaring that it was acting in self-defense as it targeted training camps. Islamist commandos, it said, had been trying for a few months to hit France and were preparing their operations from Syria.
Paris' role in the fight against jihadism puts France at risk. But we shouldn't confuse cause and consequence. The French authorities aren't fighting against armed Islamism because it clearly identified France as one of its main targets. You'd have to be blind or deaf not to understand what ISIS, al-Qaeda and other Islamist movements have said. Their call is clear: to export the "holy war" to Europe, to kill the "infidels," the "Jews," the "Crusaders." This isn't just rhetoric. We have to take their word for what it is.
Who can say with certainty that inaction would guarantee our immunity? This is the very nature of the enemy we are now forced to fight. In our 21st century, religious fanaticism, Islamist in this case, has replaced 20th-century totalitarianism. Le Monde has written it before: the Islamism of absolute radicalism is indeed a totalitarianism.
And this "party of the pure ones," to reuse an expression coined by political thinker Pierre Hassner, prefers to target democracies. It fights us for what we are, at least as much as for what we do or don't do. One of the conditions of our success in this war against fanaticism is simply to remain ourselves.
*Jérôme Fenoglio is Editor-in-Chief of Le Monde