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2016 in review: France stuck in a permanent state of emergency

For France, 2016 ends as it began, with the nation under a state of emergency following terrorist outrages and in anticipation of more to come.

The warnings of French leaders of potential further attacks have come gloomily true. Even last month, as the French centre-right party Les Républicains was choosing the Thatcherite Francois Fillon as its candidate in the presidential elections, ISIL was attempting to inflict further bloodshed, the five arrests in Strasbourg and Marseille foiling their plans with just days to spare.

Despite the successes of the security agencies, the frequency of near-misses, along with the reality of the attacks that could not be prevented, serve as a constant reminder of the scale of the terrorist threat.

Among 15,000 people tagged as radicalised by the French interior ministry, the numbers deemed capable of carrying out acts of terrorist violence veer between a few dozen and a few hundred.

And now, divisive elections loom. Fillon seems certain to reach the decisive second round in May; if his opponent in that run-off is the Front National’s Marine Le Pen, then France’s choice will be between hard right and far right.

The present occupant of the Élysée Palace, François Hollande, has announced that he will not stand again, the unpopularity of his presidency and that of his Socialist Party leaving his successor as the conventional left candidate with an uphill battle to avoid early elimination.

But no one should interpret the potential narrow choice for the electorate as a sign of national unity, a broad acceptance that the solutions to France’s problems can come only from the right.

A troubled 2017 appears likely to follow a wretched 2016. To translate a French phrase for feeling ill at ease, France is not “well in its skin”.

Despite the decline of the left, the unions remain capable of causing severe disruption to transport and other services; and the angry voice of the streets will be heard loudly if Fillon is elected and embarks on a promised programme of massive public sector job cuts.

In January, France was still in shock after the horrendous events of November 13, 2015, when ISIL carried out multiple attacks in central Paris and at the Stade de France, killing 130.

Only 10 months before that massacre, terrorists murdered 12 people at the Paris offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.

More bloodshed was to come. Terrorists with links to the Paris attackers killed 32 people in Metro and airport bombings in Brussels, Belgium, on March 22.

Then in France, extremist Larossi Abballa stabbed a senior police officer and his wife, a police secretary, to death in their home in front of their three-year-old son, on June 13, in Magnanville, 60 kilometres west of Paris.

The crime was a direct response to ISIL leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi’s exhortations for followers to kill people “with their families” during Ramadan.

What happened on the elegant Promenade des Anglais in Nice on July 14 answered another ISIL leadership call for extremists to murder civilians by any means possible, including running them over. The number of deaths caused by Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, who drove a 19-tonne rental lorry into the crowds gathered for the Bastille Day fireworks display, has reached 86.

Then, on July 26, two men burst into the morning Mass at a Catholic church in Normandy and slit the 85-year-old priest’s throat.

As well as spreading fear, these attacks had another desired effect for ISIL: further damage to community relations. Although Muslims were among the dead and injured in Paris and Nice, France’s Muslim population – Europe’s largest – has encountered greater suspicion and prejudice.

And as the summer progressed, the mayors of several coastal resorts banned the “burkini”, a body swimsuit for Muslim women, from their beaches. Attempts to justify the orders included at least one mayor claiming that such beachwear was a “symbol of extremism”.

One French Muslim woman was quoted by Le Monde as saying, “they want us to be invisible”, reflecting heavy-hearted indignation. A Paris-born Algerian millionaire, Rachid Nekkaz, promised to pay the fines of any woman punished under the mayoral orders, denouncing the burkini ban as a “dangerous cocktail of intolerance and paranoia”.

By the time the French courts overturned most of the bans – which drew worldwide criticism and even ridicule – further serious damage had been inflicted on relations with France’s large Muslim minority, and as yet there is no sign of a meaningful reconciliation.

Amid all of the country’s other problems, rising community tension is the last thing France needs as it approaches the end of a turbulent year, even more apprehensive about what the next year could bring.

Colin Randall is a freelance journalist based in France and a former executive editor of The National.

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