Bastille Day terror: France forced to face its brutal recent history

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What drove a 31 year-old Tunisian, non-practising Muslim to maim and kill hundreds of French citoyens celebrating their national day? Alan Austin investigates from France.

THE MURDEROUS attack on people celebrating Bastille Day last Thursday in Nice came as many Australians are visiting France and nearby countries to commemorate 100 years since World War One.

Australians still remember with horror the 61,000 diggers’ lives lost in that war, and another 152,000 wounded. So do Canadians remember 67,000 killed, Indians 74,000, New Zealanders 18,000 and the French more than 1,700,000 dead.

At what point is it possible to forget these events? For those who served and were injured in body or mind, and who lost comrades probably never. Most ex-service personnel go to their graves without having entirely forgiven those who they perceive caused such suffering. Their families may not have the same graphic memories, but will harbour long term bitterness also.

Can we blame them?

The question being asked across France since last week’s attack is this: Why would a 31 year-old Tunisian non-practising Muslim who has worked in France since 2005 drive a five tonne truck at speed through crowds of citoyens observing their national day to maim and kill hundreds of women, men, children and the elderly?

Most hope this is just a random act by crazed perpetrator Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel known to have a history of drug and alcohol abuse, psychiatric treatment and convictions for low level violence. Some evidence has emerged of very recent religious fervour but none of any accomplices or of terrorist affiliation.

The anxiety, however, is that this was not an isolated incident. Although it may be unconnected, this is the fourth time an individual or group with Islamic background has attacked large numbers of people in France since November 2015. Deaths now total 242.

Many, including French Prime Minister Manuel Valls, believe these attacks will continue, despite concerted efforts at surveillance and security.

Valls told the Journal du Dimanche.

"Terrorism will be a part of everyday life for a long time."

Although seldom discussed openly, the French know that resentments have festered for decades, following France’s troubled history with Northern Africa, which includes Tunisia where Bouhlel spent his first twenty years.

The French-Algerian war from 1954 to 1962 was characterised by brutality and torture on both sides and a high toll of dead and wounded. The conflict profoundly changed France’s internal political order and severely damaged its standing abroad. Bitter memories of that conflict – which cost the lives of about 150,000 Algerian troops and another 100,000 or more Harkis loyal to the French – remain.

In 1956, France invaded Egypt in an attempt, with Israel and the UK, to wrest control of the Suez Canal and to remove Egypt’s President Nasser. Although unsuccessful, this action further damaged France’s reputation among Islamic peoples, as did France supplying Israel vast caches of weapons during that period.

France supported the 1991 invasion of Iraq by the USA and its allies which resulted in thousands of civilian deaths.

Are these the causes of the lingering antipathy towards France?

Suggesting perhaps, yes, is the fact that no other Western European country has had as many Islamist extremist attacks since 2000. Spain suffered one deadly attack in 2004 which cost 191 lives, Britain one in 2005 which took 56 lives, and Belgium one in March this year leaving 38 dead.

Other Western European countries – Germany, Netherlands, Italy, Switzerland, Portugal, Austria and Greece – have not experienced terrorist mass killings. These nations do not have the same recent history of conflict.

Balancing these concerns is the belief that things could be worse. Since 2000, France has had far fewer terrorist attacks than other countries with similar violent histories. Attacks which have killed more than ten people number 63 in Iraq, 47 in Pakistan, 23 in India, 12 in Israel, nine in Afghanistan, eight in Egypt, seven in Algeria and four in the USA. All these nations have lost more innocent victims than has France. The attacks in the USA cost 3,075 lives almost 13 times France’s toll.

Things may also have been worse had France not taken significant steps to change its foreign policy in recent decades.

France gave Algeria independence in 1962 and has worked assiduously to maintain sound trade and diplomatic relations since.

France withdrew its troops from the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation in 1966. (It did, however, join NATO peacekeeping operations in Croatia, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, in Kosovo and in Rwanda in the 1990s.)

France steadfastly refused to join the “coalition of the willing” cobbled together by George W Bush in 2003 to invade Iraq now under withering scrutiny by the Chilcot Report. Hence significant antagonism now felt towards the USA, Britain, Australia and Spain – particularly by Middle Eastern Sunnis – may not be felt against France.

All four of those countries have been targeted by violent terrorist attacks or foiled plots since that war took more than 400,000 Iraqi lives and wounded countless others.

If those advances restored good faith and quelled resentments, the late Sarkozy years may have seen setbacks. In 2009 France rejoined NATO as a full military member. Then in 2011 France invaded Libya with a view to killing President Muammar Gaddafi who President Sarkozy had entertained lavishly just three years earlier.

Since Sarkozy’s demise in 2012, diplomatic efforts have sought stronger relations with African former enemies and with the Middle East. How far these have succeeded is, of course, impossible to measure.

A complicating factor is France’s completely open frontiers. Unlike islands Australia and Britain and unlike Spain, Greece, Italy and Denmark which have mostly coastal boundaries, France has 2,751 kilometres of land borders with eight different countries.

Despite the mostly impenetrable Pyrénées dividing France and Spain there are more than 60 crossings along that 646 km frontier. The Belgian border has more than 300 crossings in 556 kilometres. None is guarded by security personnel.

This certainly makes France an easy target for anyone wishing to attack the decadent West. There is no chance France will change this, despite calls to do so.

France will remain open to the world for diplomatic engagement, sporting encounters, cultural exchange, tourism and trade. And until long-standing wounds can be healed, for terrorism as well. The French are hoping this won’t take 100 years.

You can follow Alan Austin on Twitter @AlanTheAmazing.

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