France disclosed on 21 November that it had foiled a terrorist plot and arrested seven people, a year after a state of emergency was imposed in a bid to counter a wave of Islamist attacks.
Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve disclosed in a statement “yesterday, a terrorist act on our soil that was being prepared for a long time was foiled thanks to the work of the DGSI,” referring to France’s internal intelligence service. He wen on to say that “the scale of the terrorist threat is enormous and it is not possible to ensure zero risk despite everything we are doing.” Mr Cazeneuve disclosed that seven people of French, Moroccan and Afghan origin, aged 29 to 37, were detained on 20 November, adding that one of the detentions followed a tip-off from a foreign government. According to the interior minister, two were arrested in the Mediterranean port city of Marseille and four in Strasbourg in the northeast of France. Mr Cazeneuve did not disclose where the seventh person was arrested. While the minister provided no information on the target of the planned attack, the mayor of Strasbourg disclose that it appeared that the plot had not concerned his city but rather “the Paris region.” A source close to the inquiry also disclosed that some of those detained had spent time in the Syria-Iraq region. Meanwhile Le Parisian newspaper has cited a source as having told it the suspects arrested were awaiting a consignment of weapons.
The news of a foiled attack comes as France prepares to elect a new president next year. Security is a major theme in campaigning ahead of the May 2017 election. Since January 2015, when Islamist militant killed seventeen people in Paris in an attack on the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, more than 230 people have been killed in attacks on French soil. On 13 November 2015, gunmen and suicide bombers killed 130 people in coordinated strikes in Paris. The so-called Islamic State (IS) group, whose strongholds in Syria and Iraq are being bombed by airplanes from an international coalition that includes France, has urged followers to continue attacking the country.
On Sunday 20 November, the French conservative party held its first-round voting to select its candidate for next year’s presidential election. Francois Fillon will now head into a five-day runoff campaign for the presidential ticket. He is favoured over his opponent, Alain Juppe, after the first-round vote resulted in the ouster of ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy from the race.
Fillon is up against another former prime minister, Alain Juppe, in a second round of the primaries, which will be held on 27 November. Juppe now has a week to turn around his momentum-sapped campaign and win over the supporters of the other candidates. However this may be a difficult task for Juppe, as Fillon was only six points short of the 50-percent threshold needed in the first round, and has Sarkozy on his side. Sounding downcast late on Sunday, Juppe told his supporters that he would “carry on fighting” and billed himself as the best option to defeat far-right party leader Marine Le Pen, whom polls predict will make it to the second round of the presidential election.
Any French voter can take part in the run-off election next Sunday. Furthermore the views of pollsters and commentators have been much confounded in popular votes worldwide this year, including Brexit in the UK and the US presidential election, not least Sunday’s vote in which Fillon did far better than expected.
What is at stake is an almost certain place in the second round of next May’s presidential election. It is likely that the conservative challenger will face National Front party leader Marine Le Pen. Market analysts have said that the outcome of Sunday’s vote opens up new uncertainty about the result of next year’s presidential election and may increase what is still a remote risk that far-right leader Marine Le Pen can win it. A BVA poll in September indicated that Fillon would beat Le Pen by a margin of 61 percent of votes to 39 percent however recent opinion polls scenarios have not pitted him against her – in what is further evidence of how unexpected his top spot on Sunday was. More recent polls have consistently shown that Juppe would easily beat Le Pen. Polls have also indicated that Fillon is much less popular than Juppe amidst left-wing voters, which could make it harder for him to get their vote versus Le Pen.
Whatever the out come will be of Sunday’s election, next year’s presidential and legislative elections are already shaping up to be another battle of strengths between mainstream parties and rising popularist forces. The ruling Socialist party and its allies will hold their own primaries in January 2017. French President Francois Hollande, whose popularity ratings are abysmal, has yet to announce whether he will stand again, however polls have already indicated that it is unlikely that he would win in the primaries.
This month, France appeared to accept that it would need to keep thousands of troops in Africa’s Sahel region for an indefinite period because of the ongoing instability and preponderance of Islamist militants.
Speaking to lawmakers, French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault sought to reassure regional allies that Paris would not abandon them despite pressure on its military, which has not only seen it increase its operating in the Middle East, but also on home soli in the wake of a series of Islamist attacks in 2015 and this year. Speaking at a parliamentary debate on his country’s overseas operations, Ayrault disclosed that “France remains committed as long as the jihadist threat continues to weigh on the future of these countries,” adding, “what message would we be sending if we envisaged a reduction of our effort? We do not have the right to abandon our African brothers at the exact moment when they need us the most to consolidate the fragile balances.”
After deploying troops to Mali, France has since spread some 4,000 soldiers across the West African region in a bid to hunt down Islamists. United Nations peacekeepers have also been deployed to ensure Mali’s stability however the UN’s forces have lacked equipment and resources making a political settlement between Tuaregs and the Malian government increasingly fragile and paving the way for Islamists and traffickers to exploit a void in the northern region of the country. According to Ayrault, “we know it will be long and difficult (because) the national reconciliation process is taking time to come into effect, securing the north is slow and terrorist groups continue to destabilize the region by carrying out attacks on Mali’s borders at the entrances to other countries like Niger and Ivory Coast.”
At the end of this month, France will seek to discuss Mali when it hosts a ministerial meeting on UN peacekeeping operations in French-speaking countries to see how to increase and improve their efficiency.
The region, which spans from Mauritania in the west to Sudan in the east, is host to a number of jihadist groups and is seen as being vulnerable to further attacks after strikes on soft targets in Burkina Faso and Ivory Coast earlier this year. The region’s security concerns have further been highlighted by a recent spike in violence in northern Mali, where France intervened three years ago in a bid to drive out al-Qaeda-linked militants who took control of a rebellion in 2012 by ethnic Tuaregs and attempted to take control of the central government in Bamako. More recently, insecurity in northern Mali seems too have spread in the region, particularly into neighbouring Niger where a string of incidents this month, including the kidnapping of a US NGO worker, has prompted officials across the region to enhance security measures.
On 31 October, France formally ended Operation Sangaris in the Central African Republic, almost three years after the military mission was launched in December 2013 in a bid to quell inter-ethnic unrest in the country.
The operation initially ran alongside an African Union (AU) peacekeeping mission, which was known as MISCA and which later morphed into the UN’s MINUSCA force, which aimed to help restore stability in the capital city Bangui. The mission has however, for the most part, failed to end violence elsewhere in the country, as clashes have continued to erupt in recent weeks and tensions remain high.
At its height, France had more than 2,500 troops from various French units that took part in the mission. In June 2016, France indicated that it had reduced its force in the CAR to 350 soldiers, who would serve as tactical reserve force for the UN peacekeepers, effectively announcing the end of its military mission there. The number of soldiers is due to fall below 300 by early next year with the remaining troops deployed as part of a European military training mission, to support UN drone operations or as a rapid reaction unit supporting the national army.
France’s withdrawal has effectively left security largely in the hands of MINUSCA, the 13,000-strong UN peacekeeping mission, however in recent weeks, criticism of the force has increased, with local people accusing the peacekeepers of not doing enough in order to protect them. The National Assembly president, Abdoul Karim Meckassoua, has expressed concern that the French troops’ departure would exacerbate a deteriorating security climate.
About 3,500 French troops are currently stationed in Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger as part of Operation Barkhane in order to fight militancy in West Africa and the Sahel region.
Overview of Operation Sangaris
- 5 December 2013 – Widespread clashes erupted in Bangui, leaving hundreds dead in the streets.
- Christian milita groups, known as anti-Balaka (anti-machete) attacked a number of areas in the capital city, targeting Muslims and triggering revenge attacks by the mainly-Muslim Seleka rebel alliance. Seleka fighters has already targeted the majority Christian population, a key reason as to why the anti-Balaka group emerged. Attacks by both sides, mostly targeting civilians, plunged the CAR into a humanitarian, political and security crisis.
- Several hours after the violence broke out, a French operation force began deploying across the country as part of a UN-mandated effort to quell the deadly wave of sectarian violence. The operation was named “Sangaris” after a small red butterfly that is common the region.
- At the time, French President Francois Hollande disclosed that the troops would remain in the country “as long as necessary,” noting however that the operation was “not designed to last.” Paris, which had already deployed troops to Mali in January of that year in order to battle jihadist groups, watched the situation in the CAR continue to deteriorate following the overthrow in March of Francois Bozize by Seleka rebels who were led by Michel Djotodia.
- An initial force of about 1,200 French marines, paratroopers and engineering units was official deployed to back up the AU’s MISCA force, however they quickly found themselves on the Front line. Their mandate was to “disarm all milita and other armed group s that have terrorized the population” and the fist objective was to secure the capital city and tis 4.5 million inhabitants.
- Between February to September 2014 – Combat troops also secured a road link from Bangui to neighbouring Cameroon.
- September 2014 – Un soldiers from MINUSCA took over the MISCA troops.
- 14 February 2016 – Faustin-Archange Touadera is elected president, effectively capping a chaotic political transition. Three months later, President Hollande visited Bangui, declaring that stability “has been restored.” Elsewhere in the country however armed groups continued to plague the population. Former Seleka units remain active and a total disarmament of militia groups appears to be unlikely.
- Since July 2014, the force has been under growing pressure following the emergence of allegations of child rape by French soldiers deployed in the CAR. French prosecutors opened an investigation, however the allegations did not become public until April 2015. Since then, other reports have emerged about troops’ alleged involvement in sexual attacks and giving children food and sometimes small amounts of money for sexual services. Currently, the Sangaris force is subject to three investigations into separate allegations of sexual abuse of children in the CAR. In June 2016, Paris prosecutors also opened a preliminary investigation into allegations that French troops beat up, or stood by while others beat up two people in the CAR.
- France has intervened military in the CAR a number of times. The CAR, which is a former French colony, won independence in 1960.
On 26 September, French President Francois Hollande stated that France will completely shut down “the Jungle” migrant camp in Calais and called on London to help deal with the plight of thousands of people whose dream is ultimately to get to Britain.
Speaking during a visit to the northern port city, where as many as 10,000 migrants from war-torn countries like Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria live in squalor, President Hollande stated that “the situation is unacceptable and everyone here knows it,” adding, “we must dismantle the camp completely and definitively.” While France is planning to relocate the migrants in small groups across the country, right-wing opponents of the Socialist leader are raising the heat ahead of next year’s election, accusing the French leader of mismanaging a problem that is ultimately a British one.
While the migrants in Calais want to enter Britain, the UK government is arguing that migrants seeking asylum need to do so under European Union (EU) law in the country where they enter. Immigration was one of the main drivers of Britain’s vote in June to leave the EU, and it is likely that the issue will be a major factor in France’s presidential election next year. If France stopped trying to prevent migrants from entering Britain, Britain would ultimately find itself obliged to deal with the matter when asylum-seekers land on its shores a short distance by ferry or subsea train from France’s Calais coast. President Hollande reminded Britain of this, stating that he expects London to fully honour agreements on managing the flow of migrants. London and Paris have struck agreements on issues such as the recently begun construction of a giant wall on the approach road to Calais port in an attempt to try to stop migrants who attempt daily to board cargo trucks that are bound for Britain.
In response to Monday’s comments by the French leader, a British government spokesman stated that “what happens in the Jungle is ultimately a matter for the French authorities, what they choose to do with it.” The spokesman further disclosed that “our position is very clear: we remain committed to protecting the shared border that we have in Calais,” adding, ‘the work that we do with France to maintain the security of that border goes on and will go on, irrespective of what happens to the Jungle camp.”