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'We are at war' - jihadism and the rule of law in France

Jihadis are pushing France to its limits. Politicians are calling for a further tightening of terrorism laws and reasonable answers to the challenge are slow in coming.

"We are at war." Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy did not mince words in describing the challenge that jihadism poses to France in a recent interview with the French newspaper "Le Figaro."

"We are in a foreign war against "Islamic State" (IS) and al Qaeda and a domestic war against those young countrymen who have dedicated themselves to radical Islam," Sarkozy said.

In light of this war, he has set out four steps France needed to take: First, Muslim prisoners should be held in solitary confinement to hinder the radicalization of other prisoners; second, prisoners' cells must be acoustically monitored, and prison guards be put under the control of the Interior Ministry rather than the Justice Department; third, foreigners and French citizens with dual citizenship who set upon jihadi acts must be expelled from the country, and for security reasons prison terms for jihadis must be extended; and fourth, de-radicalization centers must be established.

'There is no miracle cure'

Sarkozy's proposals may be partially inspired by France's slowly approaching presidential elections, but they also highlight the difficult situation that President Francois Hollande's administration finds itself in. It has expanded the country's legal framework for the fight against terrorism and declared a state of emergency after last November's attacks in Paris. Clearly, it seems, it has done both with limited success and is wondering what to do now.

Paris Trauerfeier für ermordete Poliisten

French police were shocked at the deaths of their colleagues

The constitutional democracy is facing incredible challenges. In a recent editorial, the French daily newspaper "Le Monde" wrote that there was little more that the government could do. "We have to realize, as difficult as that may be, that there is no miracle cure," the paper opined. This was made painfully clear by the attacks at the Bataclan concert hall and even more so in this week's killing of a police couple outside Paris. The only option, the paper continued, is consistent, methodical and patient work - and even the success of this approach will be dependent on fortunate circumstances.

However the proposals put forth by Sarkozy, "Le Monde" said, are unacceptable. The paper wrote that it is hardly possible to further expand the emergency laws without calling France's constitutional democracy into question.

"How else could one justify the intention of preventatively incarcerating thousands of people because there are police records linking them to radical religious movements?" the paper asked.

Robespierre? Non, merci!

The question of how to appropriately deal with the terror threat was also the subject of debate in the National Assembly. At times the discussion fell along party lines determined by the upcoming election, but at others it transcended those lines.

Patrick Devedjian, a member of Sarkozy's Republican party, said the country must not follow the example of Robespierre, adding that France must never again posit itself as the guardian of the peoples' conscience. Never again, Devedjian said, should the country make people choose between changing their convictions or facing the harshest punishments of the state. This was the political program that Maximilien Robespierre pursued in the confusing aftermath of the French Revolution, a program that cost thousands of citizens their lives. Devedjian rejected his party boss' proposals, saying citizens must be sentenced by regular courts. Only then could the state deprive them of their freedom.

Yet, the question of how to confront the seemingly ubiquitous threat of jihadism remains. That the question must be posed at all gives evidence of the - relative - success of jihadism.

Frankreich Paris Notre Dame Soldaten

France has stepped up security measures around Paris and other cities

The list of potential targets is growing, security expert Eric Delbecque wrote in "Le Monde." Terrorists, he said, do not adhere to hierarchically organized orders but are intentionally acting in a decentralized manner. The reason is obvious: "It is about shattering our faith in finding a solution, to rob us of our cool headedness. Fear leads to all possible forms of extremism."

The goal of the state must be to resist extreme reactions. Not only because a country of laws owes that much to itself and its citizens, but also because such a deviation from accepted norms would only serve to drive more Muslims into the hands of IS.

A fight against jihad, not Islam

Frankreich Larossi Abballa / mutmaßlicher Attentäter auf Polizist bei Paris

Small-time thug and jihadist Larossi Abballa, who killed two French police officers.

It is no coincidence that the fight against IS is a fight against basic, even archaic human emotions. If those under attack follow their impulses, Dutch migration researcher Paul Scheffer warned, violence will only spiral.

"It is important that Muslims can trust in the liberal state of law and feel protected by it in order to make sure that the fight against Islamic terror does not lead to a confrontation with Islam on the whole," he said.

Terror experts and politicians in France do not rule out the possibility of further attacks. These cannot be absolutely avoided within the means available to a constitutional democracy. But such attacks cannot be absolutely avoided by any other means either.

Only the steadfastness of a state under the rule of law, one that holds fast to its principles, Scheffer wrote, can assure itself of victory in the long run.

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