On terrorism: “We are not at war,” by Michel Wieviorka

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A recent book by Sudhir Hazareesingh is entitled “A country that loves ideas: History of a French passion” (Flammarion ed.). But this passion only applies unevenly. And in times of crisis more than ever, it is prompt to rely on categories that deserve more caution than suggested by the comments accompanying the news.

Thus the recent Paris bombings sparked widespread use of the vocabulary of war, without a substantial reflection on the term and its implications being proposed by the media or by politicians. We are at war, we are told. And if we are at war, we must unite and give absolute primacy to national interest.

War, in the Westphalian world of ours since the mid-seventeenth century, is the business of states. War opposes two of them, or more, and is governed by rules and conventions that set the limits of what the belligerents may or may not implement. But what about Daesh?

The Islamic state, as it calls itself, if it is not reducible to the image of a terrorist group, is nevertheless at most a proto-state, which lacks many attributes that would make a complete state. It controls a territory with shifting contours, it is not recognized by any state, has no diplomacy. This point is not just semantics, it is also legal. If Daech is not really a state, then the laws of war or international conventions cannot be applied, either on it or by it.

A “war” against it is anything but conventional, it does not correspond to what we call ordinary this way. Some then speak of “asymmetric war” or even instead of “asymmetric conflict”. Not only is Daech not really a state, but the enemy here has a strong component of French citizens recruited among others to sow terror in France itself: if it is about fighting, neutralizing, policing its citizens in the national territory, does this fall under international law or French law? A fight, with them, calls upon an internal, policing, repressive logic, more than an external, military, war logic -in fact, it pertains to both, and then, how to name such a fight ?

These remarks should be read as an invitation not to minimize or trivialize the situation, but to describe it accurately, to think in appropriate categories, although the precise vocabulary is lacking here. For we must recognize the seriousness of the recent attacks, as well as the remaining threats, and make an observation: France is done with the blessed period, inaugurated half a century ago at the end of the war in Algeria, during which it endured only limited violence. We have entered a new historical era, and if the word “war” is inadequate, we must admit that we are not at peace. This observation, with nuances, could be applied to Europe, whose construction was that of a space whose main ideal precisely revolved around the idea of peace -hence the Nobel Peace Prize which was awarded to it in 2012.

This observation should be accompanied by another: in times of extreme violence and perils, the country should be able to trust those who hold power. For the sake of « raison d’Etat », it should accept that the executive exercize its rule over the judiciary and the legislature -which is never very favorable to democracy, as we see in the US with the Patriot Act . It should suspend its internal conflicts, starting with those that animate political life, on behalf of the superior interests of the Nation. But we are far from such a suspension. Regional elections looming, as well as those coming in 2017, presidential and legislative, suggest that our partisan debates, far from being reduced, will flare.

The sacred union requested from the congress by President Poincaré successfully in August 1914 may perhaps be in some minds, beginning with that of the head of state. But today it is not a credible or realistic perspective.

France is in a particularly dramatic moment in its history, and the outlook is particularly worrisome. This is not a reason to think with inappropriate categories, and to use improper vocabulary.

Michel Wieviorka is coordinating lead author in Chapter 10 on violence, wars, peace, security.

(Translated from La Tribune, 11/16/15)