Floral tributes outside the Bataclan theatre: ‘On 13 November 2015, Islamist terrorism struck France, in Saint-Denis and in Paris, in a way we had never been struck before.’ Photograph: Adam Davy/PA
On 13 November 2015, Islamist terrorism struck France, in Saint-Denis and in Paris, in a way we had never been struck before. Following the bloody, targeted attacks of January 2015, against Charlie Hebdo, police in Paris and Montrouge, and against a kosher shop at the Porte de Vincennes, this time the terrorists sought to kill indiscriminately, and as many people as possible. Their goal was to strike fear into society as a whole, by taking aim at our young people and our lifestyle. In that moment we in France and in other European countries realised that a new totalitarianism, jihadism, could strike anywhere at any time.
And it did strike again, horrifically, in Brussels, in March of this year, then in Nice, on 14 July on our national day. Not a day goes by that I do not think about the 130 people killed on 13 November, about the hundreds of others injured, and about all of the other victims of terrorism and their families. Tomorrow, a day of commemoration, we shall turn first to them, to embrace them with our compassion and our fraternity. Tomorrow, France, united in remembrance, will pause to reflect.
Unity is what we need more than ever, because we have entered a new era, leaving carefree times in the past. As minister of the interior I warned of the dangers of jihadism back in 2012, acutely aware that it would become the major challenge of our age.
The threat weighs heavy and permanent. It is both internal and external, ignoring borders. Individuals – some of them still minors – who have been radicalised and recruited into combat – have returned from Iraq and Syria – and are ready to act. Some 1,700 people from France alone have joined the jihadists in the Levant; 700 of them are still there. The phenomenon of massive terrorist networks concerns every country in Europe to a greater or lesser extent. We saw it again recently in Germany. The threat also comes from all those, who even without ever leaving our countries, are learning crude killing techniques from the internet.
In response, to safeguard our security, we Europeans must take care of ourselves more than ever. All the more so as the US is becoming less and less involved in world affairs. Europe can no longer shelter behind its American ally and shirk responsibility. What that means is, first of all, protecting the EU’s external borders more effectively through systematic, compulsory controls, including for European nationals. A European Border and Coast Guard agency, mobilising at least 1,500 officers, has at last been established, and will provide support whenever a state is unable to secure its own borders alone, as in the case of massive inflows of migrants, which – let us not be naive – can allow terrorists to slip through.
Flows within the EU must also be monitored strictly. This means the movement of people – through passenger name records (PNR) for example, which track an individual’s movements, including on flights within Europe. It also means capital flows, because to combat terrorism, we must also combat the illicit financial flows that fund it. And it means the flow of weapons, which is why the firearms directive is so crucial.
Progress has been made in all of these areas, often on France’s initiative. We must go further, by implementing a European Electronic System for Travel Authorisation (ESTA), as the US has done, so that security checks can be performed prior to travel.
Taking care of ourselves also means building a European army, with troops who can be mobilised immediately, with full strategic autonomy. That is the idea behind a European defence and security fund, which the European Commission will propose soon. Each country should increase its defence spending to at least 2% of GDP. That is not a ritual amount; it is a necessity if we are to respond to all the types of threats and to carry weight on the world stage. When it comes to defence, there can be no more free riders; we are all in the same boat. France is currently shouldering a large share of the effort to strike Islamic State in its bastions in Iraq and Syria, and to combat jihadist groups in Africa. But France can’t do it alone.
There is the EU, and then there is what each country should do at the national level: allocate the necessary financial resources and staff, and adapt legislation. We have done this in France in addition to developing a new security culture, which fully integrates the threat of terror into our daily lives. Every citizen should contribute to security, by learning first aid, by knowing how to react in the event of a terrorist attack, or by devoting some of their spare time to the security and defence forces. We are developing these policies in France, and I am pleased to say my compatriots have responded with enthusiasm.
Every country must also cooperate fully in the fight against terrorism. Not only through words but actions, going beyond what is already in place. This means improving the data input into the Schengen information system, for example, so that movements of radicalised individuals can be detected and anticipated. All European police forces must have access to this information.
Finally, every country must make the environment in which terrorism thrives inhospitable, by coming down hard on the Salafist poison that fuels radicalisation. Let’s start with the facts: while there is often a link between crime and terrorism, the thousands of radicalised individuals have a wide range of profiles. Contrary to the cliche, not all radicalised individuals are Muslim youths from migrant backgrounds living in disadvantaged neighbourhoods. We know that there is a high percentage of recent converts, for example. To fight radicalisation, we need to study its many facets and dissect its many mechanisms, by benefiting from the knowledge of experts and academics.
The fight against radicalisation is being waged on the internet, against hate preachers, self-proclaimed imams who corrupt minds in so-called places of worship or in prisons. That is the government’s role. But it is not enough to ban discourse; we must also counterbalance these morbid theories. Muslim organisations have an enormously important role to play in this. I do not want a Europe where Muslims are stigmatised and branded as terrorists. I want a Europe where a modern Islam, compatible with our democratic values, can shine its light on the world. What a humiliating defeat for political Islamism, which seeks to divide us, to set us against each another, by exploiting existing gaps.
Radicalism holds increasing appeal, particularly for our young people: this is the key challenge for Europe. In response, we must develop a powerful counter-narrative, offer new opportunities for engagement, and constantly emphasise the things that unite us. Most importantly, we must continue to fight relentlessly against racism, antisemitism, anti-Muslim and anti-Christian acts, against all forms of hate and discrimination.
A year on from 13 November, I am aware of the doubts and questions our societies are struggling with. People are worried and we owe them the truth. Yes, terrorism will strike us again. But, yes, we have within ourselves the resources to resist and the strength to win. We Europeans will defeat Islamist terrorism.