In one of France’s most languorous pleasure gardens, palm trees drooping in front of luxurious hotels, Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, a young man of Tunisian origin — someone with no profile as a militant but a conviction for assault and a background of petty theft — drove a truck into crowds of people celebrating Bastille Day. The death toll is at least 84. President Francois Hollande said that 50 more were “between life and death.”
Did Lahouaiej Bouhlel know the irony he was putting into the world, along with his scores of murders? Bastille Day celebrates the storming of the Bastille prison in Paris on July 14, 1789. It is the romanticized symbol of liberation. Roughly six weeks after the storming, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen was proclaimed. Its fourth article states that, “Liberty consists in the freedom to do everything which injures no one else.” The following year France celebrated the nation’s unity
The chaos, screams, bodies, blood and fear in the wake of the attack in Nice underscore a worldwide eruption of populists pledging to save us.
The mass murderer in Nice widened every division in France and beyond: between native French and immigrants; between Christian, Jew and Muslim; between right and left, liberal and conservative; between those struggling to retain a liberal polity and those happy to ditch it in favour of pre-emptive action, walls and fences, an end to immigration.
The blood was still being hosed off the streets of Nice when Marine Le Pen, leader of the National Front, told the daily Le Figaro that the war against terrorism in France had so far been only “a war of words ... Nothing has been done, absolutely nothing — no reintroduction of double punishment, nor depriving people of nationality, nor the closure of Salafist mosques.”
She is not alone. A former French Europe minister, Pierre Lelouche, told the BBC that he believes France’s malaise stems from a “rather blind immigration policy, producing people who do not feel properly treated and so want revenge.” The government, he said, had not woken up to the fact that “this is a real war.” Instead, it was carrying on as normal, while “nothing is happening on the control of our borders; nothing is happening on cooperation between the security services.”
The gap among the rhetoric of the populists on the right, center and left narrows as public fear and rage boils. Rage, however self- indulgent, is the response of choice in a world where people feel unmoored. They have cause: The institutions that seemed to sustain the Western world for the past half-dozen decades now shake.
U.S. hegemony, which we Europeans have profited from even as we grumble over it, is now more strongly challenged than since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Cold War had many alarms — the suppression of the Hungarian revolution in 1956 and the Prague Spring in 1968, among them — but, at least in retrospect, it seems there was a certain caution on both sides. It doesn’t feel that way now. Generals are warning about Russia’s ability to rapidly deploy masses of troops. Richard Shirreff, a former deputy commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, has warned in a thinly fictionalized account of a war with Russia that conflict is inevitable, as ruthless Moscow strategists exploit Western politicians seeking appeasement.
What should have been another citadel of Western democracy, the European Union, has lost Britain – or Britain it. Italy is now seen as the union’s weakest link. Its financial institutions are loaded with bad debt, and EU rules prohibit Rome from giving Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena, the world’s oldest bank, the billions of euros needed to rescue it. The Five Stars Movement, Italy’s populist party that alternates between left and right, hammered the Democratic Party government in local elections last month. If the wholly inexperienced movement wins national power, there is no telling what it might do – or whether it will keep its promise to leave the euro zone.
Westerners of the postwar period assumed their children would inherit a better, richer world than theirs. Sadly, that seems to have been a forlorn wish.
The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.