Under the shadow of terror: France’s year in review
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The Euro 2016 football tournament gave France at least something to cheer about. But the country’s protracted terror alert continued to dominate headlines in a year so tense even police officers protested.
Horror on the French Riviera
A year after suffering the deadliest terrorist attacks in its history, France was again struck by jihadist militants in 2016 – repeatedly so. On July 14, as crowds gathered across the country to celebrate Bastille Day, France’s national holiday, a man ploughed a 19-tonne truck along Nice’s seafront promenade, mowing down revelers over a 1.7-kilometre stretch before police put an end to the murderous rampage. The attack, claimed by the Islamic State (IS) group, left 86 people dead – including 10 children – and hundreds more injured. Five months later, its chilling modus operandi inspired a similar massacre at a Christmas market in the German capital, Berlin.
Horror in a church
Less than two weeks after sowing terror on the French Riviera, jihadist terrorism produced another gruesome attack, laden with symbolism, when two men stormed a small parish church in Normandy, murdering 85-year-old Father Jacques Hamel at the altar as he celebrated Mass. Days later, a huge crowd brought together Catholics, Muslims and Jews at the nearby cathedral of Rouen to honour the slain priest, who was proclaimed a martyr by Pope Francis.
A permanent state of emergency
As it grappled with successive attacks, many carried out by homegrown terrorists, the French government repeatedly extended a state of emergency declared in the wake of the November 13, 2015, bloodbath in Paris. The emergency rule expanded police powers to carry out searches and put people under house arrest, and allowed authorities to ban protests and close mosques – leading to claims of rights abuse. A separate and more divisive proposal to strip dual nationals of their French citizenship if convicted of terror offences was eventually shelved, but not before it caused a fatal rift within the ruling Socialist Party.
Euro 2016: France’s nearly men
The state of emergency threatened to cast a pall over the biggest event of the year in France: the Euro 2016 football tournament, which attracted hundreds of thousands of foreign visitors. Guaranteeing security at stadiums and “fan zones” across the country presented France’s already-stretched police force with a formidable logistical challenge. As if the terrorist threat were not enough, drunken English and Russian fans fought running battles in the streets of Marseille, turning the southern port city into a war zone. But the football eventually took centre stage and a strong run by the home side helped lift French spirits – at least until the final, where Les Bleus saw their party crashed by the unfancied Portuguese.
Terror, floods and strikes plague Paris tourism
With France’s terror alert making headlines around the world, and police, gendarmes and soldiers patrolling the streets of Paris and other French cities, the country’s tourism industry endured its most miserable year in decades – despite the Euro 2016 boon. In the French capital, normally the world’s most visited city, officials reported a €750 million shortfall in revenue. It wasn’t just fear of terrorist attacks that blighted the City of Light. Massive, sometimes violent, industrial action against a controversial labour law, severe flooding, record pollution levels, and high-profile muggings all conspired to keep tourists at bay.
The burkini saga
At the height of the summer holiday season, France attracted more unwanted attention when a handful of right-wing mayors in Nice and other beach resorts proclaimed a ban on full-body swimsuits for Muslim women, commonly known as burkinis. The mayors, backed by Socialist Prime Minister Manuel Valls, said the burkinis represented an unacceptable affirmation of radical Islam in the public sphere, and a possible provocation in the wake of the July attack in Nice. A top court eventually ruled that the bans "illegally breached fundamental freedoms", though by then pictures of French police fining beachgoers and telling them to strip in public had stirred outrage and ridicule around the world.
Hollande throws in the towel
The protracted terror alert took its toll on France’s already unpopular president, François Hollande, whose approval rating sunk to an unprecedented low of 4% in October. The release of a tell-all book of interviews with journalists – which included classified information and candid remarks on the sensitive issue of Islam and Hollande’s troubled private life – proved the last straw for many of his remaining supporters. Alone and discredited, the Socialist president surprised the nation by announcing he would not run for re-election in 2017, becoming the first sitting president of the Fifth Republic not to seek a second term in office.
Sarkozy’s aborted comeback
A month before Hollande’s “renoncement”, his predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy also saw his hopes of a second presidential mandate crushed. In a year of electoral upsets that brought pollsters on both sides of the Atlantic into unprecedented disrepute, the first round of France’s conservative primary largely confirmed the trend – but with an important caveat: in France the loudmouthed agitator, who had dominated headlines by playing on voters’ fears, was soundly beaten. Sarkozy’s humiliating third place sent him back into political retirement, four years after he pledged, upon losing to Hollande, that “you won’t hear from me again”.
The rise of Fillon
The corollary of Sarkozy’s humiliating defeat was the astonishing rise of his former prime minister, François Fillon, who romped to victory in the primary organized by the conservative Les Républicains party. Polls suggest Fillon, an admirer of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, is likely to beat far-right leader Marine Le Pen to the French presidency next year. His sudden surge from outsider in the conservative primary to hot favourite for the Elysée Palace has cast a spotlight on the role played by anti-gay marriage movements in drumming up support for his socially conservative platform.
‘Maverick’ Macron throws hat in the ring
With France’s ruling Socialists all but written off, the former “maverick” economy minister Emmanuel Macron launched his long-expected presidential run, campaigning under his own banner and with the enthusiastic support of an army of young volunteers. A one-time investment banker with a rather sketchily defined liberal agenda, Macron promised nothing short of a “revolution” to “pull France into the 21st Century”. Experts warned that he would struggle without the support of a mainstream party. But with polling institutes in disarray and the Macron media bubble showing no sign of bursting, the 38-year-old’s campaign was causing anxiety among his rivals on both sides of the political divide.
After quitting Hollande’s administration in late August to focus on his campaign, Macron pledged a “radical” overhaul of France’s job market, arguing that the government’s deeply divisive labour reforms had been too shy. Unions begged to differ. Unveiled at the start of 2016, the “Loi travail” gave companies greater leeway to decide about hiring, firing, pay and working hours. It prompted a six-month standoff with unions, leading to huge protests, strikes and fuel shortages (and an egg-pelting session for Macron). Amid broad opposition from the public and from Socialists dissidents in parliament, Prime Minister Manuel Valls repeatedly used a notorious clause in the French constitution – known as the 49-3 – to force through the legislation without a vote. Ironically, he later pledged to scrap the clause as he launched his own presidential bid.
Police in revolt
Violent clashes during protests against the “Loi travail” turned a difficult year for French police into a hellish one. France’s over-stretched security forces already had their hands full with round-the-clock anti-terror patrols and rioting football fans. When a Molotov cocktail attack on a police car in a Paris suburb seriously injured two officers, their furious colleagues began to stage protests of their own. After 10 days of nightly demonstrations in cities across France, the government pledged to upgrade police equipment and review the rules of engagement that restrict officers’ ability to defend themselves.
Black Lives Matter in France too
Just over a decade after riots brought chaos to the suburbs of Paris, the issue of police discrimination resurfaced in July after a 24-year-old black man died while in police custody in a town north of the French capital. Police first said Adama Traoré had died of a heart attack, before blaming a severe infection. A second autopsy found that his death had been caused by "asphyxiation", although how the asphyxiation occurred could not be determined. Traore’s death set off days of clashes between angry minorities and police. It was picked up under the banner of Black Lives Matter movement, which acquired special resonance amid reports of a surge in cases of police abuse and racial profiling under France's state of emergency.
Clearing the Calais ‘Jungle’
Up in the northern port of Calais, police cleared the last segment of the notorious “Jungle” camp where thousands of migrants – many of them asylum seekers – had been amassing for years in dire conditions, waiting for a chance to cross the English Channel. Some of the migrants moved to new facilities elsewhere in France, while others ended up in makeshift settlements in Paris, which were routinely cleared by police, then promptly rebuilt. The capital’s mayor, Anne Hidalgo, ordered the construction of the city’s first humanitarian camp for homeless migrants, but only a fraction found room inside.
The rich – and all too often disparaged – legacy of immigration in France was on full display during literary award season as French-Moroccan writer Leïla Slimani became only the 12th woman to win the Goncourt, France’s top prize for literature, for her “Chanson douce” (Sweet Song), and French-Rwandan rapper and writer Gaël Faye picked up its younger sibling, the Goncourt des lycéens, for “Petit Pays” (Little Country). Critics hailed a breath of fresh air for French literature, noting that both authors were born outside France and are in their mid-30s.
Cannes, perfume and a long-lost Caravaggio
With terrorism, primaries and football grabbing all the headlines, culture stories seldom made front-page news. In Cannes, home to the world’s leading film festival, British director Ken Loach joined the exclusive club of two-time Palme d’Or winners with his latest social-realist drama, while France picked a rape-revenge thriller starring Isabelle Huppert to represent it at the Oscars. Just as tourism was drying up, Paris prepared to welcome two new museums – one to celebrate French perfume and the other to house the vast private collection of luxury retail magnate François Pinault. Ill-gotten collections were also in the spotlight: a French court upheld the conviction of an elderly couple who had kept 271 Picasso artworks hidden in their garage for 40 years; a long-lost Caravaggio painting was presented to the public, two years after it resurfaced in an attic in Toulouse; and French patriots hailed a symbolic victory over their old English foes by bringing a silver-gilt ring believed to have belonged to Joan of Arc back across the Channel.
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