Charlie Hebdo, Paris, Nice: Why is France such a prime target for extremists?

Click to play video: 'Security expert explains why France is a terror target'
Security expert explains why France is a terror target
WATCH: Security expert explains why France is a target – Jul 15, 2016

Thursday night’s terror attack in Nice, France was swift and horrific, but hardly unique.

France has become as synonymous with extremist terror plots as the United States has become with mass shootings in recent years, and over the last two years in particular, the French people have become sadly accustomed to armed police in their streets and horrific images on their television screens.

But why France, in particular? What makes the country such a prime target for the so-called Islamic State and its followers?

Isolation and extremism

Experts have examined that question in detail in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, the Paris shootings and other planned attacks, and the answers they have come up with are complex.

Many agree that France’s struggle to integrate new arrivals – from Muslim countries in particular – has played a big role.

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“Some people have attributed it to the fact that there is a large population of Arab youth that feel particularly isolated,” said Stephanie Carvin, an assistant professor of International Relations at Carleton University and former national security analyst for the federal government.

“They feel they’re not part of the system, that their opportunities are limited.”


While the Canadian Security Intelligence Service estimates that around 170 Canadians have travelled to Syria to support the so-called Islamic State, Carvin noted, in France “that number could be somewhere from 1,500 to 2,000 people.”

READ MORE: Witnesses describe deadly attack in Nice: ‘Bodies flying like bowling pins’

The suburbs outside of Paris, colloquially know as the banlieues, have become well-documented hotbeds of recruitment and social unrest, she added.

WATCH: Security expert claims isolation pushes French Muslims to extremism

Click to play video: 'Security expert claims isolation pushes French Muslims to extremism'
Security expert claims isolation pushes French Muslims to extremism

If they don’t travel abroad to engage with the fighting, homegrown recruits may plan lone wolf-style attacks from within the European Union.

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If an attacker isn’t already in France, the EU’s porous borders make it easier to slip weapons and people into and out of that country than, say, to cross the border and commit an atrocity in England (an island), or in Canada (separated by an entire ocean).

The attack on Thursday in Nice appears, at least at this point, to have been carried out by a single resident of the city, and not an organized terror cell. ISIL has not yet officially claimed responsibility, but the French president has declared it to be a clear act of terror.

Michael Zekulin, an assistant professor and terrorism expert at the University of Calgary, agreed that the social and economic exclusion of minority groups in modern France can pull people toward extremist ideas, but that the tension goes back centuries.

“This is, again, about France’s historical relationship with Northern Africa and the Middle East, dating back to colonial times,” he said.

“The relationship with the country as a whole, and how they are perceived by people from this part of the world, is not a good one.”

Clash of cultures

There is also potentially a more fundamental clash of cultures going on, experts have suggested, with a highly secular, socially progressive France standing at the exact opposite end of the spectrum from the hyper-conservative, religious ideology promoted by ISIL.

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ISIL itself has highlighted this dichotomy, putting out a statement following the Paris attacks that dubbed France the “capital of prostitution and obscenity” and the “carrier of the banner of the Cross in Europe.”

Zekulin said France’s status as the ‘epicentre’ of European culture may play a role in the repeated attacks against it, but it’s not the only contributing factor.

“This is affecting every western democratic state,” he pointed out.

“(The Islamic State) are anti-secular, they are anti-west, they are anti-Christian, they are anti-Jew, they are anti-homosexuality, they are anti-Shia Muslim…They hate everybody.”

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