Apart from the 96 arrests and 255 burned cars, Bastille Day passed off without a hitch in France. A bullish Interior Minister, Gerald Darmanin, expressed his satisfaction in a tweet, thanking the 45,000 policemen and women who had been deployed across the country. It says much for the state of France that avoiding a riot on their national day is a cause for celebration.
Still, one can understand why the government is grateful for small mercies after the trauma of the recent uprising. The financial cost of the damage caused by the rioters is predicted to top €1 billion (£858 million), a staggering sum for a country that is already dangerously indebted. This figure is double that of the unrest of 2005, when for three weeks youths went on the rampage.
The gravest cost to France of those riots 18 years ago, however, wasn’t financial but ideological, although it took several years before this became apparent. The date it did was March 2012 when 23-year-old Mohammed Merah murdered seven people over the course of eight days, including soldiers and Jewish children. Merah was the first of what Gilles Kepel – France’s leading expert on Islamic extremism – termed the ‘third generation’ of jihadists.
The first generation fought in Afghanistan in the 1980s; the second came of age at the turn of the millennium, inspired by Al-Qaida, and the third generation appeared in 2012. The difference, Kepel explained in 2015, shortly after two more of this generation – the Kouachi brothers – had murdered the staff of Charlie Hebdo, was that they were not as highly trained and disciplined. ‘They are not professional terrorists,’ he said, which made them more susceptible to making mistakes. On the other hand, the fact they don’t belong to any organisation ‘allows them to slip under the radar of the police’.