Terrorism in France

Terrorist violence has a long history in France.

Chris Millington | Published in 08 Jan 2015

Parisian members of the Cagoule at a party celebrating the terrorist organisation's activities, December 3rd, 1937On 7 January 2015, armed gunmen killed twelve people in an attack on the offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in the centre of Paris. French President Francois Hollande immediately condemned the violence as ‘cowardly murder’ and an act of terrorism.    

Terrorist violence has a long history in France. The term ‘terrorism’ itself was coined in the wake of the 1789 revolution as a term to describe the government’s bloody campaign against counter-revolutionaries. Only during the late 19th century did the label acquire its modern, more negative connotation. At this time anarchists around the world, inspired by their counterparts in Russia, targeted heads of state, whether presidents or monarchs, during the so-called ‘Decade of Regicide’ between 1892 and 1901. US President William McKinley, assassinated in September 1901, was the most high-profile victim of this spasm of violence.  Civilians were not spared the anarchists’ attacks.  Thus in February 1894, Frenchman Emile Henry tossed a bomb into a plush Parisian restaurant and fled.

As anarchism receded after the First World War a new ideology, fascism, inspired home-grown terrorists in France. In November 1937, the Comité Secret d’Action Révolutionnaire, otherwise known as the Cagoule, was exposed by the French police authorities. The Cagoule had emerged from the extreme right-wing street politics of the decade that had afflicted France as elsewhere in Europe. The Cagoule did not commit indiscriminate attacks against civilians; it assassinated several prominent Italian antifascists who were resident in France in return for arms from Mussolini. Yet its master plan was to overthrow the democratic Third Republic and install a fascist regime in its place.  To achieve this goal, Cagoule activists committed several anonymous bombings, notably in Paris, hoping to spread the fear that the communist party had in fact perpetrated the attacks and that social revolution was imminent. Yet the group failed to convince its friends in the army to take pre-emptive action against the left and the authorities uncovered the plot.        

Political violence continued throughout the so-called ‘Dark Years’ of the Occupation. After the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, the French communist party, finally free from the neutrality imposed upon it by Moscow, began a campaign of bombings and assassinations against the German military and collaborationist groups. The attacks drew harsh reprisals from the Occupation authorities: hostages were taken from the locality in which the attacks occurred and many subsequently shot. To combat the resistance, the Vichy regime founded the Milice in January 1943, a paramilitary force intended to hunt down and kill resisters.  

Since the Liberation in 1944 terrorist violence has continued to plague France. Civil conflict in Algeria during the 1950s spawned the Algerian Front de la libération nationale (FLN). This nationalist movement reacted to repression in the territory with the shooting of French police and government officials and the bombing of civilians.  Pro-imperial European settlers founded the Organisation de l’armée secrète and committed their own atrocities in Algeria before moving their campaign to mainland France following French withdrawal from the colony.   

During the 1970s and 1980s, left-wing radicalism saw groups such as Action Directe commit violent attacks.  Action Directe emerged from the European milieu of anticapitalist terrorism that gave rise to groups in such as the Rote Armee Fraktion in Germany and the Brigate Rosse in Italy.  

The spectre of politico-religious terrorism emerge during the 1990s. As Algeria descended into civil war in the early 1990s, the most radical Islamist group, the Groupe Islamique Armée (GIA) committed attacks on French territory both to provide new momentum for its political campaign and to punish France for its imperial past in the territory. Its actions in the mid-1990s included the hijacking of a plane bound for France on Christmas Day 1994 and the bombing of metro stations in Paris, notably the Saint-Michel station where eight people were killed. France’s confrontation with Islamic-inspired terrorism has continued since the attacks on New York in September 2001 and the country has not escaped the actions of Islamic State: hiker Hervé Gourdel was abducted and murdered in Algeria in September 2014 by a group sympathetic to IS. 

France’s experience with terrorism is indicative of the problems encountered by historians. Given the variety of ideologies, beliefs, and tactics employed by violent groups since the 1890s, it is more accurate to speak of terrorisms than terrorism. For, if scholars usually agree on the fact that terrorism seeks publicity for its crimes, they can agree on little else in defining the phenomenon.  A major obstacle to a generic definition of terrorism is that the term is inherently subjective. Few would claim that French resisters during the Second World War were themselves terrorists, instead accusing the collaborationist authorities of this crime. But we cannot ignore that the assassinations and bombings committed by resisters often assumed the form of what we wold now recognise to be terrorist attacks. French resisters are better understood as freedom fighters, a label popularised by anti-colonial nationalist movements after 1945.  Consequently, for FLN activists in Algeria during the 1950s, it was the French committed acts of terror against indigenous peoples who simply wanted to liberate their country from foreign rule. ‘Terrorism’ and ‘terrorist’ are thus political tools by which states and non-state groups could discredit their opponent. Nevertheless, while terrorism, as is evident from the French experience, is constantly evolving, looking to its past may offer lessons in how terrorist groups emerge, operate, evolve, and eventually recede.   

Chris Millington is Lecturer in History at Swansea University and co-author of the forthcoming Fascism and France: February 1934 and the Dynamics of Political Crisis (Routledge).