France maps out its war against Islamic State

France is “at war” with Islamic State according to President Hollande – what will this war look like?

France’s President Francois Hollande used a powerful and resonant piece of rhetoric in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in Paris. “France is at war”, he declared, adding that it had been the victim of aggression committed by a “jihadist army”. In appealing for European solidarity, France invoked not the article in the EU’s Lisbon treaty dealing with terrorist incidents, but the article relating to acts of aggression. The echoes of President Bush’s response to the September 11 attacks in the United States are self-evident, raising questions about how France’s war against the Islamic State will be fought. Is Hollande leading France down the path that the United States has carved out with its own counterterrorist war of the last 14 years?

Although the French response to the attacks is still evolving, the broad outlines of this war against IS, as currently envisaged, are already clear. The account that follows is based on a series of interviews with French government officials in the week after the attack, as well as research into France’s military action against terrorists overseas in recent years. In one respect, indeed, the Paris attacks have not fundamentally changed the French position: France was already engaged in an armed conflict with IS before the terrorists struck at the Bataclan and elsewhere in Paris last week. This has been the case since French armed forces began airstrikes against IS in Iraq last year; two months ago, they extended their military operations to target IS facilities in Syria.

The goals of military action

French officials are under no illusion that airstrikes alone can defeat IS or even dislodge it from the cities it controls. And they recognise that ground operations by Western troops are not a foreseeable option. However they insist the strikes are not merely symbolic: their aim is to weaken IS as a war machine. Military action is only one component of the French response to the threat of IS, which also includes diplomatic initiatives to end the war in Syria, counterterrorism work within France and Europe to disrupt incipient plots, and moves to push back against the appeal of violent extremism. The place of military force in this mix is to try to reduce the capacity of IS to expand its territory and use that territory to mount attacks. For that reason, French strikes focused initially on IS training camps and on the infrastructure through which it extracts and sells oil to fund its operations.

In this respect, French operations in Syria and Iraq can be seen as part of a continuum that also includes its military campaign in the Sahel, known as Operation Barkhane. In both cases, the goal is to deny or limit any capacity of Islamist extremists to control territory and use it as a base to mount terrorist or conventional attacks. Officials point to the Sahel campaign as a success: though jihadist groups remain active across this vast desert region, French military strategists say their action has strongly diminished the jihadists’ ability to conduct operations, and prevented them from gaining control of a space that could become a pole of attraction, drawing in recruits from overseas and allowing them to be trained for future attacks.

No global war against IS

Although France sees the fight against jihadist groups across the Middle East and northern Africa as part of a single overarching struggle, it nevertheless distinguishes the military campaigns it is involved as separate armed conflicts in legal terms. Significantly, French officials do not recognise any global war on Islamist terrorism or even the Islamic State, as the United States did with al-Qaeda. The territorial limitation on each individual campaign remains decisive in determining the legal powers to target or capture and hold enemy fighters. In the Sahel, France regards itself as engaged in an armed conflict at the invitation of the Malian government, against a collection of linked jihadist groups. With the consent of neighbouring countries (Burkina Faso, Chad, Mauritania and Niger) the French armed forces are able to pursue these fighters across national borders – but France claims only to use military rules of engagement against groups in these countries who are linked to the initial conflict in Mali. French forces hold Islamist fighters they capture for a short period before handing them over to local authorities to be dealt with under their domestic law.

Similarly, in the Levant, France sees its conflict against the Islamic State as taking place within a particular territory that extends across the borders of Iraq and Syria. In this theatre of operations, France can target anyone fighting for the enemy under the laws of conflict – irrespective of whether they are French, Iraqi, Syrian or any other nationality. Recognising that not all IS followers are fighters, France distinguishes between those who take part in hostilities and those who play other roles and cannot be directly attacked; one official told me that France, at least, does not see propaganda operations as part of IS’s military action. In any case, French strikes in Syria have primarily targeted facilities rather than fighters.  

However IS fighters who are based elsewhere – in one of the network’s other “provinces” such as Sinai or Libya – are not fair game. European “foreign fighters” who train in Syria before returning to form cells in Paris, Brussels or Hamburg could not be shot down on the streets of Europe, save for exceptional cases of imminent threat where human rights law allows this . If any fighters, of whatever nationality, are captured on European soil, they will be handled through domestic law, not held under some notional version of the laws of war. There are no plans for Guantanamo à la française.

A series of further attacks on French territory could possibly lead the government to re-evaluate its view that there is no armed conflict within France’s borders, but that situation remains a long way off. More directly, the rhetoric of war connects with the unfolding debate within France about the powers that the government will acquire under an extended state of emergency. These include the right to assign individuals suspected of threatening national security to partial house arrest, and to enforce electronic tagging on those convicted of terrorist crimes after their release from prison. Further ahead, Hollande has suggested that the French constitution may be amended to increase the government’s security powers. Whatever measures are taken would need to comply with the European Convention on Human Rights; the government is waiting to see the final form of the emergency law before deciding whether it needs to announce a derogation from certain Convention articles (which would allow it to opt out of those restrictions as far as strictly required to deal with “war or other public emergency threatening the life of the nation”).

IS as a proto-state

In another way, the description of IS forces as an army corresponds to a premise that is already central to France’s armed campaign. France regards IS as a proto-state, because it not only controls territory but also possesses many of the capacities of a state – it has a police force and intelligence service, and benefits from resources that dwarf those of previous terrorist groups. This matters, from a legal point of view, because it provides the basis for French action against IS on Syrian territory. The intervention in Iraq came at the request of that country’s government – but Syria has not invited France or other Western countries to come to its assistance, nor do these countries wish to give President Assad the endorsement of asking for his consent. They therefore face a dilemma in justifying why strikes on Syrian territory do not violate its sovereignty as guaranteed by the UN Charter.

The US and UK argue that intervention in such circumstances is lawful if the armed group concerned is conducting attacks outside the borders of the state where it is located, and the territorial state is unable or unwilling to deal with the problem. France has not supported that position (which is in tension with earlier jurisprudence of the International Court of Justice). However it sees the quasi-state nature of IS as justification for acting, and perhaps stretching the law, in this case. When France wrote to the Security Council in September to justify its action (as required in cases of self-defence by the UN Charter), it referred only to the collective defence of Iraq. French officials are now considering submitting a second letter, referring to the armed attack sustained by Paris on 13 November, and adding the self-defence of France as an additional justification for action. Although other EU member states are clearly eager to offer support France at the moment, it remains uncertain how many will be willing to follow it in regarding military action against IS in Syria as either lawful or productive.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Senior Policy Fellow

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