Bir-Hakeim is the Parisian metro station where my son, his bride and I jostled with thousands of local French people and foreigners on Thursday night as the skies around and above the nearby Eiffel Tower blazed with stars and arrows and fountains of brilliant light to celebrate the values of liberty, equality and fraternity that are the French Revolution’s lasting legacy to mankind. The original Bir-Hakeim was a desolate desert fort in Libya where 3,500 men — and a solitary woman — of the Free French forces resisted Rommel’s Afrika Korps in one of the greatest sieges of World War II. The Maquis Bir-Hakeim were a group of French Resistance fighters who took their name from that epic battle to sanctify their heroism against the Nazi invaders.
As the applause and gasps of admiration rent the air in the Parisian Bir-Hakeim, we didn’t know of the bloodbath 578 miles away. It was into just such a festive crowd in Nice, a city that symbolises France as the world’s most popular tourist destination and a beacon of joie de vivre, that a 20-tonne delivery truck mowed down 84 innocent men, women and children. The savage massacre set a new stage in the jihadist war and presented Britain’s second woman Prime Minister, Theresa May, with an ominous threat even before she had formed a new government.
She already had a daunting problem in Boris Johnson whose surprise appointment as foreign secretary was described by Labour MP Kevin Brennan as “the most remarkable since Emperor Caligula appointed his horse as a senator”. The referendum showed that Scotland and Northern Ireland want closer ties with the 500 million-strong European Union. So does London because of its business links with Frankfurt and Paris. Now Ms May must also grapple with the thorny problem of immigration, which lies at the heart of Britain’s quarrel with the European Union. She knows that her security and intelligence services can try to monitor and control guns, explosives and other recognisable weapons of destruction. But how can anyone stop a truck driving into a crowd? She fears a terror attack is “highly likely” in Britain with its nearly three million Muslims. In England alone, Muslims are five per cent of the population.
Newt Gingrich, the former US House of Representatives Speaker, lost no time in responding to the challenge with customary bluntness. “We should frankly test every person here who is of a Muslim background, and if they believe in the Sharia, they should be deported” he blurted out. But responsible leaders like French President Francois Hollande, who is responsible for 4.7 million Muslims, would not dream of undertaking mass surveillance. It would be even more repugnant to the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, who has promised to take in a million Syrian refugees, in addition to nearly three million people of Turkish descent.
Both are sharply aware — as is Ms May — that a white backlash against Muslims would play into the hands of the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria by persuading many more young Muslims to rally to the terrorist cause. A recent 615-page survey of British Muslims found that more than 100,000 of them already sympathise with suicide bombers and people who commit other terrorist acts. Moreover, only one in three British Muslims (34 per cent) say they would contact the police if they believed that somebody close to them had become involved with jihadists.
Despite her elevation to the prime ministership as the choice of the party but not the country, Theresa May is not a wildly popular leader. She is cool, composed and competent, but doesn’t strike a human chord, as David Cameron did. Her long innings as home secretary did not endear her to the public, and certainly not to many Muslims. The first time I heard her name was from an immigration officer at London’s Heathrow airport. That was several years ago. She cropped up because for some mysterious reason the fingerprinting device just could not record my wife’s fingerprints.
My wife said it was because kitchen work had smoothed the tips of her fingers. The immigration man said his machine was faulty. He had no objection to letting us through, he added, but was afraid of what his boss — the home secretary, Ms May — might say. I gathered that the immigration staff found her unsympathetic and nitpicking. British Muslims dislike her even more. They blame her for a draconian Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill that they claim is counter-productive. Balancing firmness with understanding may not be her forte. The Bastille Day attack in Nice was seen as an attack on the very idea of the French republic, just as the Charlie Hebdo shooting was seen as an attack on French ideals of free speech and secularism.
The Paris attacks of November 13, which had left 130 people dead, were directed at cafes, concerts and football matches — which define the cultural life of France. All three episodes had their inspiration in the deadly ideology of the jihadists. But among the attackers were French citizens, mostly immigrants or the children of immigrants, people whose way of life does not always figure in the French republic’s image of itself. Britain faces exactly the same dilemma. That is something for Ms May to remember as she intones “Brexit means Brexit”. Obviously, the slogan is a political gimmick designed to assure everyone that though she herself was a Remainer, albeit a reluctant one, she will promote the national will. But it is clear that after Nice, the best interests of her country will be served only by working closely with Europe to contain and eventually vanquish (one hopes) the bigger menace of jihadi terror. This is one war in which proudly isolationist Britain just can’t go it alone.