France's Terrorism Alerts Prompt Political Suspicions

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Charles Platiau / Reuters

French police block the entrance of the Gare Saint-Lazare railway station in Paris on Sept. 27, 2010; French authorities evacuated it after receiving a bomb alert

Are the French government's warnings of a heightened terrorism risk a response to a genuine escalation in the threat level, or are they simply a device to divert attention from a rolling wave of scandals and protests? The truth may lie somewhere in the middle, say French counterterrorism authorities.

Habitually tight-lipped political leaders have begun expressing apprehension over more frequent and belligerent threats of violence against France by North African jihadists, and the result, not surprisingly, has been a spike in false bomb scares across Paris. The Eiffel Tower was evacuated for the second time in as many weeks on Tuesday, Sept. 28, following a bomb warning. French police have responded to nearly a score of false alarms during September, most occurring after officials began making public warnings about a higher risk of terrorist attacks. On Sept. 11, France's top domestic-intelligence official, Bernard Squarcini, told the weekly paper Journal du Dimanche that "the threat has never been as great" and that "all the lights are flashing red." Squarcini even likened the current situation to "the menace in 1995" —the year France became the first European nation to suffer deadly terrorist strikes by Islamist extremists. Nine days later, Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux told reporters that "a series of indicators over the last few days, and even hours, show the threat of terrorism to be at a high level."

On Tuesday, a day after a bomb threat closed down traffic at Paris' Gare Saint-Lazare train station, Prime Minister François Fillon met with leaders of parliamentary parties to explain the exceptional string of public terrorism warnings by officials. Fillon had good reason for sharing. Opposition figures and pundits alike have loudly speculated that the troubling pronouncements are actually a ruse to turn attention away from scandals that have implicated government members and from growing protest against pension reform. French media have even suggested that President Nicolas Sarkozy, whose approval ratings are in the doldrums, has borrowed the tactic of the well-timed terrorism scare from the playbook of former U.S. President George W. Bush.

"The French people aren't duped," says Socialist Party official and former presidential candidate Ségolène Royal in a remark typical of the skeptics. "The fight against terrorism is a serious and discreet effort, incompatible with sudden alert announcements — made, by chance, as protests surge. There's an element of stagecraft in this that's out of line and even dangerous."

That's as may be, French security officials tell TIME, but it doesn't mean there's no increased threat; they say it's mostly emanating from al-Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). The originally Algerian criminal and terrorist organization is aligned with Osama bin Laden and operates primarily in the giant Sahel desert swath sweeping North Africa. On Sept. 15, AQIM kidnapped five French nationals in Niger. Although AQIM has repeatedly abducted European and other hostages in recent years, the latest snatch was a direct reprisal to French participation in a July 22 military raid in northern Mali that left six AQIM militants dead. That assaulthad sought to free captured French aid worker Michel Germaneau, whom AQIM executed two days later in response. Officials in Paris then declared war on AQIM, prompting the movement's leader, Abdelmalek Droukdel, to issue a spate of increasingly belligerent threats.

"When you see the level of organization involved in AQIM's Sept. 15 kidnapping despite high alert levels, you're not inclined to take Droukdel's threats to bring his war to French soil too lightly," says a French counterterrorism official. "The ferocity of statements and this recent abduction explain in part why French officials are being very careful. The threat is higher, but that's a relative measure."

Indeed, this official notes that similar periods of heightened concern have come and gone before without such high-profile warnings from French authorities. "The social and political context is different now, and that may be one reason they're communicating about things they kept mum on before," he offers. The warnings have prompted the false alarms. "That's not a problem in and of itself," he adds, "but it could become one if, over time, people hear 'Wolf' cried too often."

But at least half of the alerts had in common a detail that ought to have indicated to authorities that they were hoaxes: threats were phoned in, claiming that bombs had been planted in the Eiffel Tower, Saint-Michel Métro station, Gare Saint-Lazare and elsewhere. Islamist extremists are not known for calling in alerts to give police time to evacuate would-be victims.