Saturday, March 18th saw Orly Airport in Paris come to a standstill as would-be attacker Ziyed Ben Belgacem was killed following his attempt to seize a soldier’s gun. 39-year-old French national Belgacem, who was found to be carrying a can of petrol in his bag, held a gun to a soldier’s head and declared that he wanted to “die for Allah.” He was subsequently shot dead by two of the soldier’s colleagues, who fired a total of eight rounds, as he tried to wrestle her to the ground and steal her weapon. His was the only death that came as a result of his actions at Orly. As the airport was cast into a panic, over three thousand members of the public were evacuated and flights were severely disrupted.
By the time he attempted his attack at Orly, Belgacem was already on the French security forces’ radar. Earlier, on Saturday morning, he had been involved in a number of other criminal incidents, where he shot at police with a pellet gun at a routine traffic stop and subsequently fled in a car which he had stolen from a woman at gunpoint. The car was later found abandoned near Orly. Furthermore, Belgacem was already on France’s terrorist watch list after allegedly being radicalised during his time in prison. Sky News reports that the attacker had “a history of thefts and violent robberies” behind him prior to this event. According to the BBC, security forces searched his home in suburban Garges-les-Gonesse following the attack but found no evidence of ‘Islamist sympathies’, although they did find traces of cocaine. However, Belgacem’s brother, father and cousin have been taken into custody for questioning and a terror investigation has been opened.
This event comes at a particularly sensitive juncture for France. This is not least because the French public is set to for vote for their next President over the course of April and May, following a campaign in which discourse surrounding terrorism and national security has played a significant role. Several polls have placed far-right National Front leader Marine le Pen—who went to trial on (and was acquitted of) hate speech charges after she publicly compared Muslims praying in the street to the Nazi occupation of France during World War Two—as a likely frontrunner. This is perhaps unsurprising as France’s relationship with Islam is now more complex than ever. France has suffered a deluge of attacks in recent years, the most infamous among them being the Charlie Hebdo attacks of January 2015 (where brothers Said and Cherif Kouachi attacked the offices of Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris, killing 12, with further attacks in the following days), the Paris attacks of November 2015 (centred on the Bataclan concert hall, a sports stadium, and multiple restaurants and bars, which killed over 130 people and injured many more), and the July 2016 attack in Nice where at least 84 were killed after one man drove a lorry into the crowds on Bastille Day.
These events have left their scars on France as a whole, and the nation remains in an official state of emergency. Indeed, the soldiers involved in Saturday’s events were some of those mobilised as part of Operation Sentinelle – itself a direct response to the 2015 Charlie Hebdo attacks – which has seen over 7,500 armed soldiers deployed, over half of which are active within the capital. It seems unlikely that this most recent disturbance will garner any greater feelings of security or peace within France in the run-up to the election.