A hijacked bus plows through a crowd gathered for the annual Bleu, Blanc et Rouge parade. As casualties rise, so do the electoral fortunes of the National Front (FN), France’s conservative party. It’s a nightmare scenario for many, but could it tip the balance in FN candidate Marine Le Pen’s favor in the French presidential election runoff.
How do we know it is likely? We’ve been here before.
Terrorists prefer to attack during elections
The average person perhaps thinks that terrorist attacks are completely random and done by irrational people. Terrorists may be warped individuals, but there is a definite method to their madness. Their attacks are goal-oriented political messages.
And yes, terrorists tend to prefer election season.
My research in the Homeland Security Affairs Journal examines three such cases: Hamas’ attacks on Israel’s Shimon Peres government in 1996, the Madrid train bombing on 3/11 in 2004, and bin Laden’s cryptic message to American voters just before the 2004 election.
There have been other terror attacks that occur in other countries just before an election. Britain may have just foiled another terror attack, mere days after a snap election was called. And France is no stranger to such an event. In fact, those Bataclan attacks and others in the area that killed hundreds in Paris on November 13, 2015 occurred just before French regional elections.
Do terror attacks help conservative candidates?
My research shows that the attacks in Israel and Spain benefitted the country’s more conservative party. In Israel, Hamas’ repeated suicide attacks led to Labor Party Prime Minister Peres’ outing in favor of the more hardline Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu.
You may be surprised by the Spanish case. After all, didn’t the more conservative Partido Prime Minister Aznar lose to Spanish socialists under Zapatero? This argument ignores the fact that polls showed that Aznar’s popularity surged after the attacks on Madrid’s train commuters. He would have easily won the election had he not lied to the Spaniards and blamed the Basques, who are traditional socialist allies, and their group ETA for the bombing. Voters punished Aznar for lying—not for the bombing.
While my evidence shows a slight bump in favor of John Kerry in 2004, it wasn’t enough to help him overcome President George W. Bush in the election. Moreover, of those who thought the 2004 election was about terrorism, 86 percent voted Republican.
And who was the big winner in December of 2015? The National Front’s Marine Le Pen benefitted the most, as her party took first place overall with 29.4 percent of the vote, upsetting the right-of-center parties and Socialist Party.
Why would terrorists help conservatives?
The question is why terrorists would want conservatives to win. After all, conservatives usually have stronger anti-terrorist policies. There are all kinds of theories on this subject. Some believe conspiracy theories that conservatives are secretly behind the attacks, but I don’t buy it.
Others think it is because conservatives are more likely to want revenge, launching expensive wars that unite those attacked. For example, Hamas and al-Qaeda want to link all Muslims together in a united front, which is difficult to do, given sectarianism and the prevalence of moderates. But a counterattack on Islam might change that. It’s not too different from the policies of Mao Tse-Tung and Che Guevara, who trapped enemies in quagmires by provoking the reaction.
There’s another possible explanation to consider. Conservatives like the National Front in France want their country to turn inward, rejecting globalization and liberalism. Perhaps terrorists hope that their attacks will lead to an increase in Western isolationism. According to this line of thinking, such attackers hope that French Socialist President Francois Hollande and his wars against terrorists in North and West Africa would be replaced by Le Pen, who claims to be less interested in foreign adventurism. Were she to prevail over Macron, who is more likely to continue Hollande’s policies, Le Pen would remove France from the list of countries that seek to target ISIS and al-Qaeda in favor of more stringent anti-terrorism security policies and refugee screening at home.
John A. Tures is a professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Ga. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His Twitter account is @JohnTures2.