TerrorismEvidence from France: The Impact of Terrorism on Representative Democracy

Published 23 July 2020

How do citizens respond to terrorist events? Drawing on a recent study, researchers find that citizens do not necessarily respond in the way we might expect. Citizens do not increase hostility toward ‘out-groups’ as a direct response to terrorism, rather they increase solidarity within their ‘in-group’ and come together following an exogenous shock.

While most scholarship highlights the effect of terrorism on attitudes towards incumbentsleadership evaluations and electoral behavior, terrorism also affects the public’s commitment to democratic ideals and the social foundations of liberal democracy. Recent studies in this regard focus on electoral implicationspolicy positions and, more specifically, out-group perceptions. While insightful, much of this evidence often remains topical, as well as observational. In a recent study, we complement this extant scholarship by first, designing a two-dimensional analytical framework that simultaneously examines solidarity amongst citizens (in-group) and the opinions of and interactions with communal “others” (out-group), and second, by leveraging a regression discontinuity design that provides more quasi-experimental insights.

Most terrorism literature generalizes from post-9/11 findings, while European cases receive much less attention. This is unfortunate, as suggestive accounts of American exceptionalism and the specificities of 9/11 indicate that other contexts merit separate attention. We therefore shift our geographic focus to France and examine to what extent the emblematic November 2015 events in Paris and Saint Denis affected citizens. We rely on a unique opinion barometer by the Direction de la recherche, des études, de l’évaluation et des statistiques (DREES) that was in the field at the time of the events to examine how exactly citizens responded to them. We formulate two sets of expectations.

We argue citizens generally respond to non-domestic terrorist events by challenging some of the social foundations of liberal democracy, most notably by increasing out-group hostilities in the immediate aftermath of terrorism. Collective threats can easily be translated into negative perceptions of foreign elements and increasing hostility towards minority groups. In this regard, terrorist events amplify negative sentiments towards specific out-groups, particularly those perceived to be linked to the perpetrators. Recent evidence shows this was the case after the 2004 Madrid bombing and the 2015 Paris events. We therefore anticipated a spike in the issue salience of immigration, as well as an increase in anti-immigrant sentiments. In light of recent studies on Israel and Turkey, we simultaneously expected that citizens directly affected by terrorism would be more prone to polarize and identify with the political extremes.

Yet, terrorist events do not merely challenge liberal democracy. They also provide very specific routes to consolidate its social foundations and strengthen in-group solidarity. When confronted by collective threats, citizens in liberal democracies typically express a growing desire for social unity. They frequently reinforce their in-group reflections and evaluations of the political community in the immediate aftermath of non-domestic terrorism.