The Place de la République has become both a shrine and a celebration of the Paris we knew before. There are candles, flowers, graffiti. Words, like reflexes, have been scribbled with chalk on the pavement: “Liberté, égalité, fraternité.” At night, a young guitarist plays under the towering statue of Marianne, the symbol of the French Republic, who holds an olive branch in one hand and a tablet with the declaration of human rights in the other. The square is located at the epicentre of all that happened, where the 10th and the 11th arrondissements meet.
After the Charlie Hebdo tragedy, the square was also a natural focal point: more than 1 million people demonstrated, stretching across the centre of the city. This week, the crowds have been here again, commemorating the 129 victims and hundreds more injured in France’s worst post-war attack.
The reality of Paris has never been the uniform and homogeneous vision depicted in the film Amélie. (But if there is one thing that fantasy did capture, it is the Parisian and French attachment to a notion of joie de vivre – even if the inhabitants of this cramped city have also often been known for their grumpiness). Since the 13 November attacks there has been much political analysis and talk of geopolitics on the airwaves, but what really dominates conversations among friends and family is sadness, sheer awe, and a need to collectively reconnect with fundamental values. That’s why people gather near the Marianne statue, and that’s why some have spontaneously sung La Marseillaise, the national anthem.
But how to move forward from here? Last winter, normal life resumed fairly quickly after the bloodshed at Charlie Hebdo and at a kosher supermarket. This last week, restaurants and cafés have had fewer clients than usual, but people still do go out. One slogan became very popular online: “Je suis en terrasse” (I am sitting at a terrace), a distant echo of “Je suis Charlie”. Of course, everyone dreads the outbreak of more violence. Islamic State has described Paris as the ”capital of abominations and perversity” and warned it will strike again. There are growing worries about intelligence failures. Isis cells have proliferated in Europe as a result of the radicalisation spewing out of the Middle East.
But another fear comes from the danger of tensions arising among communities in France. In Marseilles, on Wednesday, a Jewish teacher wearing a kippa was stabbed by three men, one reportedly wearing a shirt with the Isis logo, and on the same day, a veiled Muslim woman was assaulted at a metro station. Across the nation, community and religious leaders of all faiths, intellectuals, artists, many civil society organisations, have all spoken out about the need for tolerance and togetherness. There have been strong messages warning against those who might want to stoke hatred. Political clubs, such as the left-of-centre Les Gracques, are holding debates about social cohesion.
It is unclear whether the political class has convinced citizens that unity is paramount. There has been a degree of partisan squabbling, with Nicolas Sarkozy’s Les Républicains movement initially coming down hard on François Hollande’s government for not doing enough for security in the ten months since Charlie Hebdo, or for not fully controlling borders. The rhetoric only toned down after Hollande announced wide-ranging new security legislation, with heightened investigatory powers and a partial overhaul of the constitution which smacked of panic.
If political point scoring is high on anyone’s mind, it is certainly Marine Le Pen. Her Front National (FN) party already emerged as the leading bloc in France in last year’s European elections, and she is poised for further gains in regional elections next month. Her movement feeds on the growing disenfranchisement of the middle classes, on high unemployment, on anti-immigrant and anti-refugee sentiment. Since the Paris attacks, most political analysts expect an even larger groundswell in her favour.
The dismal state of France’s domestic political scene isn’t anything new, but it has to be kept in mind when looking at the way Hollande reacts to these events. This is largely where the talk of “war” has come from. It is meant not only to convey a collective state of mobilisation, but also to meet specific political and diplomatic objectives. Much of the French right, especially the powerful far-right, whose rhetoric has been imitated by mainstream politicians, is drawn towards the idea of a state of exception in France, where civil liberties might be suspended or limited, where borders would be sealed, and where open cooperation would be forged with illiberal forces elsewhere on the continent, including all the way to Moscow. That political backdrop, a combination of widening calls for strong-man tactics within France and the twisted notion that some kind of Christian alliance should be formed with Russia, goes a long way to explain the calibre of Hollande’s language and decisions: he is simply too politically weak a president to resist those pressures.
It’s important to remember this terrorist assault occurred in a country of many frailties, anxieties and doubts about the viability of the Republican model, and its brand of secularism. In recent months, the media has been awash with stories about the “new reactionary” intellectuals that make a habit of dominating public discourse, philosophers and writers accused of either kow-towing to some of the traditionalist brands of ideology carried by the FN, or of unwillingly helping it grow its grassroots. All of which sounded like a dark omen for Hollande’s three-year-old socialist government, which has made little progress with reform.
Tough presidential language about a nation “at war” was meant to shore up support for a head of state whose approval ratings had dropped to a record low of 25% this year. On the diplomatic front, Hollande’s decision to call for a large and single international coalition against Isis is an attempt to put France at the forefront of the fight against the group – with a strong focus on rallying other EU member states through an EU treaty collective defence clause. But new signals sent out to Putin (Hollande plans to travel to Moscow as well as Washington next week) are also a response to domestic political constraints.
Again, the French right (as well as voices within Hollande’s own socialist party) had become increasingly critical of the Élysée’s hardline approach to Putin’s policies of shoring up Assad in Syria. Hollande has, in one stroke (the speech he gave on Monday) tried to neutralise a lot of the hostility surrounding him. His whole political career, after all, has been about navigating partisan politics. One reason France hasn’t activated Nato’s article 5 after the Paris attacks is that it wouldn’t have helped open up channels with Putin. Nor, importantly, would it have been popular among those in France who hold anti-American views of a rather knee-jerk kind, left and right.
In many countries domestic and foreign policy can be closely intertwined. France is no exception. Its citizens tend to take pride in the notion of national “grandeur”. France is also a country where the woes of the Arab and Muslim world can reverberate strongly (largely a legacy of the colonial past). In that context, it has to be stressed that Hollande’s presidency has looked rather lonely in recent years – at least on the European stage – after he ordered the deployment of troops in Mali, in 2013, to counter jihadi groups. On Friday, a crude light was cast on that operation following a protracted assault on a western hotel in the capital.
French operations in the Sahel are still ongoing. Hollande is right to say, as he did on Monday, that France started waging war against radical Islamic forces several years ago. France did get political support from the EU (it also deployed a training mission for Mali government forces), but it has been mostly on its own in combat operations.
French officials are adamant that those military efforts did far more than prevent the collapse of African states in the Sahel (who had urgently asked for that protection), they also contributed to Europe’s overall security. Inaction would have meant al-Qaida-affiliated groups establishing control over large territories which they might have then used as a launchpad to strike Europe – not unlike the scenario we see unfolding with Isis. The hope now is that the Paris attacks will act as a wake-up call for all other Europeans nations. (A word about Libya: Hollande’s take is that Sarkozy carries responsibility for mismanaging the aftermath of the 2011 Nato intervention and that’s what led to Libya’s downward spiral – even though he supported the intervention).
So in the Élysée Palace, the need to harness the active, concrete support of fellow EU member states against Isis in Syria has now become a central tenet of foreign policy strategy. The UK is a much sought-after ally. Behind the summitry, Russia will continue to be considered an untrustworthy interlocutor: only a small percentage of its air strikes since September have targeted Isis – the rest were concentrated on western-supported rebels in the Idlib and Aleppo regions. The US is seen by French officials as fundamentally reluctant to get drawn into anything. Barack Obama’s statement, one day before the Paris attacks, saying Isis had been “contained”, did not go down very well. America provides intelligence but it seems mostly unconcerned about how Europe is put at risk by the fallout of the Syrian civil war (through the mismanagement of the refugee crisis, and now new forms of terrorism). Iran’s regime is fundamentally distrusted.
As French officials see it, the onus is now on European and Gulf state partners, as well as on Turkey, to mobilise decisively against the Isis death cult, and help Kurdish and other allied forces already on the ground. France’s military resources are overstretched: it knows it cannot have a real impact alone, nor can it even sustain what it has undergone without financial and other contributions.
But with all the focus on Isis, the aim of seeing Assad removed has not disappeared. Simply because this is not an either/or situation. Hollande has made clear Isis is the enemy because it has directly and horrendously struck at France. Assad hasn’t, so he isn’t labeled an enemy. But he has to go at some point. Hollande stated on Monday that Assad remaining in power “cannot be the outcome [of] a political solution” in Syria, because his atrocities are a key cause of radicalisation among Sunni populations. The difficult equation for Hollande is that Putin will try to make sure that a UN resolution that France has called for is written on his own terms, excluding any reference to an externally driven – even negotiated – regime change in Damascus.
Three days after the Paris attacks, Hollande’s decision to give a speech in front of both chambers of parliament assembled in Versailles made for strong TV pictures. It was solemn and dignified. Hardly anyone took issue with the grandiose venue. But it was also an odd moment where the political class retreated 30km away from Paris to a place that carries all the history of French monarchic absolutism. Leftwing commentators didn’t dwell on that at all, however, focussing instead on the question of whether plans for extraordinary security legislation were compatible with socialist values.
The most striking thing in that speech was how little Hollande had to say – beyond conventional formulas – about France’s diversity, and the richness that comes from having second and third generation immigrants. Was that because he was scared of the FN’s reaction? Possibly. But perhaps he just didn’t find the words. He’s not an eloquent speaker, and he would be hard pressed to deliver something akin to Obama’s famous speech on race. He is also part of a political generation that largely fails to reach out in any meaningful way to France’s multi-cultured youth, in the banlieues or elsewhere.
Much has been said about racism in France, the discriminations that exist, the rejection of Muslims, Arabs and Africans, but statistics also indicate there has been for years a growing number of “mixed” couples (of immigrant and non-immigrant descent), and integration is more widespread than many are led to believe from some of the media coverage and toxic political rhetoric.
It also often seems that France’s secular system of “laïcité” has failed to make its case: some people believe Muslim schoolchildren can be forced to eat pork at the cantine, which is untrue. An overwhelming majority of French Muslims have no serious qualms about legislation that bans religious symbols (whether the veil, the kippa, or a visible cross) from state schools. It’s true that radical salafi Islam has grown among some frustrated young people, but that concerns a tiny minority of France’s 5 million-strong Muslim population. And as the 13 November attackers illustrate, some of those who get indoctrinated are from rather normal middle-class families, not the dispossessed.
Coming to terms with what French identity is all about and embracing the diversity that has grown within its social fabric in the last decades remain important challenges. But often overlooked are the numerous positive stories than come from France’s diversity. Surely, all of this could have been woven into a powerful speech. Tragically, it seems those positive stories got attention recently only when the profiles of the victims of 13 November were published: active, happy, urban professionals or students, of so many different backgrounds and colours of skin.
Not far from the Place de la République stands the bullet-riddled facade of one of the cafés that came under attack last Friday evening. Next to Le Carillon, where clients sitting on the terrace were sprayed with gunfire (25 people perished), a poster has been put up: it’s an imitation of Robert Doisneau’s famous 1950 photograph of a couple kissing in the streets – an icon of young love in Paris. An artist has added streaks of red paint, like dripping blood, on the couple, and three defiant words above: “Même pas mal!” (This doesn’t even hurt!) There are so many messages of collective resilience and of coming together that it’s tempting to think something good will actually come out of this horror.
These are complex, painful times for Paris, the city French people sometimes love to hate, but now it’s just love. The fact is, we seek solace in the small messages, much more than in the grand speeches. In front of the same café, a pile of flowers and handwritten notes have been placed. One of them, protected by a plastic folder so the rain won’t damage it, reads (with this layout):
“Je suis la France
Je suis PARIS
Je suis Musulman
Mais je ne suis pas
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