Can Europe Make It?

Defending “French Values”? The Paris attacks and our loss of innocence

In this professed war against "barbarians", It is time we interrogated the extent of our colonial guilt in light of those cultural practices we cherish most as a nation.

Paul Giffard-Foret
16 February 2016

Paris terrace cafe, July, 2014. Flickr/ zoetnet. Some rights reserved.I wrote a piece for The Postcolonialist earlier last year on the Charlie Hebdo massacre entitled “Defending Charlie Hebdo? Secularism, Islam and the War on Error” in which I hoped to show the intricacies of hermeneutics, especially when it comes to the art of caricature. My goal wasn't to take a clear-cut stand on whether or not Charlie Hebdo was Islamophobic, as many on the Left were tempted to do; the journalists and illustrators at Charlie knew that what they were doing was eminently political and were aware of the risks involved. In this light, the 13 November attacks in Paris were different in that its victims were innocent bystanders, concert goers, café regulars sitting at terraces – or were they really?

France’s New Anticapitalist Party (NPA)’s slogan following the attacks, “Vos Guerres, Nos Morts” (Your Wars, Our Dead) would appear to confirm this viewpoint and yet, no one is ever entirely clean. First, there is the fact that France is waging a war (more or less declared) against ISIS. War is a dirty business, precisely because it kills innocent civilians. Unless citizens decide to take to the streets to protest war, whilst remaining victims, they are certainly not innocent.

The absence of mass anti-war rallies such as the ones over the Iraq War back in 2003 shows a complicit support for war by the population and the political parties representing them, regardless of the efficacy of such an antiwar movement, or the failure of the far Left to mobilise.

An example of responsible thinking was Jean-Paul Sartre's view during the Algerian War: that all of the French population was guilty of a colonial mindset and that collective responsibility must be borne as a result for France’s war crimes. Indeed, while making a distinction between the metropolitan elite (industrials, politicians, and a corrupt comprador bourgeoisie) and the rest, Sartre also acknowledged a debt or collective responsibility on the part of all French: “I do not consider as colonists either the minor public officials or the European workers who are at the same time innocent victims and beneciaries of the system.”

Sartre's radical statement speaks for another kind of complicity besides that of tacit quietism or people’s failure to become engagé – politically engaged. It is the recognition (quite natural it seems) that people are not moved to the same intensity of feeling when foreigners (outsiders of the nation) are killed.

When placed in the context of imperial history, however, the absence of any substantial sympathy for the victims of Western wars in the Middle East speaks volumes about the dehumanising effects of war and racism. I say that this lack of commiseration seems at first glance "quite natural", for why should one feel any concern for what is taking place thousands of kilometres away?

Yet the attacks on Paris, which claimed over 150 lives, stand as a cruel reminder that things are changing. The Hollande administration itself has emphasised that the French should now expect innocent blood to be spilled in revenge for the innocent blood spilled over the years in so many parts of the Middle East. War, quite simply, is based on retaliation. The “barbarity” of Kalashnikovs, like those used inside the Bataclan Concert Hall, came as retaliation to the clinical wars waged by the West using drone strikes. We ought to realise by now that bombs are – at least – as cowardly and gruesome as Kalashnikovs.

Then, there is the manner, as well as the context, in which the November attacks occurred. As a nurse who was there on the scene explained to me, a Kalashnikov causes perpetual damage and is aimed, not so much at killing, as at defacing. This act of defacement in retaliation to the defilement of a phantasmagorical “Islam” inevitably shocked our all-too hypocritical sense of civility and reason and was probably deliberately intended by the terrorists.

Similarly, decapitations, summary executions and the enslavement of entire populations by ISIS can be seen as part of a strategy to “interpellate” or provoke the West into riposte and reprisal. What’s more, this indiscriminate and gory bloodbath was designed – or presented as such in the media– as an attack on our lifestyles and values. In a classic rehearsal of old, worn-out, colonialist tropes, Paris, City of Lights, partying, music and a je ne sais quoi of sophistication, has become the opposition to the medieval obscurantism of veiled women/bearded men all too eager to launch into a full-blown civilisational and religious “crusade”. The term “crusade”, let us remember, was first used by the Bush administration in its War on Terror after 9/11.

Yes, terrorists did target Parisians' carefreeness and debauchery, as well as a certain social category – young, affluent, middle class and liberal-minded "bobo”, the equivalent of the “leisure class”. Advocates of French lifestyle and those mourning the loss of innocence, along with the many victims who died while enjoying a live concert or a glass of wine, came to extoll those latter virtues in such high-flown fashion, as if to cover up some subconscious colonial hangover and malaise.

Early colonists, from Christopher Columbus onwards, had held the same ignorant belief in the natural superiority of Western values – rebranded as Humanist, Universal values. Upon these values were premised the need to both civilise and enlighten (understand: Christianise) other parts of the so-called "New World". In many places, as in the Americas, Westernisation led to the decimation of entire populations, through war, but also through disease and the introduction of alcohol, which is today seen (albeit with humour) as quintessentially French and a patriotic act of defiance by a satirical journal like Charlie. In his oft-quoted essay on "The Pitfalls of National Consciousness", anticolonial intellectual Frantz Fanon had warned about the dangers of Westernisation in Third World countries, where "mental development is uneven, where the violent collision of two worlds has considerably shaken old traditions and thrown the universe of the perception out of focus."

In the aftermath of the decolonisation era, that which was once called the “Third World” underwent an altogether brutal modernisation and development of its productive forces and nascent state apparatus in an attempt to catch up with the West, despite claims to the contrary. In many ways, the postcolonial world still struggles to emerge from the cultural and ideological backlash that ensued from such radical transformations.

Some parts ultimately fared better than others, but many, like the Middle East, plunged back into uninterrupted instability and sectarian violence. I am reluctant here to further descend into religious or cultural commentary, because so much of what is taking place in the world today, as yesterday, has to do, in the last instance, with economics. The austere, rigid nature of Islam in many parts of the Middle East is indeed but an appendage of neoliberalism and its economic motto of budgetary "austerity", which became common practice and parlance across the Third World decades before neoliberalism even thought of applying its shock remedies to the European theatre, following the GFC in 2008. 

Laïcité (secularism) has been hijacked from its original meaning, and women, as always, have become battlegrounds in this new Culture Wars. For a militant feminist group like the Femen, laïcité may look as though it amounts to nothing else than the right for women to strip naked. This pseudo act of defiance to patriarchal values, construed as quintessentially French, is to be defended at all costs against an alleged Islamisation of French society. Hence, Islam is here understood as being fundamentally un-French.

France likes to view itself as one of the last beacons of light and freedom in an increasingly despotic, theocratic world. One may celebrate, as Charlie Hebdo does, the end of God, or else still, deplore its return. Yet, along with the loss of religious faith of a putatively Judeo-Christian Europe, other so-called Grand Narratives, in particular the idea of the class struggle, or a belief in modernity and progress, have been long deemed buried by Postmodernists of all kinds.

Some of the latter New Philosophers (as they were called in a post-May ‘68 France) hoped for the surfacing of a philosophy that would come to replace Marxism. This philosophy never arrived, unlike the Messiah of Capital in its triumphant age following the end of the Cold War. One may further rejoice that French women came out of the nunnery and out of wedlock, and into the workforce – the Women’s Liberation Movement must be thanked for this. But sexism in the West still exists. Instead, it has been morphed into new forms, such as the growth of “raunch culture”, pornography and prostitution, or plastic surgery (not to speak of lingering economic forms of inequality), showing patriarchy to be more resilient and adaptable than second-wave radical feminists might have thought. 

Is the naively positivist abstract of "French values" any more defendable than the derogatory signifier of "Islam"? Without falling into beatific humanism or sceptical relativism, one value, if any, remains to be defended. It is the altruistic ability to imagine ourselves through, and from, the Other's vantage point. Such has been the gift of storytelling, and of the postcolonial perspective in particular. Indian novelist and essayist Arundathi Roy lets us hear from the many "small narratives" that constitute the fabric of our collective imagination; small narratives looming in the shadow of official discourse that speak of many "11 Septembers". As Roy wrote in the aftermath of 9/11:

“Since it is September 11th we're talking about, perhaps it's in the fitness of things that we remember what that date means, not only to those who lost their loved ones in America last year, but to those in other parts of the world to whom that date has long held significance. […] Twenty-nine years ago, in Chile, on the 11th of September 1973, General Pinochet overthrew the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende in a CIA-backed coup. […] On the 11th of September 1922, ignoring Arab outrage, the British government proclaimed a mandate in Palestine, a follow-up to the 1917 Balfour Declaration which imperial Britain issued, with its army massed outside the gates of Gaza.”

On 13 November 1902, Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad was first published in one volume by William Blackwood Press in Edinburgh. The novel has been hailed as a textbook case of the failures of the West’s colonial enterprise. Similarly, John Milton’s poem, “Paradise Lost”, published three centuries earlier, was, at heart, a poem about Empire and the prelapsarian nature of the American colonies. It was also mainly a poem about our loss of innocence. As David Quint has argued, “Paradise Lost” offers “an indictment of European expansion and colonialism that includes his own countrymen.” (Quint, 265; qt. in Conlan, 31)

France and its American master now ponder over the possibility of sending military troops on the ground over to a bomb-devastated Syria in yet another “scramble for rubble”. In this light, 13 November, the worst bloodshed on French ground since WWII, will also (and hopefully) come to mark the day the French lost their innocence, and were drawn along into a chaotic, global web of solidarity in the face of arbitrary terror in its multifarious forms (which includes State terror and the current French “State of Emergency”). To all those still wondering how such horrors are possible, let us hear and feel the suffering of victims of terrorist attacks as our own, in Ankara, Istanbul, Kabul, Sousse, Beirut, in Nigeria, Cameroon, Burkina Faso, Mali or Pakistan. And to all of those wondering whether they should leave Paris, or even France, hear, and feel, the suffering of exiles from war or misery, Palestinians, Kurds, Syrians, Iraqi, Kosovar, Ukrainians, as your own.

Works Cited

Conlan, J.P. 1998. “Paradise Lost: Milton’s Anti-Imperialist Epic.” Pacific Coast Philology 33 (1).

Fanon, Frantz. 1963. “The Pitfalls of National Consciousness.” In The Wretched of the Earth, 148-205. New York: Grove Press.

Roy, Arundathi. 2002. “Come September.” Lensic Performing Arts Center. September 29.

<> (Acessed 10 January 2016)

Sartre, Jean-Paul. 2001. “Colonialism is a System.” interventions Vol. 3(1) 127–140. [from a speech by Sartre in 1956 in Paris for peace in Algeria]

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