Can Europe Make It?

Paris – 3 weeks on

"It is fundamental to search for explanations within our society, notably the social and economic exclusion of part of the population in France."

Noémie Oxley
11 December 2015
Tributes to the Bataclan victims.

Tributes to the Bataclan victims. Demotix/Infosart. All rights reserved.It has been three weeks since the tragic events in Paris. I did not lose anybody close to me, but had a few huge scares – a good friend was miraculously only lightly injured by some debris of bullets and some people I know are still between life and death at the moment. Both my brothers live within a 200 metre radius from the attacks and my younger one lives where I used to live, 50 metres away from Le Carillon and Le Petit Cambodge restaurants. It is still hard, heartbreaking and nerve-racking, depressing and so often panicking. We are in the “oeil du cyclone”, and we are like headless chickens, too dazed to grasp the many complex layers explaining what happened on the 13 November. We are in the “oeil du cyclone”, and we are like headless chickens, too dazed to grasp the many complex layers explaining what happened on the 13 November.

What has been unfolding in the last weeks could unfortunately have been predicted: a “state of emergency” provoking countless arrests with very limited results and many blunders, the rise of Islamophobia and now, as I write these words, the Front National winning the first round of the Regional elections in six out of thirteen regions. It feels like a Greek tragedy: the attacks, the State of Emergency limiting our rights tremendously and criminalizing all together radical Muslims, ecologists or migrants, the aerial warfare conducted in Syria and Iraq and the probable alliance of circumstance with Bashar Al-Assad. At last Marine Le Pen confirms her power in France, while the Front National, everywhere, ends its process of “de-demonization”. What will happen next?

Our gentrified/precarious/educated or not/ multicultural/openminded generation, our neighborhood and way of life have been targeted, and it’s hard to move on. If you consider in addition the flows of racist, liberticide, pro-war, extreme-right bullshit pervading the media and almost all political discourse, it is tough. Hollande’s securitarian speech in Versailles on the 16 November was only the beginning. Marine Le Pen could not have done better, yet a quarter of the population voting in France preferred the original to the copy. I can only imagine what could happen if she gets elected after his reform of the constitution.

Hollande’s “Bushian” neologism to characterize the war is also striking: after the war against terrorism, the war on terror, we are now in a “terrorism of war”. The contours of this war, for the majority of the population, are as blurry as they were for Afghanistan, Libya and Mali, even if ISIS, with its geographical frontiers, seems easier to map. The enemy however remains as shadowy and invisible as before.  Yet, as Bush said in 2001, we will “eradicate terrorism” (repeated twice in Congress). I think that my knowledge of official US discourses and representations during the War on Terror makes it worse.

The population voting for Marine Le Pen in majority is under 34 years old. The terrorists in Paris were French …and were between 20 and 30 years old. This is a definitely a turning point here in so many ways: it questions our role and function in our society, and imposes the urge to act and resist. On Sunday evening, however, I felt trapped and like many of my friends doubly wounded. The population voting for Marine Le Pen in majority is less than 34 years old. The terrorists in Paris were French, often, like me, third generation immigrants, and were between 20 and 30 years old. Both radicalizations, while incomparable, are deeply grounded within French social, economic and cultural disintegration. How, between those two phenomenon, can we create alternative discourses? How can we earn space within the public sphere, especially since it is this alternative voice that was targeted on the 13 November? 

Let’s hope that at least some positive things will come from it. Yet the political and the cultural aftermaths, for the moment, show the opposite. During a speech to the Senate on November 26, our Prime Minister Manuel Valls declared that he had “had enough with people constantly looking for excuses and cultural or sociological explanations of what happened”. There are no excuses, yet it is fundamental to search for explanations within our society, notably the social and economic exclusion of part of the population in France. 

Valls chose, on the contrary, to locate the origin of the threat in Iraq or Syria. He continues blindly to oppose “us” to “them”. This strategy has only led many in France to confuse “them” with the Muslim population in France, and breeds ground for the Front National. On the 11 January 2015, a huge crowd marched in Paris and other cities to reaffirm the sense of this “us”, fundamental here. The interdiction to gather, this time, laid bare the fragility of our cohesion, cohesion that we after all never discussed. The very notion of “us” becomes even less clear after the attacks and the elections, especially if we consider the dogmatic position of the authorities on laïcité, the social, economical and cultural divide in the country, and the refusal to account for the aftermaths of the colonial fractures it produced. How can we earn space within the public sphere, especially since it is this alternative voice that was targeted on the 13 November?

Paris is a strange city though, strong and unpredictable. Small memorials were spontaneously created near all of the venues attacked. We can neither march nor gather; yet there are always small groups near the sites, people come and light candles or leave flowers, constantly replaced. Every time I pass by one of these places, there are new texts, poems, tributes, drawings and even books left by people wanting to share their thoughts, their anger or their reflections. This shows how wounded is the city and its population nearly a month after the attacks. Yet, beyond the crowns of flowers left by French institutions and international authorities, these papers convey advice and unveil fears and incomprehension, but also reveal hopes and desires. In cafés or in the bus, in the metro, in the street, people still talk, argue, try to make sense of what happened. Sometimes the speech is harsh and racist, and sometimes simply fatalist or cynical. We can neither march nor gather; yet there are always small groups near the sites, people come and light candles or leave flowers, constantly replaced.

Often though people confront each other and attempt to find within their own historical or political knowledge, but also their own background, education, and even religion, ways to condemn the attacks and find solutions for a better future. One should not underestimate these popular and spontaneous attempts, this irrepressible need to understand and share our experience, and connect us, as individuals, with our society. We are all limited and facing “a dead-end”, as Judith Butler recalled in Liberation in the week following the attacks. These exchanges and confrontations, beyond the editorialists, experts or politics explaining, rationalizing and synthesizing the situation in the media (often in the heat of the moment), are the visible traces of a collective attempt – surely imperfect and fragmented – to make together something of what happened.

One last note: a small story about the resilience of Parisians. Sunday 15 November, in a very crowded and mixed bar in Belleville, the Folies, there was an alert. The alert related to the one that panicked the people at Place de La République one hour earlier (people had braved the interdiction to gather), and it basically reached Belleville, not too far to the north. The terrace of the bar was full and as soon as someone came running and said « they are there! », everybody was on the ground, tables were knocked over, beer all over, and people were crawling and escaping. Five minutes later, the bar was completely full again and people were yelling at waiters to bring more beer. It’s absolutely derisory yet it made me laugh.

Tributes in place de la République.

Tributes in place de la République. Démotix/ Infosart. All rights reserved.

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