Republican March - Paris, January 11. Maya-Anais Yataghene/Flickr. Some rights reserved.How many people demonstrated on Sunday, January 2015, in the streets of Paris and in the rest of France after the massacre of 17 French nationals - caricaturists from the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, policemen and ordinary citizens, white or black, Muslim and Jews, believers and non believers - by a trio of, also French, Islamic terrorists.
The figures are stunning, up to 4 million nationwide, from 1.5 to 2 million in Paris. They were so many that the two parallel designed itineraries were filled from beginning to end even before the demonstration started. Many demonstrators had to reroute to the adjacent streets which also filled up rapidly.
This was the biggest demonstration ever in France, at least since 2 million Parisians took to the streets in 1885 after the death of the writer, Victor Hugo. And it was not limited to cities. My sister, who lives in a small village 150 kilometres south-west of Paris, counted 20 demonstrators out of 175 villagers and 200 who spontaneously gathered in the neighbouring borough of 1,500, probably not all officially accounted for.
But the true significance lay not in the numbers – even in this world of today, where this magical word seem to matter more than anything else, starting with wealth and money – but in the symbolic meaning behind them; in the dignified response to barbaric acts; in the unified, peaceful, friendly mood and the sense of solidarity among people who had seemed so divided and whose unity the terrorists were trying to blow up; or in the vision of democracy, freedom and of “living together” they were trying to project against all odds.
First of all over self-proclaimed representatives of a religion gone crazy, who want to spread Jihad through the world, first of all by shedding the blood of their own kin, and who have been disavowed by almost all representatives of the faith they pretend to fight for, including some of the most backward.
But also over prophets of doom in a society which until now – and in the future if nothing changes? - shared the most pessimistic view of the world and of their own prospects; yet they have responded calmly and resolutely to the unexpected, disproving the sad image they had given of themselves.
Or over politicians who have, as a whole, lost all credibility for their inability to deal with crisis, economic, social or cultural, and whose language appears disconnected from voters and the reality they live in. This despite the fact that President Hollande's response to these sectarian murders has been both efficient and dignified, showing himself to be a leader in the eyes of most Frenchmen.
The morning after
But, in life, there is always a morning after, where emotions recede and reality resumes the upper hand. Raising questions long shifted aside, or responded to with all-purpose, politically correct or dilly-dallying answers and prevarication. A momentum has been created, not always for the same reasons or in the same ways, but expectations have been raised such that people demand answers to the questions they, their country, if not the world which has globalised us all, are facing. And they want them now.
First of all, they want politicians to rise to their own standards, stop their petty party and intra-party bickering, and put their country and people first. In short, they must raise themselves to the same level which their own citizens attained during this extraordinary crisis, and band together towards a common goal of restoring peace, solidarity, and prosperity.
Some say they have understood this call: only the future will tell. But the future is now. Hollande's political future depends on this, as no French President has ever been so low in the opinion polls. Yet he is not alone in being self-centred and short-sighted, and if the UMP conservative opposition goes on fighting for party gain and systematically tearing apart any government proposals, they will pave the way to a National Front banking on voter weariness by the next presidential election of 2017.
Sick man of Europe
Long despised as inefficient and bureaucratic, often widely unpopular – for different and often contradictory reasons - seen as the “sick man” of the globalised economic world, the European Union has risen to this challenge, banding together behind one of its wounded members from Eurosceptic UK Prime Minister David Cameron to Europhile German Chancellor Angela Merkel, from “Mediterranean” Italian PM Matteo Renzi to his “Northern” Danish counterpart, Helle Thorning-Schmid, all present in Paris with 40 other heads of state and government, while European and North American home ministers met to discussed a joint security response at the EU level.
This new crisis has shown once again that there was no efficient response to European or domestic problems at the national level. But will this be enough to convince peoples to discard anti-European parties? This new crisis has shown once again that there was no efficient response to European or domestic problems at the national level. But will this be enough to convince peoples to discard anti-European parties?
Diplomatic correctness is also an impediment to an efficient strategy. Some were shocked to see representatives of authoritarian regimes marching for press freedom while repressing their own journalists and demonstrators. Optimists hope that they will have learnt a lesson. Who knows? But seeing them side by side with democratic leaders, the Russian foreign minister or some Middle-East rulers together with the Prime Minister of Turkey, a country deployed by Daech(ISIS) as a rear base and cheap conduit for jihadi volunteers - has baffled more than one. How long can we go on turning a blind eye towards oil sheikdoms who have supported Sub-Saharan and Mid-East fundamentalists with money or weapons and are now asking for help against a former protégé who has turned against them, just because we need their petrodollars?
What can we hope to achieve by way of an effective Realpolitik if we don't know who our allies are and don't have a clear strategy? Hollande restated only last week that Daech could not have achieved its blitzkrieg in Syria and Iraq if Barack Obama had not cancelled the bombings in Syria at the last minute. And how long will France remain almost alone fighting terrorism at a high cost in lives and money while other European countries, also threatened, stand aside?
As French philosopher Régis Debray said on France Culture radio, what has happened is a consequence of the priority given to the economy – which he sees as a tool and not a goal – over and above politics.
The new dogma, according to which problems or passions can be dealt with via economics, has proved itself false as the old, pathetic passions come back to haunt us. Referring to the 2014 Nobel Prizewinner for Literature, Patrick Modiano, Debray added that a writer was worth much more than his market value. For him, an expert on religious issues, there has to be a refocusing on a republican education – and on the teaching of a knowledge of all religions – rather than restricting teachers to various distinct activities.
Looking through the interviews by Le Monde (dated 11-12 of January) of secondary school students in heavily Muslim populated suburbs of Paris after the shooting, it is clear that quite a number do not understand the meaning of secularism, equating terrorists and “blasphemers” like Charlie Hebdo's caricaturists. One youngster went so far as to say that killing only one of them would have been enough! What a damning indictment of public – and family - education and of the inability of imams to cope with the radicalization of young Muslims.
Old democracies are slow to react, burdened as they are by traditions and bureaucracy. For the last two decades, repressive regulations have piled up at a rhythm of about one every two years. The last one, voted through in November, has yet to be activated. To face a new wave of threats, what is needed is to act not only boldly but quickly, bypassing bloated structures. This is also what people want. Will governments have the will, and the authority to go further than rhetoric , and the opposition the courage to put their personal ambitions behind national priorities?
And then there is the heavily loaded question of repression vs. human rights. Today, some politicians are going so far as to demand a “Patriot Act à la française”, forgetting their former criticism of the Bush administration response to 9/11 as well as the inadequacy of national measures in a politically integrated Europe.
How far can we go to protect ourselves without appearing to target a single community, or target potential terrorists before they fly to Syria or commit crimes after coming back to France, without weakening the pillars of our democracy? Can we detain people only on suspicion and up to which level? How to separate propagandists of terrorism from petty criminals easy to subvert and stop our jails becoming a school for Jihad? What is the limit on collecting data on air passengers, phone calls, smartphones data or on social networks without infringing fundamental human rights?
On the other side some on the far left are denouncing any infringement and even support the right of a formerly “oppressed” community to stick to its traditions – including women's (lack of) rights or denouncing the “blasphemers” who criticise Islam – while at the same time supporting Charlie Hebdo's anti-establishment editorial policy.
Finally, all this comes back to the simplest of questions: how did we get here? What has failed in our political, educational and social system? How can someone like Amedy Coulibaly, who in 2009 was received by the then President Sarkozy at the Elysée Palace during a seminar on employment, and had been photographed on a Malaysian beach with his wife and accomplice in a bikini, turn into the cold-blooded murderer of five people? How can second or third generation young men from an integrated family turn to radicalism seemingly within weeks?
How can youngsters of French, Christian origin convert to Islam, a religion none of them hardly knows and understands, outside of a batch of simplistic Daech slogans? What did we miss? How did we fail? What should we do, not only to eradicate this threat but to stop it from taking root here?
Questions easier to ask than to answer, setting politically correct slogans to one side...