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by Richard Greeman
Montpellier, France. Tuesday November 17th.
FACED WITH THE SHOCK of the bloody Friday the 13th attacks in Paris, the overall reaction of the French people (and media) was humane, peaceful, in a spirit of unity and solidarity. Muslim religious leaders gathered at the Grand Mosque in Paris to denounce the attacks and disown the jihadist Islamism that inspired them. Citizens flocked to hospitals to donate blood. They turned to social media to comfort each other and to debunk wild rumors. In every city they gathered in central squares in large, peaceful, silent assemblies in order to mourn together, to exorcise fear, and demonstrate a kind of peace of citizens. When a group of National Front militants attempted to politicize a spontaneous gathering of a thousand people in Lille on Saturday, they were driven off with shouts of ‘Fascists go home!”
On Saturday and Sunday, the radio, TV, and social media frequently evoked the negative example of George W. Bush’s reaction to the September 11, 2001 attacks: the Patriot Act and the U.S. ‘global war on terror,’ which eventually led to the disintegration of Iraq and the incubation of today’s Islamic State. The French are proud of having opposed the U.S. Iraqi invasion in 2003, and hopefully assumed that the Socialist government of François Hollande would be smart enough to avoid such a disastrous response to these attacks. The stakes here are higher, for in the context of today’s France, such a “war against international terrorism” would automatically be coupled with a civil war within France itself between “Muslims” and “true Frenchmen.”
Such a civil war is not unimaginable. My generation still remembers the so-called Algerian War of the 1950s and ’60s, which was actually a civil war, since at the time Algeria was an integral part of the ‘indivisible’ French Republic. That long and bloody civil war ended with de Gaulle overthrowing the Fourth Republic and granting the independence of Algeria (which sparked another civil war with right-wing French-Algerian military). Such a chaotic result was precisely the stated goal the ISIS-inspired organizers of Friday’s attack were seeking. The French weren’t buying it.
SUNDAY THE 15th was a beautiful day all across France, and everywhere the grieving French people went out of doors to breathe the air and to mingle in the cafes, on the squares, and in the autumnal sweetness of nature. They spent the day enjoying their beautiful country, unwinding from the distress, and affirming their commitment to life and conviviality. The temperature hit a record high for November, unseasonable flies and mosquitoes were buzzing the crowds of strollers at the seashore, and people alluded, with a disabused smile, to global warming. The admirable nonchalance of the French produced a day of national defiance, by a civilized population, of fearmongering.
Sunday evening, returning from our hike, we found our next-door neighbor Geneviève standing on the landing, haggard, in tears, incoherent (it’s true that she drinks a bit). Trembling with fear, she was sobbing, “Richard! War!” Familiar with Geneviève’s hysterics and totally oblivious about President Hollande’s bellicose declaration of “war against barbarism” — and France’s nightime bombardment of Raqqa, Syria — we tried to reason with Geneviève, and then, exhausted from hiking, went inside to sleep in peace.
Monday morning, we woke up to a country at war. With martial solemnity, President Hollande addressed a rare joint session of the French legislature. He declared an open-ended “state of exception,” promised to fight “without mercy,” and, paraphrasing George W. Bush in 2001, declared war on a “terrorist army” of “barbarians.” With this policy of an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, I thought, we’ll all end up blind and toothless. Poor France! Poor world!
MOREOVER, WHILE DECLARING WAR, the Hollande government has outlawed anti-war demonstrations and peace assemblies, thus quashing any possible popular opposition and ending the national dialogue begun over the weekend. (To be sure, the decree outlaws “all” demonstrations, as if the jihadists were likely to descend into the streets with banners.) In the name of fighting for freedom, freedom of assembly has been effectively abolished in France. In the name of French openness, French society has been closed. In the name of unity, France has been divided. Not by the jihadists, not by Le Pen and the racist right, but by the nominally Socialist government. Why?
On Monday, the Belgian writer and historian David van Reybrouck published an open letter to the President of the Republic on Médiapart, which concluded:
Mr. President, you fell right into the trap [laid by Isis] and you fell with your eyes wide open. You fell into the trap because you feel the hot breath of hawks like Nicolas Sarkozy and Marine Le Pen breathing down your neck, and you’ve long had the reputation of a weakling. You fell into the trap. Elections are being readied in France. They’ll take place on December 6 and 13. They’re only regional elections, but after these attacks there’s no question but that they’ll they will take place under the sign of national security. You fell into the trap with both feet, because you pronounced word for word what the terrorist were hoping to hear from you: a declaration of war. You enthusiastically accepted their invitation to jihad. But this response, which you wanted to be firm, runs the monstrous risk of even further accelerating the spiral of violence.
Van Reybrouk’s analysis is worth reading. Among other things, he points out that the jihadists described by M. Holland as a “terrorist army” commanded from the “headquarters” of the Islamic State in Raqqa, were not very professional. One suicide bomber blew himself up in front of McDonalds, killing only one bystander. The group that attacked the stadium missed the president and forgot to block the exits. Moreover, the ISIS bulletins taking credit for the attacks were contradictory, appeared well after the events, and could have been constructed on the basis of news reports.
Further, Hollande’s spectacular “declaration of war” was somewhat tardy, as France has been at war with Syria (a former French colony under League of Nations mandate) since 2011 and has made several air strikes since September. Curiously, unlike in the U.S., the French media never report these military actions, which are also being carried out alongside U.S. forces in Iraq. Nor does the French Army post them on its site. They are, however, noted on Wikipedia. One could add that Raqqa is a city of 200,000, that ISIS moves its ‘headquarters’ every few days, and that hundreds of Syrian civilians in schools and clinics were killed by the French reprisal attacks. Don’t Arab lives matter?
THERE ARE ABOUT ten million Arabs living in France today. The European French media refer to them systematically as “Muslims,” which they are nominally, although not that many pray five times a day or go to the mosque on Friday. (By comparison, no one calls the white European French “Christians.”) So as Arabs and “Moslems,” people of North African origin are subject to both racial and religious prejudices and tend to be excluded from mainstream French society. Unemployment is high, and most Arabs grow up in massive anonymous housing projects on the outskirts of Paris and other cities, the banlieues. In 2005 these ghettos erupted in rioting after police caused the death of a fleeing teenager. (Sarkozy, who was then Minister of the Interior, called the rioters “scum” and then officially invited conservative Moslem immams to help restore order in the projects.) Almost all the suicide bombers of Friday the 13th were French Arabs who grew up in these desperate ghettos, felt excluded, turned to crime, converted to Islam in prison, and then went off to fight in Syria before filtering back into France and carrying out their suicide attacks. If the French Republic, instead of moving to include its Arab minority, provokes a racial/religious war with them, homegrown jihadist cells like last Friday’s crews would rise up by the hundreds and the nightmare vision of an endess racial/religious civil war in this beautiful, peaceful country would come true.
This nightmare is ISIS’s vision, and the danger today is that the Hollande government — by playing with fire — will breath life into it. Until now, President Hollande has been seen as a hack center-left politician whose lack of charisma was pitiful. Apparently, he has seized on this crisis to play the great war leader in the hope of outmaneuvering the far-right National Front and getting reelected. It won’t get him reelected, of course. The French people are too wise to fall for the posturing of a cynical politician pretending to be a de Gaulle. But that is hardly the matter. People are dying under French bombs in Syria, and those chickens are bound to come home to roost in the banlieues of France.
One can only hope that unity in diversity, the intelligence and the courage manifested during these tragic days by the real France profonde, will survive the Hollande government’s suspension of basic freedoms and its divisive, provocative rhetoric designed to build up patriotic fever and silence critics. Discussions about peace are beginning to take place in associations and on line. The real debate about war or peace will continue. Only time will tell the outcome.
It is a tragic time here in France.
Richard Greeman is one of the world’s preeminent Victor Serge scholars and translators. His translation of Serge’s Men in Prison was published by PM Press and Midnight in the Century by NYRB Classics. He splits his time between Montpellier, France and New York.