What has been happening in Paris and in France during the past several days?
I use the past perfect tense because with the killing of the killers it is now over (although the police have yet to locate an accomplice of the killers, Hayat Boumeddiene).
What has happened, whatever it was, was, if nothing else, big news right from the beginning—journalists gunned down in their home offices in Paris. In my own case I was tuned in from the moment the news broke, this being about 7:30 Wednesday morning, and I knew right away that what had happened was more than the usual news bulletin of Muslim fanatics killing themselves along with scores of others, usually Muslims like themselves.
When I first heard the news it was, of course, about 1:30 in Paris and the assassins had fled the premises of Charlie Hebdo, Place de la République. This was all of exciting. These guys, two brothers as we learned later, were not the usual suicide bombers. And from then on during the next two days I followed the chase, a page turner is there ever was one, although in this case without any power of my own to turn the pages and find out what happened.
What happened came two days later, on Friday, when the police turned on the aggressors and killed them. Might make an exciting story, based on everything I’d heard so far, but the principals, those who knew best what happened and might have told their stories, the Charlie cartoonists and the Muslim Jihadists, were all dead.
Much like a war where there’s no one left, no survivors to tell the tale. And instead we’ll have to listen for some time to all those who weren’t there themselves but who will be telling us what happened.
And there will be legions of those, in particular all those who will draw the lessons, for France, Europe, immigration, Islam’s relations with the West, and even for America, all those who will turn what happened into a morality, or better political tale with a lesson.
Just today, Saturday, The French Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, declared in a speech in Évry, south of Paris, that France was at war with radical Islam after the harrowing sieges that had led to the deaths of three gunmen and four hostages the day before, and as the authorities mounted a frantic hunt for a suspected accomplice. “It is a war against terrorism,” he said, “against jihadism, against radical Islam, against everything that is aimed at breaking fraternity, freedom, solidarity.”
Wow! But in all these accounts there is no lack of extravagant statements. There’s Steven Erlanger, for example, a reasonable man and competent journalist if there ever was one, now the London bureau chief for the New York Times, but for a long time based in Paris, a city he knows well. His tale entitled, “Paris experienced days of sirens, fear and blood, and France was turned upside down,” was from today’s Times.
He writes “Days of sirens, fear and blood, …”, I suppose, from the safe distance of London (although I grant him a great knowledge of Paris). Now, if you’ve ever lived in Paris sirens you must know well. You hear them all the time. But fear and blood?? Even on this “bloody” occasion how many people saw blood, experienced fear? The single policeman guarding the Charlie offices and the single hostage were probably afraid, but weren’t the neighbors more curious than anything else to know what happened? I know I would have been.
And furthermore, it will take more than two brothers in Jihadism (not even intending to blow themselves up) to turn France upside down. Now if ever we were to boycott French wine and cheese…
I’m not trying to minimize what happened in the offices of Charlie Hebdo, but, and in spite of what “some may say,” this was not France’s 9/11. For all sorts of good reasons the Charlie offices are not the Twin Towers.
Sure Charlie Hebdo stood for complete freedom of expression, a major pillar of the French République, but Charlie was not alone in this. It was only one relatively small publication in a whole country that shared the same Républican beliefs and these beliefs are not seriously menaced by a few Jihadists, even those who, as Erlanger points out, are also French citizens fluent in the language of Voltaire and Pascal.
Now this last observation is over the top. Whatever language the Jihadists spoke it was not the language of Voltaire and Pascal. What Erlanger had a perfect right to say was that the Kouachi brothers were fluent in French. But not to qualify their French as the language of Voltaire and Pascal.
For the real language of Voltaire and Pascal is not so much French (in fact when I read either the one or the other author I often forget the language I’m reading them in) —as a universal language, that of the humanists among us.
If the Kouachi brothers had been fluent in this language, that which is in fact the language of Voltaire and Pascal, they couldn’t possibly have done what they did. Erlanger is confusing fluent in a language as being, what?…, knowledgeable, understanding of what is being said in the language? Big mistake. And probably one that many people make.
Is there a lesson to draw from all this? No, I don’t think so. Although what Erlanger does say in the same article about the social and living conditions of the immigrant populations in France today comes close.
For example, as Erlanger reminds us, the Fifth Republic was fashioned for a strong president, actually for Charles DeGaulle, and today the president, François Hollande is not up to the task.
And yes, again as Erlanger says, France is faced with questions about its future. In particular, how large can the radicalized part of the country’s Muslim population, already the largest in Europe, be, without further Charlie Hebdo like happenings?
And much the same question, as Erlanger again asks, how deep is the rift between France’s values of secularism, of individual, sexual and religious freedom, of freedom of the press and the freedom to shock, and that growing radicalized part of the Muslim population that rejects many of these values in the name of religion?
It is probably accurate to say, as does Erlanger, that France has been without strong presidential leadership, probably since Charles De Gaulle and the early years of the 5th République, with the result that there are now living in France some 3 to 4 million Muslims, all with French citizenship, but too many of whom continue to feel left out and left behind, too many of whom are still not accepted as being “French.”
What happened this week may very well happen again, and may be more apt to happen again if the living and working conditions of the Muslim population in France do not improve, although Islamic fanaticism of the Al Qaeda kind, probably not these conditions, were the direct cause of what happened in the offices of Charlie Hebdo.
Still what France should be most afraid of is not Al Qaeda, or ISIS, but a weak central government not doing enough to make the Muslim population an integral part of France, meaning in particular doing little or nothing to improve living conditions in the banlieues, those mostly poor immigrant suburbs surrounding many of France’s mostly white and privileged populations living and working in the affluent central city districts.