Straws in the Paris wind

A file photo of candles forming the word "Paris" outside the French embassy in Berlin, Germany after the terror attacks in Paris.  

“Could you please tell me what’s the purpose of your visit to Paris, sir,” said the receptionist at the Best Western Hotel Diva Opera, not too far from the Louvre museum on the Seine river, after carefully examining my passport, demanding a copy of my host’s credit card used to book my room, and inspecting the documentary proof for my visit. “What kind of a question is that? Why do people come to Paris?” I thought to myself, and told her I had never before been asked such a question while checking into a Paris hotel. “We are going through difficult times, sir,” she said.

Happymon Jacob
The newly introduced security measures were not limited to the hotel alone. I had to get my passport verified at the Tegel Airport in Berlin while boarding a flight to Paris last week and repeat the same at the Charles de Gaulle Airport as well. The European Union (EU) citizens had to show their national identify cards for entry into the flight and Paris.

All these ‘first time’ security measures were understandable given what had taken place in Paris just the previous week; the country was still mourning its dead, and worried about its injured. But what’s worrying is that these measures may not be discontinued any time soon.

Paris removed from its usual self

Through the past week, the city of Paris was not its usual self: from its classy, crowded, almost-snobbish self, it suddenly looked like an insecure, tense old man wary of strangers. Every gaze one encountered in the streets had a question mark in it.

Emmett Strickland, a young American research student at Sciences Po, who I met at a seminar in Paris last week, had this to say: “There is now a genuine public concern for personal safety. I went outside in the popular Marais district the Saturday afternoon, the day after the attacks. Things were extremely quiet for a Saturday afternoon in downtown Paris. I went in a Starbucks, which is usually packed with customers, and less than half of the seats were full. Starbucks on Saturday is generally a loud, chaotic mess, but that day it felt more like an independent small-town coffee shop. Cinemas, fearing that they would be vulnerable targets, closed down entirely, and U2 cancelled the Paris leg of their tour. Part of me also would like to say that the train station that I pass through after work has also been consistently less busy since the attack, though I admit part of that may be my own imagination.”

The survival of a unified Europe requires a fine balance between the unique realpolitik instincts and strategic priorities of its member states, and its supranational ideals.

The buoyant and liberal French way of life suddenly seemed under the microscope: what did they do that the Islamic militants are so unhappy with them? Is it just the retaliation from the Daesh (the Islamic State, IS) for the French war efforts in Syria? Or has something gone wrong with the French social equation? This is an important question given that most of the attackers were born and brought up in France, not trained fighters slipped into Paris by Daesh.

My cab driver, a practicing Muslim of Tunisian descent, had a string of complaints about how France treats its religious minorities, especially Muslims. He left his job in an accounting firm, he tells me, because he felt it difficult to pray five times a day during office hours without attracting the disapproval of his employer.

Schengen Agreement under threat

The >Paris terror attacks seem to have challenged the foundational ideals that form the basis of the European Union, a project, many argue, is already on the verge of collapse. Clearly, the supranational European entity is struggling to cobble together adequate responses to a phenomenon that traditional states have summarily failed in doing. How seriously does the heightened level of insecurity threaten the idea of a unified Europe? Can the institutional structures of EU address the local security concerns of states like France?

With France declaring a state of emergency and suspending the Schengen Agreement indefinitely, the grand dream of a borderless Europe and its impressive promise — “The free movement of persons is a fundamental right guaranteed by the EU to its citizens. Schengen cooperation enhances this freedom by enabling citizens to cross internal borders without being subjected to border checks” — are facing a huge challenge.

France had already taken the necessary clearances to suspend the Schengen Agreement for a month in preparation for the forthcoming >Paris Climate Conference . The terror attacks have made the suspension indefinite and at the moment there is no clarity on when the suspension will be withdrawn, with French officials insisting that the full free flow of people and goods can happen only when the two key expectations from the Schengen system — border control by individual states (at the time of entry) and police coordination among Schengen states — are properly implemented. >French officials are particularly annoyed with states like Belgium for serious lapses in this regard.

The >uneven focus on border control stems from the fact that the problems of insecurity and terrorism are felt differently by different states, and so they deal with them differently. The survival of a unified Europe requires a fine balance between the unique realpolitik instincts and strategic priorities of its member states, and its supranational ideals.

Terror has an uncanny capacity to provoke hard-line political reactions, and France is no exception. >French President François Hollande , a socialist leader, is under immense pressure from both the citizens and the right wing parties in the wake of the terror attacks. With the >regional elections in France round the corner , Mr. Hollande, at least for now, seems to have stolen the thunder from the right-wing by sounding exactly like them. >By declaring emergency, closing the borders, declaring a ‘pitiless war’ on terror , and amplifying the bombing campaign in Syria, the Socialist Party leader is riding high on the popularity charts and is set to take on the right-wing National Front in the upcoming elections. Moreover, Mr. Hollande has asked the Parliament to amend the Constitution to give him unprecedented exceptional powers to fight terror, including the powers to continue with the ‘state of emergency’ for three months instead of 12 days, as is the case now.

Competitive nationalism

In response, the far-right National Front president Marine Le Pen, whose political prospects are benefitting from the terror attacks, is taking the debate to the next level by demanding an immediate halt to the French intake of refugees. Clearly, this display of competitive nationalism between the French Left and Right could make French politics and policies less liberal in the days to come, with adverse implications, especially for the country’s relationship with the EU.

The terror attacks in Paris are quickly leading to a humanitarian catastrophe of immense proportions for the refugees fleeing the ruthless methods of the Daesh and the air campaigns of the West.

The refugee flow, to be clear, is itself a result of the ongoing Western war on terror in West Asia. The renewed war efforts in the wake of the terror attacks would drive more refugees towards the West which, unlike in the recent past, is unwilling to admit them into its own borders.

Even prior to the Paris attacks, only nine out of the 28 EU states were admitting refugees but now even they are unwilling to do so. The new Polish government is rethinking its earlier policy of supporting an EU-wide agreement to accept refugees based on a quota system. The Hungarian government has also opposed the quota system. Sweden, which has just reversed a liberal refugee policy, is the latest to jump on the “no more refugees” bandwagon. In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel is under intense scrutiny for having followed a liberal refugee policy that has so far admitted over a million refuges into the country this year alone.

Moreover, if the feelings in France are anything to go by, there will be even more pressure on migrant populations in Europe to abide by the culture and values of the host country, which could, in turn, lead to more alienation and discontent.

Finally, and most importantly, will the liberal Europe — traditionally friendly towards refugees, promoter of human rights and defender of modern liberal values, often giving unsolicited advice to Asian and African states on the need to respect religious diversity and human rights — survive the shocking recognition that “security comes first, the rest can follow”?

( Happymon Jacob teaches Disarmament and National Security at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. E-mail: happymon@gmail.com.)

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Printable version | Apr 17, 2021 11:34:58 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/after-effects-of-paris-terror-attacks-straws-in-the-paris-wind/article7919885.ece

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