Shadows in the city of light

MOMENT FOR REFLECTION:People observe a minute’s silence at the Place de Trocadero in Paris on November 16 in honour of the victims. —PHOTO: AFP  

t the Musée de l'Orangerie in Paris, a smattering of visitors enjoy a rare and unencumbered view of the museum [of Impressionist and post-Impressionist paintings]/art gallery’s most famous offering — Claude Monet’s celebrated “Water Lilies”, a meditative play of colour and light on canvases that flow unbroken along the walls of two elliptical rooms. The artist gifted the paintings to the French people as a celebration of peace after the First World War.

“This never happens. We have only 20 per cent of our usual crowd here today,” says museum guide Cecile Tertre as she leads a group of two visitors on a tour of the museum’s collection. On any normal day, the Monet rooms are so full of jostling crowds that it is difficult to get an unrestricted view of the paintings.

But this is not a normal day for the Orangerie, or indeed for Paris. It is only a week since a devastating terrorist attack left 129 people dead and hundreds more injured, and the international tourist flow to the city has taken a temporary hit. On the surface, and to the superficial eye of a visitor, the city may appear to have bounced back after the catastrophe. Schools, offices and shops are open, public transport is moving, and the average Parisian is back in action again. Or this is what the city and its gritty citizens would have the outside world believe. Underneath the surface layer of calm lies turmoil, uncertainly and fears for the future.

A difficult year

Paris has been a soft target for extremists. When jihadist gunmen mowed down journalists at the offices of the publication, Charlie Hebdo , in January this year, it was the press and freedom of expression that were the targets. The motivations of the gunmen, however distorted, appeared to be clear. As a society, the French have been much more tolerant of religious mockery and satire than most other Western nations. The fiercely independent journalists at Charlie Hebdo knew the risks they were taking. Charlie Hebdo ’s fierce independence has long attracted admiration and criticism, as does its relentless pursuit of politicians and public figures who abused the public trust. Nothing was sacred, least of all religion: child abuse by Catholic priests and violence by self-proclaimed protectors of Islam were both considered fair game. Whether it was child abuse in the Catholic church, the violence of jihadists claiming they were acting for Islam and Muslims, or the godheads of religions, Charlie Hebdo subjected all to its penetrating and irreverent scrutiny.

The terror attacks this month, believed to be the worst ever in Europe, were however different. The do-and-die conspiracy was conceived outside France, it involved meticulous planning and sophisticated resources (like the suicide jackets that the terrorists used), and it engaged assassins of nationalities other than French as well. The targets — the Stade de France where a football match was on, some popular bars in central Paris, and the famous Bataclan concert hall — were all venues of culture and recreation, preoccupations that lie at the heart of French life.

Public uncertainties have been kept alive by non-stop media coverage of the attacks and the investigation; by credible warnings of further attacks by French government spokespersons; by rumours; by the operation to flush out a terrorist cell by security forces in the Parisian suburb of Saint-Denis; and overall, by fears that the fundamental features of the social contract between the state and people will change.

A “turning point for France,” is how Célia Blauel, Deputy Mayor for Paris in charge of Environment, Climate Action, Sustainable Development and Water, described the situation to The Hindu two days after the attack when France was still in a state of official mourning.

Silent mourning

It is significant that the swell of public grief for those whose lives were taken in a senseless act of hatred did not fuel a backlash against, or the targeting of, Muslims or immigrants in either the media or on the ground, at least in Paris.

Following Friday night’s massacre, silent crowds of mourners began gathering on Sunday morning at the square known as the Place de la République to place flowers or simply stand in silent communion at the bronze statue of Marianne, the personification of the French Republic and its founding values of liberty, equality and fraternity.

“It could have been me,” said Garnel, a young Parisian mourner with trademark tattoos and dreadlocks. “After a week’s hard work we all want to go out and enjoy ourselves.”

“The dead are mostly the young, and they died for nothing,” echoed Christopher Fernando, a Parisian of Sri Lankan origin. “It could have been my son.”

By evening the Plaza was packed with mourners, some there to offer flowers and candles, others to write messages of solidarity and peace in chalk on the ground, and yet others to sing the rousing lyrics of the Marseilles together. Ingrid Therawath, a journalist, speaking to a TV channel could be heard saying in heated tones, “Don’t patronise us by asking if we want tolerance. We want equality. That is what France stands for.”

Will the attacks weaken the concept of Laïcité , the form of French secularity that draws a red line between Church and state in French public life? Will it give ground for the National Front, the far right in French politics to conflate and fan fears over Islam, immigration and terrorism? In 2004, France passed a law to reassert the right of the government to ban the wearing of conspicuous religious symbols such as headscarves, skullcaps and crosses from public schools.

In 2011, it extended the ban to the wearing of full-face veils in public places. These were measures that received public support of 82 per cent, according to a report by the Pew Research Center. Another Pew report from 2014 indicated that 72 per cent of the French public had favourable views of Muslims.

“Of course Laïcité is not under threat,” said Aminah Mohammad-Arif, an anthropologist and faculty member working on Muslim minorities in South Asia at the prestigious French National Center for Scientific Research in Paris. “The target of the jihadis was primarily young people who were on that tragic evening in places embodying fun and entertainment — a concert hall, bars and a stadium. There is not much connection with secularism here.”

Others have a more guarded view of the long-term implications of the terror attacks.

A new ‘French social model’

“At short term, there was a very intense ‘unity’ mood in France, around the victims and against terror, but we already saw yesterday political divisions rapidly re-emerge,” said Frédéric Lebaron, Professor of Sociology at the Université de Versailles Saint-Quentin, Versailles. “Social divisions may deepen with political and religious crispation, with an extreme-right capitalising on fear and racism. Our society is already divided, and it will be hard to prevent an intensification of structural tensions. The only long-term solution is, to my opinion, a revival of the notion of ‘social republic’ that is a national pact centered on equality, that would combine the highest level of political and cultural freedom and a strong commitment to social and economic justice. A new ‘French social model’, so to speak.”

The economic and social exclusion that French immigrants suffer can be seen in the suburbs of Paris. France has its own long history of immigration — shaped by colonialism — with the Muslim world. Most immigrants came after World War II. French Muslims are highly diverse with a large section from the Maghreb. As French law prohibits the collection of data, like census data for example, on race or religion, population estimates of the Muslim immigrants vary widely, though it is believed to be around 5 million. Large sections of the Muslim population remain excluded with lower education and skill levels. National data suggests that in 2013 the unemployment rate for all immigrants was approximately 17 per cent, as against the national average of 9.7 per cent.

Emergency measures

Of concern too is the impact of the new constitutional changes envisaged by President François Hollande to beef up internal security. He has received parliamentary approval for a three-month extension of internal emergency, but hopes that the constitutional changes, once passed, will give constitutional status to several emergency measures. While there is overall support for taking emergency measures in a crisis, political parties and commentators are not happy over long-term restrictions on personal freedom.

The Conservative paper, Le Figaro , reported that the state of emergency is not to the liking of Justice Minister Christiane Taubira, who is concerned about provision in a proposed law to deprive those proven guilty of certain crimes of their French nationality, given that her brief is to protect civil liberties. An recent editorial by Libération argued that the politics of the far-right National Front must be countered. The aims of the National Front party are to close borders and increase everyday policing, which they claim will help multi-country terrorism.

Under internal emergency called by Mr. Hollande, anyone suspected of being a threat to public order can be placed under house arrest. Search operations can be conducted by the police without a magistrate’s warrant; websites and social media can be blocked; and organisations banned.

There are also concerns about the merits of the French aerial bombing of Syria and whether these air raids are actually finding their Islamic State targets or if the “collateral damage” is greater than the intended damage.

A Bradley Manning [Chelsea Elizabeth Manning] will be needed to provide the truth for these questions. Meanwhile, liberal French men and women will find their own ways of keeping the fires of reason and peace alive.

For a person like Cecile Tertre of the Orangerie and a mother of a nine-month-old baby, this lies in individual and group interventions. “A few of us want to go to schools and speak about art to children. We want them to see essential reality and be touched by the beauty of nature.”


Of course Laïcité is not under threat…”

— Aminah Mohammad-Arif

| anthropologist and