By Patrice De Beer
The morning after was horrible, like a moral, emotional hangover. Even for a former war correspondent who has covered too many wars and massacres, but who has, for the first time, witnessed shooting at a stone’s throw from his family members.
Ten months after last January’s attacks against the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdoand a kosher shop in Paris, people thought, hoped, things would never be the same after a spectacular solidarity march. And now, it has started again, in a more massive, brutal way, and it looks like it could repeat itself again. After what had been, for ISIS, an attack against the “enemies” of Islam – or rather their senseless version of it – France is facing for the first time senseless random killings. A first here, even if the London attacks in 2005 and those in Madrid in 2004 had already targeted ordinary people only united by the fact that they were using public transport at the wrong time.
So now, as politicians and media say, it is “war”, not the war of words we too often indulge in, but the real thing. Not in Beirut or in Syria, Iraq or Turkey, but here, in Europe, at our doorsteps. A war situation with new border controls and, for the first time in decades, a state of emergency.
But while this war is not, or not yet, an all-out war like WW I or II, the sense of national unity we shared after Charlie has already started to crack, only hours after the blood of 219 persons was shed on the streets of Paris, thanks to politicians mainly concerned with next month’s regional elections, personal or ideological hatreds and their political ambitions. Sad.
A brand new situation?
This all-out, indiscriminate attack, hitting Parisian bourgeois alongside youngsters from the ‘banlieues’, Muslims, Christians, Jews and non-believers alike, rich and poor just because they are French – i.e., for IS, evil “Crusaders” – this has created a brand new situation.
Of course it is far too early to assess in depth its emotional or political impact. We are used to seeing promises forgotten, solidarity broken by the stark reality of ordinary life, to see people going back to their ordinary lives, forgetting their good intentions or promises of more integration, more solidarity.
Yet, these attacks have changed our reactions, our vision on two crucial points. One, it shows that the problems linked to the integration of the highest number of people of Muslim origin anywhere in Europe are not at the root of what has happened since the old colonial days.
And two, many Muslims are gradually realising that they have become as much of an ISIS target as everyone else. So that, by making us all a target, their strategy of dividing French society along ethnic and religious lines has finally contributed to strengthening national unity. For the self-proclaimed Caliph of Raqqa, Muslims are a target for the very reason that they live in a non-Islamic world. They are mere “traitors”, nothing else.
Of course, thousands of disgruntled youngsters have joined the so-called “jihad” in Syria and hundreds, if not more, of them are lying low in our midst, ready for a bloody opportunity to “punish” our societies if they find the guts and/or the logistical support to hit us. But nothing will change that, not even the most caring integration policy, as they feel at war with us ALL only because we all live in a democracy.
This is even more so in France, which is fighting Islamic terrorism in Mali, Iraq and Syria and is so proud of her secularism that the Muslim scarf has been banned in public places; mainly at the request of young women from the “banlieues” fed up with family pressure to behave like obedient creatures of the Islam of yesteryear while they want to live in the world of today.
New voices and testimonies
The earliest articulated reactions are encouraging. And sound different from Charlie’s days when many French Muslims did not feel concerned or tried to explain or justify why Jews and journalists had been targeted. Now it is THEY who feel targeted. It might not last but things are changing. Like this young man interviewed near the targeted Cambodian restaurant who referred to the victims as “we” and said that it had to reopen as soon as possible otherwise it would look as if “they had won”.
Or those interviewed this Sunday in the left-leaning daily Libération outside a Paris mosque. “There is something wrong”, the caretaker said in broken French. “Our whole country is paying with her blood”. “I don’t feel as if we are at war because (…) if we consider ourselves at war, then they’ll have won the battle”, said another man. “This will once again be laid at our feet”, feared another as politicians on the right and most on the far right are putting the blame on the Muslim community. What better answers to National Front leader Marine Le Pen, talking about “bacterial immigration”, as others ask for thousands of suspicious people to be locked up in “camps”, blaming it all on President Hollande’s “mosqueification” of France.
Blood in the streets of Paris had not yet dried when Hollande was also criticised by his predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, for his “weakness” while some on the left blame him for being “too tough”.
Or young Hassan, who, the morning after, in a “banlieue” café near the Stade de France, where four kamikaze blew themselves up, asked, “How is it possible to blow yourself up in the name of religion?” While, for Tarek, “They attacked us here, right at home. France is at war and she can count on us, from the banlieues”. Said another, whose family had fled Algeria during the civil war against the Islamists, “We came to France to get away from all that”.
When their lives are being threatened, despite the discrimination at work and socially – and the exclusion which they share with millions of “native” French people desperately looking for a job and a decent living in a “liberal” world which is creating more and more inequality – many feel French as much as they do Muslim.
If this were to take a stronger shape. If we can for once overcome our national sport of political bickering. If we can stop our navel gazing and start to look at others as equals, then this massacre could well be a step too far for Daesh, as it would alienate from them the vast majority of French Muslims, while detaching the small groups of Islamists and potential terrorists from their peaceful co-believers.
We can’t opt out
But this is not all. We are now at war, whether we like it or not, and opting out won’t guarantee us against Daesh strategy. The age of liberal innocence and do-goodness, of naivety, of faint-heartedness and opening borders to everyone and everything are now gone, at least for some time.
We can’t lay down our defences in front of those who want to destroy us, wearing explosive vests or carrying a gospel of hatred. We have to reinvent ourselves in this new situation, as human beings have been doing since they came into this world, if we don’t want to fade away like dinosaurs. This will cost us some comfort, a lot of money and a good amount of pragmatism.
And this cannot be done outside of Europe. A Europe with real borders, and limits, opened but not to anyone and anything, and under serious control. With real solidarity and cooperation, economic, social but also political, judiciary and security.
No European country, even Britain, can defend herself any more on her own and each one is now a potential target for ISIS. More efforts have to be made – jointly – on security and defence. Cutting corners on our security expenditure has to stop, and these efforts should stop being counted in the 3% threshold of budget deficit as they are a fundamental tool of the war we are facing. How long can we afford to make idealism the flavour of the day, if it is at the cost our future?
This post first appeared in OpenDemocrarcy’s Can Europe Make it? series
Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Euro Crisis in the Press blog, nor of the London School of Economics.
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