Letter from Paris
Some thoughts on the situation we are living through, right now, in Paris and in France.
It’s a difficult moment.
People are in shock, sad, very concerned. One can feel it in daily life. There is also a widespread need to talk and exchange ideas and feelings, among neighbors, work colleagues, and even strangers encountered in the transportation system or in the street. There is a feeling that the basis of social life is fragile and delicate. The desire for solidarity can be felt in the way people look at each other, in the words that pass between them. This is probably stronger in the popular milieu where, as in the area on the edge of Paris where I live, many people are of immigrant origin and many come specifically from what is called “Islamic culture.” They are afraid that they are going to pay a high price for the current situation. They also know that what is happening is, in part, the result of their distress, the social decomposition of sectors of the proletarian community, which is experiencing division, exclusion, and repression. Urban French society is extremely diverse, and there is a feeling that this mixture is something which should be defended and respected; otherwise the social situation will become even worse.
For reactionary types, of course, this diversity is the big problem. As some politician from the right just said, speaking elliptically, “Immigration makes things more complicated.” Immigrants are already marginalized; now they are the number one suspects. As a young guy was saying the other day on the bus, “The police already loved us and they were on us all the time. Now, we also have the journalists coming up to us. That must be what they call terrorism!”
The bloody massacre was a military-type action, carried out by people who identify with groups who are at war with the French state. They see themselves as soldiers. One of the commandos, after killing 12 people in the Charlie Hebdo office, refused to kill a hostage, saying, “We do not kill civilians.” Moved by ideological fanaticism, they executed journalists whom they saw as serving the war of the French state. The targeting of Jewish people in the kosher supermarket was also justified as part of the overall war going on, as a reply to the killing of children in Gaza.
For more than 20 years, the French state has been engaged in several wars and military operations in Africa and the Middle East. Today, more than 8,000 French soldiers are engaged, from Iraq to the Sahel, with planes, warships, and so on. This engagement has been reinforced by the present Socialist government, which keeps talking about going to war everywhere where it’s needed. Since the beginning of the 20th century and the First World War, socialists have shown their love for war, and when they are in power one can be sure that they will do their best. It was obvious to anyone who thought about it that this permanent war, which is spreading all over around us, bringing destruction, death, and the massive displacement of populations, would have consequences. How could people think the war was only on television and would not come home? Now, everybody knows, and French society has been awakened to the problem in a brutal way. For the moment, and this is certainly one of the most striking aspects of the present situation, only rarely does a public voice express concern about the war in the media or in political discourse. Only some secret service officials dare to do so, softly. I think that this question is now agitating the spirits of many and that this debate will not be suppressed much longer. The fact is that a Socialist government has better ideological means of keeping the question of war out of public discussion. I’m sure that under a right-wing government the recent demonstrations would have taken on an anti-war character, as they did in Spain after the Madrid attacks in 2004.
This brings us to a second important aspect of the present situation. The first demonstrations against the killings were spontaneous and very intense: hundreds of thousands, “political” and “apolitical” people, came together in public places, and their slogans were against the barbarous acts as such, without being nationalistic, racist, or patriotic. The Socialist government understood very quickly that they should take the lead and organize the protests before they could turn against the state’s military engagement and their own responsibility. They appealed for “National Unity.” The President met with the leader of the National Front—for the first time—along with the leader of the Left Socialist party. The message was clear: the “extremes” are close! The extreme right was “officially” recognized by the Socialists as a normal partner in the political game and their members invited to participate in the demos—which they did all over the country, singing the national anthem, waving national flags, cheering the police, giving a dominantly patriotic tone to the demos. An alliance with the traditional right for a “defense policy against terrorism” was also immediately accepted. This alliance, the climax of “National Unity,” makes it possible to ignore, among other things, questions about the conditions that give rise to such attacks and about the failures of the French secret services. Without falling for conspiracy theories, there are a number of strange facts to note: the commandos were well known but not followed a Charlie Hebdo was known to be a main target but not well protected; a terrorist involved in a previous attack against Jewish kids had probably been a double agent for the French services, etc. It’s quite possible that divisions and antagonisms exist inside the intelligence services and that some sectors are not unhappy about the consequences of these killings, which can reinforce the acceptance of right-wing forces and ideas in French society. But it’s also possible that the services are simply unable to keep track of all these young guys who are attracted to fanatic militancy. This in itself suggests the importance of the problem inside French society.
Patriotic unity was also a form suited to neutralizing the leftist socialists, communists, greens, and union leaders, political forces that have been totally diluted in the mass demonstration and its patriotic dimension. Whatever the intentions of individuals who wished to demonstrate a critical attitude towards the government, they ended by being integrated into the mass rallies and counted as “people demanding a strong response from government.” In fact they were demonstrating in a mobilization organized by the state and their critical concern was never recognized. Today, the slogan “Je suis Charlie” (“I am Charlie”), taken up by banks, companies, celebrities, and even religious leaders (!), more and more means: “I am on the side of the state.” It’s not surprising that you don’t see it so much in the working-class immigrant areas.
The fact is that the recent massacres were a victory for both camps. For the state, the immediate result of the mass demos (about four million people in France)—led by a disgusting collection of war criminals (from Netanyahu to officials representing the Russian, Turkish, and Saudi Arabian governments) and political movers of ongoing wars—was to mobilize society to support current policies. To divide more deeply the proletarian class, a class collectively already undergoing decomposition as an effect of the economic and social crisis. To justify more repressive measures, a version of the American Patriot Act, which they will probably push in a different way in France, by adding measures to those already in place, without giving them a specific name.
For the jihadist enemy of the French state, the victory is also a big one. The reactionary religious forces, which take credit for the attacks, present themselves as the “security,” the “protectors” of the abandoned sectors of the working class, which have an “Islamic culture.” There is a risk in this, since, as some good observers keep saying, there is today in France no such thing as an “Islamic community.” The mechanisms of French society are still able to create a living mixture from a diverse population. But the development of the crisis, the destruction of public services, especially education, and mass unemployment and social exclusion, will favor the fabrication of such a community, to the joy of the religious fanatics. In the areas where most of the French kids of immigrant origin live, the rate of youth unemployment is about 60 percent. When one reads about the itinerary of the three fanatics who committed the massacre, it’s clear that they were lost in society, and that they looked to religion to orient themselves. The marginalization of large sectors of working people has transformed their living areas into sorts of “reservations,” which are increasingly seen by the conservative sectors of society (and not only them) as reservations of “Islamic radicalism and barbarism.”
Surely, the government hopes to take advantage of the present situation to proceed with measures of internal social war, taking additional time and space to deal administratively with the social consequences of the economic crisis. A few days after the massacre, while the president went to visit a naval base in the south of France, Air France announced the layoff of 5,000 workers, mostly holders of lower-paid jobs on which thousands of families in the Paris area depend. The external war will continue. Unemployment and poverty will continue to increase; social and educational services will continue to degrade. These are different wars, which are aspects of a global war. Only an opposition to the internal social war will be able to change the current trend. But if the patriotic “National Unity” takes the lead, things will only get worse.
CHARLES REEVE lives and writes in Paris.