A Time of Darkness in the City of Light

Paris attacks, Islamophobia, Francois Hollande, Europe news, culture news, World news analysis, Bataclan, Belgium terrorism, Syrian refugees, Europe refugee crisis

© Sergey Aleshin

Islamophobia and indifference in an age of terror tarnish the legacy of Paris as the city of light.

The old city is still beautiful in its elegant, well-designed, almost understated way. In fact, it’s hardly old. What we see, the streets in which we play the flâneur, were designed and built by Georges Eugene Haussmann from 1853. His plans were still being used for city development as late as 1927. The iconic Eiffel Tower was completed in 1889. Essentially, the Paris of today is one and a half centuries old.

The difference between Paris and other cities that began at that time, such as Sydney, are the long wide boulevards and their trees; the plenitude of museums and cultural monuments; and the prohibition against tall buildings, the Tour Montparnasse being an exception. There is thus a skyline everywhere, a horizon. It is not blocked off by skyscrapers. Thus it is the city of light, amplified by those same wide boulevards.

Of course, it is also the city of art—and of exiled artists, writers, musicians and romantics. The Gene Kelly film, An American in Paris, set to Gershwin’s music, ensured that the legend of Paris was enshrined even in Hollywood. Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso and Miles Davis all found their way there as celebrity exiles. Miles Davis said it was the only place he felt free from discrimination. Intellectuals from the emerging nations were also there: Leopold Senghor, the future president of Senegal; Frantz Fanon, who wrote a Bible of revolt; and Ali Shariati, the philosopher of the Iranian revolution. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was also exiled there.

There was a great intermixing of foreigners and local writers and artists. Miles Davis had a relationship with Juliet Greco. Fanon and Shariati were mentored by Jean-Paul Sartre. They all used to drink and argue philosophy and art at La Coupole in Montparnasse. The café is still there, much redeveloped, but still with art works by its original patrons like Jean Cocteau.

Outside the café these days, Syrian refugees beg for coins on the broad sidewalks. A family down the street, both parents and two young children, settle down for the night. The children are smiling as they are told their bedtime stories.

The Reign of Terror

Terrorism has long been a staple of postwar Parisian life. Targets were blown up during the Algerian War of Independence, both as the French tried to hang on to the colony, and as they tried to let it go. The pro-colonial group, Organisation de l’armee secrete, was responsible for a major attack on a train in 1961. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Paris endured sporadic attacks, including those by Carlos the Jackal. In the 1990s, the Algerian Civil War spilled over into France and the Armed Islamic Group attacked public transport.

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However, all these attacks could be linked to clear political issues in the Middle East and to French foreign policy. There was a comparative lull in the frequency and intensity of attacks in the 2000s, until 2015. Then, in January, the Charlie Hebdo attack took place, and in November the carnage at the Bataclan.

What is new is the origin of the 2015 attacks is an ideology of faith rather than politics—certainly not the politics the French themselves pioneered with their own revolution, constitutions, and philosophical writings. Because the ideology is faith-bound, there is no discourse between French political philosophy and a militant Islamic theology. There is no Islamic equivalent of Frantz Fanon, with a foreword by Sartre, and using Lacan as an explicator of the psychology of revolt.

But one must surely be needed soon, as a city as worldly as Paris cannot continue to treat outrage simply as outrage; discuss superficially its sociology, but not its psychology and philosophy. Like all Western intelligence and security forces, the French concentrate on how the Islamic State (IS) does what it does. It tries to defeat the “how.” It does not ask too deeply about the “why.”

But at least the French do a little better than the Belgians. The Paris attacks of late 2015 were planned in Brussels and included several Belgian Islamists. Those who survived fled back to Brussels. Then they attacked Brussels too. Belgium is a state with six rival police forces without intelligence-sharing protocols. They simply collapsed under the challenge of forecasting and preventing attacks on its neighbors and itself. Nevertheless, after the March 2016 attacks in Brussels, the Eiffel Tower in Paris was lit up every night in Belgian colours of red, gold and black. As they had been in red, white and blue after the Paris attacks.

From where I stay in Paris, and was staying throughout March 2016, across the road from Montparnasse Cemetery, one could see the tower. I stayed in the building next to where Simone de Beauvoir lived. She and Jean-Paul Sartre are buried together in the cemetery. For a city that impersonates space, light and elegance, it is strange to contemplate how famous lives were conducted, ended, and were buried in a small suburb—and where they were buried others of the great and the good were also buried. Foreigners like Samuel Beckett and Susan Sontag are there. French legends like Baudelaire are there. Durkheim, Ionesco, Man Ray, Proudhon, Rohmer, even Serge Gainsborough, are there.

At night, one looks across the sweep of their remains, slabs and monuments, to see the sweep of the Eiffel Tower’s searchlight as, underneath, it is lit in the colors of yet another country bloodied in the 21st century’s reign of terror. The searchlight still sweeps, not yet for other countries, but it did for the sister French city of Nice in July 2016.

The Banlieu

The elegance, even of a cemetery, is hardly found in the outskirts of Paris. Actually, they’re not outskirts. They’re the reality of Paris—a reality of a seemingly segregated and schizophrenic city. Here there are high-rise apartment blocks. The horizon seems foreclosed. Elegance and philosophy seem far away. In suburbs like St. Denis, with their heavily mixed populations, the grimier feel seems both invigorating but also, looking over one’s shoulder, treacherous. The main street feels like a seedy part of Beirut but one imagines debates from Mosul, Damascus, Baghdad. One imagines.

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The debates are probably no different in the restaurants and bars of the Edgware Road in London. And the cafes serve wine—and almost anything else that is alcoholic. The mixture is precisely an antidote to paranoia. Everything can be discussed over a glass of wine. And Paris is unpredictable. I’ve had my jacket slashed outside Sonia Rykiel on the Boulevard St. Germain in the heart of the Latin Quarter. Knowing it can happen anywhere, one doesn’t go to a city for safety. One goes to Paris for elegance and philosophy. The question is why are the French frightened to take philosophy to the banlieu?

In the 2005 crackdown on the purported violence and anti-social attitudes of the banlieu, former President Nicolas Sarkozy’s harsh tactics achieved nothing. With the strictures and the rigor of policing, there was no admixture of engagement and dialogue. The youth, precisely of St. Denis, felt restless and resentful over mass unemployment and police harassment. Despite being second-generation French, they felt exiled from France. Sarkozy’s heavy-handed response led to a spiral of attacks and counter-attacks until, finally, 20,000 police were deployed in the Paris suburbs. A state of emergency was declared. The rhetoric was about deportations and against foreigners. But the bulk of the unrest had featured local people.

Sarkozy’s effort having failed, his successors have fielded neither stricture nor engagement— although they have come down hard on atrocities, and President François Hollande has declared the country is at war. And no modern philosopher has spoken for the Islamic community, moderate or radical, although many thinkers, those on the covers of Le Point or Le Nouvel Observateur, or dashingly in the gossip pages of Paris Match, have written portentous tomes of what can only be called Islamophobia.

No one thinks for or with Islam. No one has tried to bring this part of France into France. But, for a city that hosted Shariati and Khomeini, that objected with great eloquence in the UN Security Council to the second Gulf War, this absence of thought and speech, whether in the banlieu or the great organs of state, or in the intellectual journalism that these days passes as philosophy, is a mystery.

On the Streets

Yet French radicalism is not dead. Students and workers still protest against the state’s proposed liberalization of labor laws. The railways go on strike. Cities taste tear gas now as ever before. Before his decision not to contest the 2017 Presidential elections, Hollande was challenged within his Socialist Party by Martine Aubry, a heavyweight of the left.

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But her agenda seems a curious throwback to the left agenda of decades ago, with labor laws at its heart. The “worker” is still the heartbeat of the left, not the migrant, not the refugee. There will likely not be a candidate from the left in the 2017 elections but, for left and right, when it comes to terrorism, there is only rhetoric and intensified exercises in intelligence-gathering— all to do with the “how” of atrocity, and still not the “why.”

The November 2015 attacks saw St. Denis as the epicentre. It had been easy to stage the assault from there. The “how” to fight terrorism of even the French intelligence services had not penetrated the social networks and knowledge banks of the banlieu both on and away from the main streets, and their counterparts in Molenbeek, Belgium, from where the attackers, with their links to the Paris attacks, had set out to bomb the Brussels airport and the metro in March 2016.

On the streets of Paris, because they could not make it to the streets of London, entire families can be seen every night. The success of a British policy against refugees in large numbers has been to see those numbers making do elsewhere. Many are clearly Syrian. They have not yet been able to join in the practice of the local homeless who buy tents and pitch them on the sidewalks.

Beside the Montparnasse Cemetery there is a little encampment of tents, one with an armchair outside, a birdcage with a wooden hoopoe, a sun umbrella. The householder’s little precinct is patrolled by his dog, his leash tied to a tree allowing a circumference of total control. Passers-by walk around the circumference. It is as settled as street life can be.

The Syrian refugees one encounters are without tents and wooden birds in cages. They have not yet reached the appreciation of existential absurdity shown by their local counterparts. They are unfailingly polite. Both husband and wife smile their thanks for a donation. One wonders what the children will remember of their young years on the streets. They all seem aged about five, although one mother was breastfeeding a baby on the bridge beside Notre Dame.

But the poignant aspect about what is a spectacle of deprivation and uprooting is the nightly telling of bedtime stories to the children—and the children, knowing there is no choice but to make so, smiling. But they will remember, and the memory may be carried into the banlieu as social ladders are climbed from streets to petty criminality and gangs, and radicalization.

The sight of destitute families is no doubt repeated in all the great cities of Europe. It looks a disaster in the city of light. And culture, and learning and elegance. It answers the city of philosophy with its own questions about the meaning of life. And compassion. And the moral destitution of jadedness.

A Paris of Our Times

The great philosophers are dead. Many are buried in the Montparnasse Cemetery. Many of their successors are narrow-minded flâneurs of the intellect. The successors too are dying—André Glucksmann on November 10, 2015, just three days before the atrocity at the Bataclan. In his late life, amidst the bewildering curves that French intellectual life now takes between left and right, he repudiated the notion that Islamic terrorism was the result of a “clash of civilizations.” But human rights and a sense of compassion have always been in his thought. A sense of nostalgia for solidarity too.

In the late 1970s, Glucksmann helped convene a conference of indignation against the lack of international governmental help for the boat people of his day—fleeing from Vietnam. To the conference came the elderly and frail Jean-Paul Sartre, and the historian Raymond Aron. They had quarrelled decades ago. No one remembered why. There is a wonderful photograph of the young Glucksmann bringing the two old sages together. And they reconciled. It was a nice sideshow that set off the real issue of the Vietnamese refugees. How they should be accepted and, in France, help with the merger of civilizations.

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Today, Sartre and Aron are buried in the same cemetery—Glucksmann elsewhere, in the Père Lachaise Cemetery, where Jim Morrison also lies. In France, for the great and the good and the accepted foreigners, those with art and intellect like Morrison and Sontag, it has to be one of those two cemeteries.

In a sense, the cemetery became a symbol of my stay in Paris. All the great thought has gone. All the efforts to say that refugees are one with us has disappeared into an unquestioned puff of Islamophobia. Critical thinking about life and the destiny of history lies under marble slabs. People bring flowers. There seems always a long-stemmed rose on the grave of Sartre and de Beauvoir.

Others are less fortunate. They get the ceramic flowers in artificial planter boxes that can be bought from the six funeral accessory shops that surround the cemetery. Looking toward where she lies, the apartment block of de Beauvoir is being renovated and some parts gutted. One looks into the hollow space, the cave, and hopes a new elegance will grow in Paris.

Once I passed by, on the Boulevard du Montparnasse, down the road from La Coupole and a block away from the Montparnasse Cemetery, an ambulance crew attending someone who seemed to have had a heart attack or a stroke. The French are sanguine. No crowds formed. The victim looked like one of the Syrian refugees. It won’t be Montparnasse or Père Lachaise Cemetery. No philosopher will come to his brief funeral. But some few meters of elegant French ground will finally accept him.

*[Stephen Chan’s new book, Plural International Relations in a Divided World, is published by Polity in February 2017.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit: Sergei_Aleshin

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