I’ve been living in France since 1981. Six years ago I retired to a quiet corner of the Vendée, but before that I spent 30 years in the Paris region. In 1986, when Fouad Ali Saleh and his bunch were setting off bombs all over the city, I crossed Paris twice a day to and from work, as did millions of others. We would check under the seats in the métro and the RER, and generally keep an eye open for unattended bags — I caused a minor upset by calling the security service over what looked look an abandoned briefcase in the office block where I worked in La Défense — but beyond that there was nothing we could do, and we knew it. Statistically, the chances that any one of us would be harmed were minimal, so we just went about our business as usual.
Naturally, this experience came to mind as I read Rachida Dati’s opinion piece about the terrorist threat for the Guardian last week. Opportunist as ever, she does in fact make some good points, but you’d never have guessed where she was going from the opening paragraphs, which are a disgustingly demagogic diatribe against the government:
“The French prime minister, Manuel Valls, addressed the people in the aftermath of the attacks and implied that they should expect more attacks on French soil in the near future. For such a senior figure to suggest that we should adapt to fear, violence and bloodshed was, in my mind, beyond belief. It displayed a clear lack of leadership at a time when the people need more: the people need to be, and to feel, protected.”
The whole point is that an open, democratic society cannot protect itself 100% against terrorism without betraying its core values, and France is particularly vulnerable, as Jason Burke points out here:
“Undoubtedly, the role France has historically assumed as standard bearer of western secular liberalism has also put the nation in the spotlight. Islamic extremists may see the US as a source of moral decadence and economic exploitation, but France is seen as an atheist power which is both defending western ideals such as human rights, free speech and democracy and, in the eyes of jihadis, trying to impose them on the Islamic world.”
Hollande looks punch-drunk. Extending the state of emergency is a sop to the Right. I suppose it makes some sort of twisted sense in political terms, but the situation demands more than politics. In any case, the Right will always want more (give ‘em an inch…) because, by definition, the Right speaks to the people’s baser instincts; whereas the Left ought to be invoking higher, shared ideals. Existing laws give the security services all the powers they need, and more; what they do need is more resources and better equipment. Even so, it’s hard to see how they could identify someone like that truck driver in Nice.
The fact is that we’re all vulnerable and Valls is right to say so (not that I can think of much else he’s right about). In fact I think Hollande should make a major speech backing him up and spelling out the situation in all honesty. This is no time for political considerations. The threat facing France, Europe and indeed the whole world demands of the French president that he become a statesman and rise above a point-scoring faux debate. Troops on the streets (with no bullets in their guns) serve no useful purpose at all. They’re only meant to reassure the public that “something is being done”. Let the Right squeal, Hollande can only gain in credibility and respect by sending them back to their barracks. In addition, and if he really wants to make an impact, he must declare an end to the state of emergency: appeal to the people’s better nature and emphasis that whether we like it or not we are now – each and every one of us – front line soldiers in the battle against terrorism. Each of us must carry on as usual – albeit watchfully – knowing that our number could come up anywhere, any time.
That would send a powerful message to the terrorists and a dignified, pertinent one to the rest of the world: we are not afraid, we will not be divided, and we will not allow our society to drift ever rightwards into tyranny.