Many years ago, describing his life there in the 1920s, Hemingway famously wrote that Paris was a Moveable Feast. This year, the autumn is lingering on and the temperatures are very mild in the French capital. As a result, people enjoy the terrasses of cafés and restaurants. And Friday evenings are notoriously busy, especially in the centre of the city, between the Canal Saint Martin, where the movie Amelie was shot, and Bastille. It is then that Hemingway’s description of this charming city comes to life.
The eight terrorists who launched multiple coordinated attacks on Friday were very well aware that they would take the lives of many and more importantly, make a profound psychological impact when they chose this area where the landmarks are named République, Bastille, Voltaire and Beaumarchais. Their attack on the Stade de France, the Stadium where the French football team won the world championship in 1998 and where the country’s President François Hollande was attending a game, is equally symbolic.
The initial sentiment for all of us in the city was one of complete shock and disbelief. The city is familiar with terrorism and the Charlie Hebdo attacks happened less than a year ago. But suicide attacks, long feared by the security agencies, are a new phenomenon.
After the shock came another reaction. Soon after the first shooting, Parisians started using the hashtag #PorteOuverte, (Open Door), on Twitter so as to let stranded people on the streets know that they could find refuge in their homes. Now, people are going to the central hospitals like Saint Antoine to offer blood. Local health authorities are submerged by calls and the electronic media are issuing maps of places where blood is needed. This human outpouring of solidarity is an early indication of the psychological impact these attacks will have on the public opinion.
The trolls were out in full force, of course. Inevitably, they made hateful comments on social media about Muslims. The terrorists apparently claimed their motivation was France’s involvement in Syria against ISIS and reports indicated that while shooting, had shouted “Allah-hu Akbar”. There are fears that the millions of French Muslims, of French of North African descent, and more generally of non-white French (overlapping but not interchangeable categories of course) will have to bear the brunt of the prejudices that inevitably express themselves in such circumstances. The same thing happened in January after the killings of the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo ; the Front National, an extreme right party, was about to reap the benefits of this climate of fear in the upcoming regional elections at the end of this month.
On Saturday morning the press stands displayed front pages where three words seem to dominate : carnage, horror and war. The French president declared a state of emergency and closed all borders. Constitutionally, a state of emergency can be declared for up to 12 days. After that, a vote in Parliament is needed. The Paris authorities have asked everybody to stay home and not move around in the city. Feeling under siege, Parisians are now almost under curfew. Streets are therefore empty, the open air markets have all been cancelled, schools, universities, sport facilities have closed. Townhalls are functioning minimally.
State of Emergency
A state of emergency was declared way back in 1955 to deal with what was then termed ‘the events in Algeria’ or what turned out to be Algeria’s decolonisation war against France. In practical terms, it means the police can detain and search with more ease. Besides, the Schengen agreement that opened all borders within the European Union has been momentarily suspended so as to enable controls at the borders.
French President François Hollande declared, ‘We know where this is coming from’. The Foreign Affair minister Laurent Fabius has already said that France will not change its policy in Syria. Closing borders will probably help with the inquiry. It is important to note that the terrorists spoke French ; this is not an imported problem. Coulibaly, the Charlie Hebdo killer, was French too.
The official Coat of Arms of Paris has a boat on it. And the motto of the city is fluctuat nec mergitur, a Latin phrase that translates as “tossed but not sunk”. Life will slowly resume in Paris, just like it did in Bombay after the 2008 attacks. The city will not sink. But it will take a while before we sail through this terrible storm.
Ingrid Therwath is a Paris-based journalist.