However, while the rally had clearly boosted the flaying national spirit, it had hardly addressed the elephant in the room — the growing Islamophobia in France and Europe and the radicalisation of Muslims, who account for around 5 million, or one-third of the population of the European Union. Questions followed about the role of the school and education in helping children imbibe the values of secularism, as well as on the judicial system that needs to enforce stricter rules to address racist politics and propaganda that provokes violence.
Ten months after Charlie Hebdo, there is a far more subdued reaction than I had expected to this attack, which is much bigger in scale. Most of the people that I have met since that bloody Friday night in Paris have widely used the words ‘carnage’ and ‘horror’ to describe the incident and then talked about “la vie continue (life goes on)”, to forget and move on. The swift imposition of the Emergency has perhaps played a role, dissuading people from gathering in large numbers and organising demonstrations.
But it is also the unfathomable cruelty of this attack that has left people stunned. The idea that you could be attending a music concert and Kalashnikovs are yanked out, that the terrorists killed all those who were there on the terrace with a beer: the French ‘unconscious’ is yet to come to terms with this alternate nightmarish reality. No wonder the attack has rendered speechless the otherwise articulate and verbose French.
And yet, tremendous strength has also shone across in these “pitiless” times. As we hunched around our cellphones to gather news of what was happening, the twitter #PorteOuvertes demonstrated the way Parisians opened the doors of their homes to those stranded by the attacks and how restaurants welcomed the injured to provide shelter and water. I eagerly hope that the memory of these brave moments will outshine the ghastly details from the past three days.
The overall consequences of these attacks on France and how it would pan out are yet to be seen. How does the nation find its voice again? What does it mean for the newly arrived Syrian refugees in Europe now that it has been revealed that the Islamic State’s jihadis passed themselves off as one of them while sneaking into Europe? Is it the end of the Schengen project with France and other countries further controlling their borders?
It won’t be easy for France to find the answers, and more so as it is saddled with a sinking economy marked by a high rate of unemployment. Tough days lie ahead and the people in general are aware of it. The contours of domestic politics, too, is likely to change further. Hollande, never very popular despite his electoral mandate, will perhaps see the Parti Socialiste returning to the sidelines and the rise of the Marine le Pen-led extreme Right Front National. Le Pen will continue to exploit xenophobia and fear to reach out to the man on the street as she talks about France regaining her national identity, closing the borders and exiting the European Union.
As I watch the city of lights in darkness, I am deeply disturbed to see the home of Albert Camus and Simone de Beauvoir confronted by this existential crisis ripping it apart. Moreover, it is equally tough to accept that another location has been added to the already long list of ‘unsafe’ cities. Here it is terrorism, elsewhere it may be due to war, military occupation or rampant abductions. But every city on that list, be it Baghdad, Beirut or Paris, is hurting in its own way.
But looking beyond the gloom, I know Paris will stand on its feet again. For it will always have its books and poems, its music and cafes, its beauty and grace. And it has also the world counting upon Paris to show the way when one is bleeding. Avant garde it is, and will always remain. Because “Paris est une fete”.