In Paris

Jeremy Harding

Sunday: we wake under blue skies to Nicolas Sarkozy calling for ‘the whole world’ to destroy Isis and demanding a ‘new’ immigration policy, as he steps away from a meeting with Hollande. Stern words on the first day of national mourning declared by the president. Last night Paris was half a city, maybe less. In the capital where the world’s first public audience paid to see a motion picture, the art house cinemas were closed like bakeries, the foyers of the multiplexes dark behind their plate-glass entrances. Few people on the streets, fewer on the metro: twenty passengers at most in a carriage on the Ligne 4; seven in a carriage on the little line from Châtelet to Mairie des Lilas. Nine o’clock, or thereabouts. One hundred and thirty dead, a hundred more with critical injuries in hospitals around the city: Lariboisière, St Louis, La Pitié-Salpêtrière, others.

Quiet, spontaneous commemorations of the dead brought small crowds together nonetheless: knots of survivors in a landscape where signs of life are much reduced. We are not supposed to assemble in public but we do. For some of the mourners it’s harder to stay indoors, following social media or watching television. On the rue Alibert in the 10th arrondissement, where gunmen killed at least 14 people in a café-bar, Le Carillon, and Le Petit Cambodge, a restaurant opposite, there were many visitors last night, the numbers swelling to a hundred or more, dwindling again as the night wore on: all sorts in a city of ‘diversity’, as the mayor, Anne Hidalgo has insisted.

The ritual offerings laid on the pavements in these haunted spaces, lit by hundreds of cylindrical night lights and bigger candles, were also various. A potted camelia with taut red buds; bunches of lilies, miniature roses, small, rusty chrysanthemums. Undistinguished drawings by children laid out flat, held down by the night lights. People have written what comes into their heads – ‘L’amour court les rues’ – and added to the pile. Outside Le Carillon a litre bottle of Kronenbourg glowed in the candle light beside a paperback translation of A Moveable Feast (Paris est une fête). A journalist from CBS had four, noisy warm-ups, always the same, that broke the silence while his technicians tweaked away: ‘The search for accomplices widens as Paris mourns...’

A gym teacher who lives in the area said she was relieved to be at the site of the killings. She spoke for a long time: this wanting to speak is a healthy sign. Staying at home with social media and television, she said, had left her frozen in a state of fascinated horror for most of the day. A young man, the son of parents who’d come to France from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, said the same: it was terrifying until you left the front door of your building and found your bearings. The rue Alibert is a good place for that.

We were joined by another mourner in his mid-seventies who showed us his ‘carte d’ancien combattant’ – he’d been a French conscript in Algeria in 1962 – and spoke quietly, with an elderly dismay, about the Front National, who stand to gain from the killings: that conversation will become more pressing after the weekend and the last day of national mourning. Regional elections take place early next month and Marine Le Pen is on the rise: the killers have handed her a frightening gift. The time’s come, she said in a statement after the massacres, for France to decide once and for all who are its friends and who are its enemies. She approves France’s new border controls, already partially in force as a preparation for the climate change summit in December. They look set to remain in place. But what of the state of emergency? The last, during the riots of 2005, went on for eight weeks, but it was confined to a handful of banlieues. That was before the word ‘war’ took on its proper significance: since last year France has carried out at least 250 air strikes over ‘the caliphate’.

We are no longer where we were on 7 January, when the rampage began at the offices of Charlie Hebdo. The war has moved things on: Charlie’s editors were selected targets. As of Friday, we are all the enemy and these low-key gatherings beside bullet-scarred cafés or concert halls are no longer strictly memorial. The mood is apprehensive; the candles and flowers, the scribbled messages, are set out along the pavements like ceremonial devices to ward off another round of bloodshed.


  • 15 November 2015 at 3:52pm
    Geoff Roberts says:
    Time for the people who have the responsibility for running things to address the issue; Saudi Arabia and its support for the reactionaries who claim to be the true followers of the prophet. Hollande, Cameron, Merkel and co. ought to be a strong enough coalition to bring in Obama and build up the international resistance to ISIS and their financiers.

  • 15 November 2015 at 6:15pm
    Mat Snow says:
    Geoff Roberts — as I understand it, Saudi Arabia turns a blind eye to the support ISIS gets from certain of its citizens because it would rather export trouble than risk ISIS attacks on the home regime: that is the tacit agreement.

    Likewise the West would rather maintain the odious Saudi royal family in power than risk the unpredictable consequences of even a benign Arab Spring; the oil + arms apple-cart depends on the status quo. Given the catastrophic consequences of forcing regime change in Iraq, who is to deny that the devil you know may indeed be better than the one you don't.

    That balance of greater and lesser evils may change, of course. If it does, expect the unexpected.

    • 17 November 2015 at 9:05am
      Geoff Roberts says: @ Mat Snow
      The use of force is certainly not the answer. But surely it must be possible to put pressure on the Saudi ruling family in various ways to make them stop supporting ISIS. What makes me doubt the competence of the western leaders is the unthinking support they gave to Bush and his lies about weapons of mass destruction. The consequences of that madness are what we are experiencing in the past few days. They seem incapable of thinking more than a few hours ahead. They rely on their staffs of advisors to tell them what to say. Remember that joke about Kennedy's first day in the White House? The CIA chief said, "you have three possible courses of action. You can give the Russians all that they are demanding. Or you can declare war and wipe them out. The third possibility is, you do what we tell you." Nothing has changed. The weapons, yes, the advice is still the same.

  • 16 November 2015 at 8:21am
    Joe Morison says:
    An excellent article on the mind of Daesh in the Guardian today:

    I can only see two options. The first is all out war, the US and Russia at the core of an international military effort, with everybody else contributing enough to show they’re on board, first to take back all the territory Daesh controls and then kill or imprison its leaders (preferably the latter, it’s so much less glamorous to be stuck in chokey than to have died a martyr’s death (and, of course, killing is wrong unless unavoidable)). A really thorough rout, a humiliation from vastly superior forces, would take away the illusion of God’s blessing and historical inevitability which inspires so many of these people and does so much to entice new recruits. But it’s exceedingly hard to imagine this happening.  Apart from anything else, it’s not in the military-industrial-security nexus’s interest to defeat Daesh, because the bigger and scarier the enemy we face, the better they do (the UK government announced ‘extra funding’ for the security forces just this morning); and even if we did find the resolve, what on earth would we do with the territory afterwards?

    The second is something much more difficult and even less likely to happen than the first: to try and bring about a just world.  There is so much horror everywhere, and so much of it is engendered by greed for wealth and power, that it’s hardly surprising that some people are driven to the insanity we are now living with in order to try and make things better. But, well, greed rules; and if any us knew how to do something about that, we wouldn’t be wasting our time reading this.

    I think we’re stuck with this shit for the foreseeable future.  Our freedoms will be further eroded, the politicians will seal themselves inside hermetic security and enjoy its thrill and their self-importance as they issue the kill orders, and innocents will be carry on being blown up.

    • 16 November 2015 at 9:35pm
      Amateur Emigrant says: @ Joe Morison
      Two of your observations I agree with: "if any us knew how to do something about that, we wouldn’t be wasting our time reading this," and "I think we’re stuck with this shit for the foreseeable future".

      Your first option does not bear contemplation. Considering that the US/UK coalition's swift 'shock and awe' crushing of Saddam arguably created the situation we are in today, can you imagine the consequences of the US, Europe AND Russia embroiled in a collective blitzkrieg across the Middle East and trying to manage the aftermath amidst their competing interests? As recipes for disaster go that is haute cuisine.

    • 16 November 2015 at 10:53pm
      Potone says: @ Amateur Emigrant
      Yes, it does not bear thinking about. Of course we could crush ISIL militarily, but then what? There are no good choices here. Yes, a more just world would certainly help, but I don't think that is likely anytime soon.

    • 18 November 2015 at 11:44am
      Gibbon says: @ Amateur Emigrant
      I have to rebut this. Shock and Awe did not create the situation today. Let's look at this in a balanced way and, before I go any further, I marched against that war so don't go there.

      There are two main ways in which the Iraq War has influenced the current situation. One, it create an enfeebled Iraq state. Two, it created a training ground for militarist jihadism.

      The second of these is probably the more serious charge. But if you take a more ideas-based view of history, like me, then I think something like ISIS was coming anyway. ISIS exists, in this argument, because the Saalafist strain of theology which gives succour to it says something powerful to many minds about the nature of society today. The comments above about 'greed ruling' came close to the nub, I think. 'Furious religion' of all forms - look at America - seems to be a response to the 'End of History' anomie of the post-modern, culturally relativist and aggressively capitalist world. Or whatever. The point is that ISIS was coming and the only thing to argue about was the place and manner of its striking. Clearly the Iraq war had some bearing on this, but not as much as the Arab Spring (see below). But what the war definitely did do is give people a training ground to hone their techniques. ISIS may have come anyway. But they are far more effective because of Iraq.

      As for the enfeebled state well, yes certainly the war caused this - though more the lack of post-war planning and effective nation-building than the war itself. But think of the counter-factual and shudder. Saddam Hussein was in the same political B'aath Party as Basar Assad. I mean, just think about that, think how Assad reacted to the Arab Spring and shudder at what might have happened had Saddam been around too. Certainly there would have been a blood-bath, maybe a power-vacuum and possibly we just end up in the same situation but with two dictatorial lunatics to deal with not one. Or maybe even an Iran-Iraq conflict, but that probably stretches it.

      Basically - it's not all about us. The Middle East is a geo-political, sectarian mess without our intervention - the Arab spring showed that. We don't - or certainly didn't - make it better any better of course. We trashed our standing in the world and the poisonous way the case for war was built was disgraceful. Not least because, in my opinion, it has removed political consent for ANY intervention even, as sadly is the case now, we are faced with confronting genocidal fascists.

    • 18 November 2015 at 10:01pm
      Amateur Emigrant says: @ Gibbon
      You set out to rebut my statement that the Iraq war led to the situation we are in today, but then seem to describe exactly how it did, via a power vacuum. While the emergence of a group like IS may have been likely in any case (is it not just an extension of strains of ideology which date back to the Taliban?) it is surely the power vacuum that enabled it to flourish in the way that it has?

      In any case it is almost obscene to be quibbling about history in the face of the present, like standing at the gates of Auschwitz debating the consequences of Versailles. I feel that what you say below about negotiated settlements is regrettably true, that to allow IS lasting control over any territory is to condemn its citizens to a brutal and medieval existence. But I also think your faith in the West's ability to procure a military solution from which a diplomatic one might ensue is to say the least misplaced. The track record is not exactly impressive.

  • 17 November 2015 at 3:57pm
    lordarsenal says:
    Only a negotiated settlement will do. Like it or not, fanatics and moderates wll all have to sit down and hammer out a messy truce. All the bellicose rhetoric and endless bombing in the middle east will resolve nothing.
    The axiom of making peace with your enemies, and not your friends is the mantra here.

    • 18 November 2015 at 11:23am
      Gibbon says: @ lordarsenal
      A negotiated settlement? With ISIS? Pray tell, what do you think will bring them to the table? This is a fascistic death-cult, they don't want peace. And what kind of disgraceful betrayal would it be to the Yazidis, the Kurds, the Shias etc. if we were to carve out some territory for them? It would make the creation of Israel look a comparatively smooth genesis. And surely it would only encourage them and/or others like them to do likewise in other parts of the world. Do we really want to send out the message that fascist genocide works?

      I am dismayed, everywhere, by my comrades on the left - and I am on the left - continual positing of a utopia solution to avoid messy, horrible but absolutely necessary pragmatic steps. Jeremy Corbyn is but the thin end of the wedge. We need a political settlement? Yes, of course we do. But how? It would be great if we prevent these things happening in the first place. Yes, great but what to do in the meantime? Wash your hands by all means. But be under no illusions, what you wash your hands of is stopping genocidal fascism.

      The truth is - in my opinion - we messed up. I genuinely think we should have gone in and taken out Assad. With boots on the ground. Before the Russians propped him up as a proxy. Before we - insanely - flooded Syria and the wider region with arms. Before the great exodus of people from the region began to fray the social fabric of Europe. Before all the other countries in their region saw the conflict as an opportune moment to export their jihadists. Before Iraq collapsed. Before ISIS made the jump from idea to territorial Caliphate. Before our inaction demonstrated the paper Tiger nature of the UN/NATO and existing defence architecture to the rest of an increasingly bellicose world. And before the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of people. They are arriving here now - the first plane came yesterday but some had already made it. I have spoken to some of them. Again - be under no illusions what they flee. They have some clear views on Western foreign policy - and it isn't that any interventions is 'neo-colonial'.

      This wouldn't have stopped ISIS emerging - though it would have significantly reduced the genocide of other peoples - in particular the Syrians. It would definitely have given them a focal point. It would not have stopped terror coming to Europe - it might even have made it worse. We would be there for at least a decade, nation building. We would have taken losses, perhaps worse losses than Iraq. But now we may have to try and do something similar from a far less advantageous position. And, what is worse, the real villain - who my refugee friends point out quite clearly is not ISIS - may have to be accommodated, betraying the Syrian people once again.

      Time and again history shows, we always fight the last war.

    • 18 November 2015 at 6:11pm
      Joe Morison says: @ Gibbon
      I'm not a pacifist, Gibbon, and, of course, too many on the Left (being nice but naive) wish for unrealistically happy endings. But I think your vision of how we could have 'taken out' Assad is also unrealistic; wars are messy and never, unless it's a pike fighting a minnow, go as planned. The Russians would have done everything to stir up trouble, as would all the surrounding Shia states; and we would have made blunders and film of some school or orphanage we had bombed would have been beamed round the world: I find it very hard to believe it wouldn't have been a disaster no matter how good our intentions (and don't forget that Blair, for all his vainglorious piety, did want to make things better), it would have been a disaster. That's why I believe that a military solution is not viable until everyone (with the possible exception of North Korea) are on board.

  • 17 November 2015 at 7:22pm
    eeffock says:
    neo-colonial expeditions engendered the turn to ISIL. more the same will not 'solve' the 'problem' - the problem is neo-colonialism itself.

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