The New Normal

Jeremy Harding

Nearly a week after the killings, business-as-usual is the banner flying over Paris. The return to normal, with its flavour of defiance, can be observed in action anywhere from Châtelet as far as the city gates. (At Château Rouge, three stops from Porte de Clignancourt, the pace of African street trade is undiminished – phone cards, groundnuts, roasted corn cobs – as dense crowds gather round the vendors.) But normal is highly circumscribed and the siege yesterday in St Denis illustrates how elusive ordinary life can be on the other side of the Boulevard Périphérique: scores of armed police and soldiers deployed; 5000 rounds discharged; an explosives-suicide in the apartment under siege; the suspected ringleader, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, shot dead; eight arrests. Worse, perhaps, than the immediate fear among residents is the fact that the suspects were tracked to a neighbourhood with a conspicuous migrant culture. Roughly 60 per cent of under-18s in the department of Seine-St Denis are descended from immigrants. Through no fault of the residents or the security forces, we can if we like make a reductive association between the killers and a diverse group of citizens who nonetheless look much the same in the bleak light of emergency: ‘Muslims’.

Dangerous assumptions keep coming back to haunt the big conurbations in France, most of them with two parts – an older and a newer – that fail to constitute a whole. The arrangement parodies the former colonial towns of Africa, with their well-kept ‘nouvelles villes’ for settlers and the administration, and their old, ‘authentic’ areas for the colonised. In metropolitan France it is the newer parts – the large estates in the banlieues – with settler influxes from the former colonies, that struggle against soul-destroying forms of ‘authenticity’: endemic youth unemployment, substandard housing, extremist faith groups, higher-than-average crime rates.

Vestiges of colonial times can suddenly take on new life here. Last Friday, 19 people were gunned down at a bistro on the rue de Charonne in the 11th arrondissement, three minutes’ walk from the Charonne metro, itself the scene of a police crime in 1962, when the left came out to demonstrate against the war in Algeria – all but done and dusted – and the actions of far right terrorists opposed to decolonisation. Nine militants were killed in the mezzanine area of the subway: a memorial plaque, put up by the Communist Party and the CGT, marks the spot. Five months earlier – October 1961 – a demonstration which drew thousands of Maghrebi French into the centre of Paris was savagely repressed: the historian Benjamin Stora puts the number of dead between 50 and 120, others suggest it was higher. The descriptions of what happened last week as the worst massacre in Paris ‘since the Second World War’ may well be wrong.

What could bring this kind of conversation to an end? Four years ago, Octobre à Paris, a pioneering documentary made by Jacques Panijel a few months after the events in 1961 – and long suppressed by the censor – was screened in France to great acclaim. In 2012 Hollande ‘clearly acknowledged’ the massacre. But the Algerian war still hasn’t found a point of stability on the spectrum of Republican commemoration. The bitterness of white settlers in Algeria, repatriated in 1962, is loyally reproduced by many of their descendants in France, who brood on a second betrayal – ‘Arab’ inward migration – that compounds the first. On the other side, among second and third generations of Maghrebi descent (all French citizens), the anger and fear of forebears are kept at room temperature along with the memory of Algeria’s colonial torment. All the while there is a fierce wish to move away from stale arguments, sterile labour markets and stagnating inequalities, and clamber past the barriers – social, economic, spatial and racial – that kettle residents in the banlieues. Research last year in Seine-St Denis found that about 72,000 people aged 15 to 39 – roughly 22 per cent of that age group – were neither studying nor working.

The nagging fear is what the caliphate and its friends might think of next. Manuel Valls, Hollande’s prime minister, warned today of ‘chemical or bacteriological’ attacks as he drove through a bill to extend the emergency. Talk like this makes the rehearsal of ‘le quotidien’ in central Paris all the more impressive. But the Isis strategy already aims to generate a toxic cloud, dividing Muslims from other Muslims, and both from non-Muslims; stirring animosities already barely held in check; forcing rational discourse into the restraint position; melting the mask of the caliphate on the face of any criminal adolescent who tries it on; tailoring the rhetoric of ‘secular’ values to suit any provincial atheist or spiv philosopher; cementing parti pris; disseminating violence and repression. France looks frighteningly susceptible to the rough-and-ready products of the Isis lab technicians. This is a country with its own style of officious provocation, where at least three mayors have decided to scrap alternatives to pork in school canteens, and the Algerian war is still an object of febrile contemplation. Why be shocked if it turns out to be the country where citizens are happy – happier, at any rate, than Dutch or British subjects with the same grievances – to think of Isis as a new hero in the narrative of decolonisation?


  • 19 November 2015 at 9:06pm
    sol_adelman says:
    There's also the fact that the French state denied the mass drownings of '61 even happened for forty-odd years. No episode in post-war W European history comes close in terms of jaundicing a distinct community's perspective on its state and mainstream society.

  • 20 November 2015 at 10:03am
    Geoff Roberts says:
    The causes go back a long way into the colonial past, but the more immediate causes stem from the activities of the US forces in the name of freedom and democracy in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya (with a little help from their friends). Invade, destroy retreat. The attacks in Paris have produced the usual knee jerk responses (bomb, bomb, bomb) as if that will end the matter. Talk of a 'war on terrorism' has led the USA nowhere except into more military adventures. Drones killed hundreds of people in Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere but the logical conclusion about the strategy is only made by the critics who are then slandered by the media. Time for the veto powers to agree on a strategy that will put an end to the support by Saudi Arabia for ISIS and prevent the sale of weapons to the whole region.

  • 23 November 2015 at 11:21am
    GeorgeOneil60 says:
    The responses won't end the matter, Geoff. You are quite right. I don't think anything can help here. There should be too wise people to handle this.