Paris, Last Friday Night




 

I haven’t written anything about the events of last Friday night in Paris. Not sure why. Maybe I don’t really feel like expressing myself about them yet. Maybe I simply don’t have much to add to the whole thing. That and the fact that it feels so unreal to me… Maybe because I’m so far. Here, it is just some news… Sure, some major news, but just some news. Meanwhile, back home, everyone has probably been changed, probably forever. Some people talked about a French 9/11, and that’s pretty much what it is, if not in scale, at least in trauma for France and the French population.

I’m gonna try to say a few things now, but it may turn out to be a not very interesting post. Not sure, we’ll see, I’m just typing as I’m thinking, no preparation, no structure, nothing, just random thoughts.

So, it was Saturday morning in Japan, I woke up at 7 am (Friday, 11 pm in France) as usual and drank my morning coffee while reading my Facebook newsfeed before going to work as usual.

Suddenly, something is not right. My friend Samuel mentions a shooting in Paris. I’m intrigued, but I think about some crazy guys, some gangsters, not sure what… Then I hear about an explosion near the Stade de France… Wow, strange coincidence… And then a hostage situation in the Bataclan… No more doubt. Those are not coincidences…

I spent the following 30 minutes glued to my computer screen as the news unfolded, including some contradictory ones (no, there was no shooting in the Halles after all), but the reality was there, a major terrorist attack was unfolding in Paris… It instantly reminded me of the attacks on Mumbai in 2008; they were different from the usual terrorist attacks, they didn’t target one spot or two; the whole city had suddenly become a target. And now that target was Paris.

And then I had to go to work…

I’ve never felt more disconnected from my host country than on my way to work that Saturday morning. I had the live feed from France Info on my phone, trying to follow what was happening, and all around me, people were just going about their morning, completely unaware of what was happening 10,000 kms away. It’s in those kinds of moments you truly feel alone as an immigrant, when something happens in your home country and you’re disconnected from it in many ways.
Disconnected because the locals are unaware of the thing, or they simply don’t fully understand it (truth is that most Japanese don’t fully comprehend terrorism and what’s going on in the Middle-East – too far, too remote, too unrelated to Japan).

I thought work would help me thinking of something else, ironically, many students were absent that morning and it turned out to be a very slow morning, which didn’t help me thinking of something else. Thankfully, the afternoon was a bit busy.

In case you’re wondering and worrying, no, I didn’t know anybody involved in the attacks (I instantly thought of my old roommate, but she stayed at home that night), but they took place in a neighborhood I’m quite familiar with. I walked countless times in front of the Casa Nostra pizzeria, and I have attended concerts in the Bataclan. When reading and hearing about the descriptions of the attack inside, I can perfectly visualize it.

When night came and I got home to start that very long week-end, I just became glued to my various newsfeeds for hours and hours at a time. I still mostly am, a few days later. Why? Not sure. Maybe to fight that isolation, here in Japan, sure the media is talking about it, but the people don’t. I’m not surprised anymore, it’s not the first time something happens abroad that I would expect people to at least small talk about it, I guess that’s just not something Japanese people do. So, I turn to social media instead. Ironically, a few days ago, a friend and I talked about how we consume too many news, and by “we” I mean he and I, but also everyone else. It’s true that I’ve been trying lately to reduce the amount of news I ingurgitate every day, but right now, I’m turning more towards some sort of bulimia.
Another thing, while I got messages of sympathy from several friends, nobody else has really talked to me about it here, I mean Japanese people. Only today, a teacher I barely know, in a private community college where I just started giving lessons asked me if everyone was safe among my family and friends. He, and my Nepalese students in that same college. They’re the only ones, apart from my French friend previously mentioned and my wife with whom I talked about it face to face. Another cultural difference probably. We, French people need to talk about this with people that are part of your everyday life, the Japanese don’t.

During this terrible Saturday morning, it was not only horror. I tend to give Parisians a lot of flak about their friendliness or lack thereof, but as they say, my faith in humanity was restored, by Parisians, at the same time people were still dying inside the Bataclan. Two things started happening on Twitter. Somebody launched the hashtag #porteouverte (open door) as a tool to signal to people who were stranded outside and couldn’t get home (metro lines being shut down, I assume busses too), places where they could take refuge. In other words, at the darkest hour of the attacks, hundreds of Parisians opened their doors to total strangers to help them, protect them, give them shelter. You don’t know how much this touched me.
Also, more and more tweets and retweets surfaced about people asking for information about missing people, and at that moment Twitter could do what nothing else could do, create a direct line of communication and information. Some of these searches had happy endings, some didn’t, but this mutual aid was heartwarming.

Now, a few days later, seen from 10,000 kms away, things are so strange, but I’m afraid, I’m very afraid for my country.
I’m not afraid of other attacks, I know that unfortunately they will happen, it’s not about if, it’s about when, and it’s something French people (and probably more than just French people) will have to learn to live with for a while.
What I’m afraid of are the consequences of all of that.
The attacks were still underway when the President already talked about war. Two days later, the Republicans (the French Right just renamed itself recently, now they share the same name as their American counterparts… the same loonies and assholes too) are out for blood, and the Muslim population of France will be even more ostracized (nevermind this is what pushes some many disenfranchised youth to join the ranks of Daesh in the first place) and personal freedoms will be torn apart even more than before.

So, yes, I’m afraid for the future of my country.
In 2001, the terrorists have won in the US and the country hasn’t been the same every since.
In 2015, I’m afraid the terrorists are winning in France, seeing the reactions of our leaders. François Hollande’s words lately sound so much like George Bush’s back then, it’s worrisome.

You can’t win a war on terrorism, you simply can’t. The more terrorists you kill, the more future terrorists you create.
The only way to defeat terrorism is to destroy its roots, not its fruits.

You don’t get rid of terrorism by killing terrorists, you get rid of terrorism by killing inequalities, oppression, racism.

Why is it that our leaders seem to unable to understand that?

Eiffel Tower Peace Sign

 

 


About David Billa

David was born and raised in the French South West. After a few years in the US and a few more in Paris, he finally settled down in Japan. He blogs here about his various experiences and travels, with an emphasis on his home country, France.

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9 thoughts on “Paris, Last Friday Night

  • Leslie in Oregon

    “You can’t win a war on terrorism, you simply can’t. The more terrorists you kill, the more future terrorists you create.
    “The only way to defeat terrorism is to destroy its roots, not its fruits.
    “You don’t get rid of terrorism by killing terrorists, you get rid of terrorism by killing inequalities, oppression, racism.”

    Amen.

  • Melinda Lusmore

    Well said! It is beyond horrifying and difficult to express in a way that sums up the sadness and the gravity we feel.

    I have never been to the Bataclan, or Casa Nostra (that I’m aware of) but I got lost a few weeks ago looking for a museum and found myself at Place de la République where much of the Australian news reporters are broadcasting from. I can’t quite reconcile that the café I stopped at was so close to the horror and is now surrounded by flowers and other tributes.

    And it is scary. I wonder if this is what the world was like in the weeks before WWI and WWII were declared – the one atrocity that turned out to be the one too many and war became inevitable. I hope not but I’m no longer sure.

    I have to disagree about the unfriendly Parisians. Every time I visit Paris, I am helped by someone who takes the time to get beyond my dreadful language skills, fixes my problems and more! (Last time, it was getting my glasses fixed – and cleaned, for free, with a smile.) So every time I see the #porteouverte hashtag, I am reminded of all the people who have been kind to me and are now being kind to each other and it always brings a tear to my eye. Perhaps there is an unfriendly Parisian somewhere but I have yet to meet them.

    • David Billa Post author

      Yes, when “news” take place somewhere you know, it’s a completely different story.

      However, WWI and WWII were completely different contexts, and they didn’t start with terrorism.
      Also, sometimes I hear people talking about an imminent WWIII (to be honest I’ve heard that since I was old enough to understand the word “war”), but to have World Wars you need to have a bunch of countries that are intertwined by a bunch of alliances and are willing to go at it. In other terms, the prospect of a World War is very unlikely now, terrorism on the other hand, is most likely not going anywhere for a few decades.

      As far as unfriendly Parisians are concerned, I’d like to be nice to Parisians these days and on this post, but living in Paris for almost five years, I can tell you that I met by share and that in proportion, they’re much more numerous than in many other parts of France. You got lucky.

  • Susan Walter

    Well done David. A very well expressed post with interesting cultural insights. You have the advantage of knowing the US well too and can make some comparisons there. Here in the French countryside, life continues more or less as normal, as you would expect. I too know the area around the Bataclan a bit. It’s where we stay in Paris these days, and where last time we were there we were moved to see all the tributes to the Charlie Hebdo guys.

    Talk to anyone old enough to have been in Algeria during the terror years there and they will tell you that the pattern is the same. The next step is to move into the countryside where there are fewer police and shoot up a few villages. It will take a generation to end the hold Daesh have on certain young idealistic Muslims, but you can see that the tide is turning. Now for the first time large numbers of Muslims are just as afraid of a terrorist organisation as their Western neighbours.

    Like you at first I didn’t want to write about it this time, but I soon felt very strongly that we must openly honour the memory of those who were killed, and make sure those of us whose voices are not calling for war are heard by the President and his allies. War is not the solution. The solution is very complex and will take a long time.

    • David Billa Post author

      I don’t know if there are big risks of attacks in the countryside. I’m not saying that they’re non-existent, but I don’t see what narrative it would fit at the moment, nor in the near future. The thing with Algeria is that it was a civil war, and that Algeria is much more rural than France. Attacking smaller towns? Yes, I see that, but the countryside? Not sure.

      And yes, I agree, it will take a long time to destroy whatever influence Daesh propaganda has on the disenfranchised youth. The thing that can help greatly is having the media and the politics be honest about it (including the fact that Muslims are the first target of Daesh, not the West), Muslims are our best allies in this fight, well, actually it’s the other way around, we have to be Muslims allies in this fight. Not sure the majority of the French are ready to understand that, and that’s what scares me, not Daesh itself.

  • martin

    Hi David,

    thank you very much for this post. I can understand how hard it was to write it.

    I also have to disagree with what you imply about Parisians. I visit Paris twice a year and I never get tired of it, and neither do I get tired of telling people how remarkably civil, relaxed and friendly I perceive Parisians to be.

    Also, I wish to agree to disagree about how we see this kind of terrorism — about not being able to win a war against it. I see IS as a fascist organization. You cannot reason with fascism, you can only fight it, with whatever measures your legal system allows. Al Qaeda has been beaten down, almost destroyed, and the same will happen with the IS — if our democratic republics chose to do so.

    (Granted, the root cause of IS can be found in the CIA, and in Bush’s illegal war against Iraq. But the root cause of 1920/1930s fascism was in modernization, capitalism, social inequality — but in the 1940s, you had to fight fascism before you attended to anything else. And today, we need to fight the IS foremost.)

    Thank you for giving me this opportunity to discuss, and thank you for your lovely website. All the best!

    • David Billa Post author

      Concerning Parisians, If you think they’re very friendly, wait until you meet non-Parisian friends then… Once again, I’m not saying that generally speaking, Parisians are unfriendly in a void, but compared to the rest of the French people.

      Now, Daesh is not a fascist organization, terms are thrown a bit randomly these days I think and what Daesh is not fascism (and you can reason with a fascist organization by the way, the West and the US has done it over and over again, especially during the Cold War).

      Also, Al Qaeda hasn’t been beaten down at all. As you were typing this comment Al Qaeda was killing dozens of people in Mali.
      In the US, Al Qaeda has always been presented as some sort of evil organization, hiding in a secret lair somewhere in Afghanistan, under the leadership of Osama Ben Laden, bit like a bad guy in a James Bond movie. That fitted the narrative the US wanted to sell for its wars.
      Al Qaeda has never been that. It’s always been a always changing thing. At one point in history it was an organization led by Ben Laden (let’s say from the mid 90’s to 2001 roughly), but after that it became a concept.
      It hasn’t been centralized since after 9/11 (not sure it even was before), and now anybody can say that they’re Al Qaeda, it’s an idea more than anything else (once again see Mali, Yemen, etc).

      And if Al Qaeda has been weakened (i.e. as an attractive idea for would be terrorists, as well as on the “battlefield”-, it’s because it’s been weakened by… Daesh. Not by the West.

      Back to Daesh, sure it’s not a terrorist organization such as Al Qaeda, it can be assimilated to a state, sort of (but a violent theocracy then, not a fascist state).
      However, while you sure can attack it and even destroy it, that won’t solve anything if it’s done by the West bombing them or even invading them. That’s what I’m saying, killing terrorists (or Daesh) won’t stop terrorism.
      You can’t wage war on an idea.

      To defeat terrorism, you don’t wage war on it, you tackle its roots. In this particular case, the real sources of terrorism are not in the Middle East, but in Europe. Whether they attacked Charlie Hebdo last January or Paris streets, all the terrorists were EU citizens. The roots of this terrorism are the fact that European nations (and France in particular) has failed its minorities. Those kids feel like they don’t belong anywhere, they don’t belong to North Africa where their parents and grandparents are from, but they don’t belong to France (or Belgium) as they are treated as second-class citizens, get no respect from society, are the first persons hit by the various economic crises and whatnot.
      Now, don’t get me wrong, it’s not all those countries fault, the minorities themselves don’t take matters into their own hands enough (they’ve been trying though).
      Those kids grow up full of doubt, questions, very low-self-esteem nor hope.
      And when something like Daesh comes along offering (and this is where religion comes into play) simple clear-cut answers, no doubt, no questioning, lots of support and more, it’s easy to fall for their lies. And become their tools.

      So, of course Daesh must be defeated, probably militarily, but not by the West, it will solve nothing. The problem is that many people have interest in keeping Daesh alive, both regionally (they serve as buffer or excuse for many things in many countries around them) and internationally (from cheap oil to a propaganda excuse).
      But defeating Daesh won’t defeat terrorism, it can only be defeated by social action, not military.

  • Natalia

    Hello David,

    I just stumbled upon your blog by chance. I agree. We Americans are not approaching terrorism like we should. We label an entire group of people because of the actions of a few. We went into Iraq with guns blazing, and more than 15 years later we are still at it, and getting nowhere. If anything, we are moving backwards. The current presidential candidates are proof of that. I was in the military and bought into freeing the oppressed people of Iraq and Afghanistan, because that what the soldiers believe they are fighting for, but I learned that we aren’t there for any other reason than fear and greed. It’s so sad that Americans are blinded by fear and bye into the misinformed statements of politicians. Unfortunately, no truly wants to listen. They are all caught up in being the injured party that they fail to see the how crazy things are getting. Now, we are dealing with the aftermath of the attack in Orlando, and Americans seem to be going a little crazy. I’m a thousand miles away from my country, but I’m worried they will let fear get to them once again.
    I play rugby with some French ladies and gents, and they are the most helpful and determined players. They also say Parisians are a bit rude. I guess it’s like warning people of New Yorkers.