In Paris, the 'us' vs. 'them' that divides a stricken city won't heal it: Keith Boag

A further wedge between communities that was already dividing France has been driven deeper by Friday's massacre committed by “the other” and with potentially disastrous consequences, Keith Boag writes from Paris.

France coming together only in the sense that it might be uniting against its Muslim population

I'd just come from looking at the bullet holes in the windows at Café Bonne Bière when I noticed the young woman with a little plastic sign strolling toward me along the sidewalk of the Boulevard Voltaire.

Her name was Laura Valle and her sign read "Free Hugs." She opened her arms to me and smiled.

She'd hugged a hundred strangers already today, she said, now it was my turn and, no, she'd never done such a thing before, "but it's a good occasion for it."

We had our free hug and then went our separate ways as though we'd made a small contribution to the healing that supposedly would bring France together.

Anne Sophie Galea altered a No Parking sign to say 'Don't touch my capital.' The message is a play on the words of a popular anti-racism slogan in Paris in the 1980s. (Keith Boag/CBC)

If only it were that easy. 

The country is coming together only in the sense that it might be uniting against its Muslim population.

Otherwise, it is riven by what's happened.

A wedge between communities that was already dividing France has been driven deeper by the massacre committed by "the other" and with potentially disastrous consequences.

Farther along the boulevard, nearer to the Bataclan concert hall where scores were murdered Friday night, Anne Sophie Galea also had a sign.

Hers was a Paris "No Parking" sign to which she'd added in felt pen the words "Touche pas a ma capitale"— "Don't touch my capital"— and arrows pointing to the "No Parking" symbol.

Parisians would understand it, she said, but perhaps it was too subtle for an outsider. So she explained to me what the sign meant. 

"Ne touch pas a ma capitale" was a play on the slogan "Ne touche pas a mon pote"—"Don't touch my buddy"—an anti-racism advertisement that had been widespread throughout Paris in the 1980s.

Unlike "Ne touch pas a mon pote," though, there was nothing friendly about "Ne touche pas a ma capitale."

It was Galea's way of saying that Parisians are weary of people coming to France from elsewhere to live here by their own rules.

Candles, flowers and messages of tribute are seen at the Place de la République near the deadly attack sites in Paris on Monday. The placard shows the colours of the French flag, the slogan 'Not Afraid' and the city of Paris motto 'Fluctuat Nec Mergitur' — Latin for 'buffeted (by waves) but not sunk.' (Christian Hartmann/Reuters)

In effect, she'd turned 180 degrees from "Hey you, don't touch my buddy" to "Hey buddy, don't touch my city."

France has the largest population of Muslims in Europe and Paris has more Muslims than any other European city.

A great many French Muslims live in the banlieues or suburbs of Paris. Those neighbourhoods have produced some radicalized jihadists, but not so many that the banlieues are yet considered hotbeds of radicalization.

That doesn't mean the people who live there are not disaffected. 

The day after the attack on Charlie Hebdo in January, France declared a national minute of mourning. In a hundred or so cases, students in banlieue schools conspicuously refused to observe it.

We can speculate on what their reasons for doing so might have been.

They could range from a specific disgust at honouring what they considered a blasphemous Charlie Hebdo, to a more generalized feeling of exclusion from French society.

In any case, the isolation of one group from a larger community can spell trouble ahead, and that seems even more likely since Friday.

This is how the ground becomes more fertile for ISIS recruiters. It's what they want: a powerful western European community, enflamed by atrocities committed against it, surrounding a weaker Muslim community that feels increasingly besieged.

Far right gains stature with each crisis

Willingly playing into this invidious combination is the far right of French politics that has gained stature with each new crisis around race and immigration.

And, as usual, they are further helped when moderating voices don't speak up.

Laura Valles offered free hugs on the sidewalk near the Bataclan concert hall where scores of people were killed Friday. (Keith Boag/CBC)

That has been the case as all France has been on edge this year because of the attack at Charlie Hebdo and the rising flood of refugees coming to Europe to escape the carnage in Syria.

Both crises were destined to bring new heat to old arguments, but some important voices were missing, says Sylvie Kaufmann, the editorial director of the French daily Le Monde.

She wrote in the New York Times a couple of months ago that French politicians had been mostly silent about the Syrian refugee crisis overwhelming Europe because "they are paralyzed by fear, the fear of feeding the xenophobic National Front" led by Marine le Pen.

Le Pen's National Front is an anti-immigration party that traffics in the fear that Muslims are seeking to impose their values on the rest of France. 

Support for the party has grown to 20 or even 25 per cent of the vote. Because of Friday's tragedy, Le Pen is expected to improve on that at regional elections in a couple of weeks.

Political analysts talk of her profiting from an "I told you so" campaign while emotions are still running high.

She will have much with which to work.

Unlike the Charlie Hebdo attack, which seemed both more institutional and, grotesquely, even explainable, what happened Friday was an attack on the very essence of French life: Parisians out on a Friday evening to enjoy wine, food and entertainment.

Countless people have told me that Paris will stand up against that. "They won't take that from us," and "We won't let them frighten us."

They mean it in the proudest and most courageous way.

But they cannot let that language — "us" and "them" — become the victory ISIS wanted. That's not the language that will heal a country.


Keith Boag

American Politics Contributor

Keith Boag writes about American politics and issues that shape the American experience. Keith was based for several years in Los Angeles and now, in retirement after a long career with CBC News, continues to live in Washington, D.C. Earlier, Keith reported from Ottawa, where he served as chief political correspondent for CBC News.


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