Paris attacks

The night Paris changed

Print edition : December 25, 2015

People who were wounded in the terrorist attacks and others wait for the start of a ceremony in the courtyard of the Les Invalides in Paris on November 27. The ceremony mourned and honoured those killed in the attacks and was presided over by French President Francois Hollande. Photo: Francois Mori/AP

The French flag flying on top of the Grand Mosque of Paris on November 27 in memory of the 130 victims of the terrorist attacks. Photo: PATRICK KOVARIK/AFP

People hold hands at the Place de la Republique in Paris, which has become the unofficial memorial to the victims, on November 20. Photo: PIERRE TERDJMAN/New York Times

The deadly Paris attacks, which could permanently damage the ‘French way of life’, will also have far-reaching outcomes for Europe, West Asia and the entire world.

THE fact that France, and Paris in particular, could keep tryst with COP-21, the climate conference attended by 150 world leaders, just a fortnight after enduring ferocious terrorist attacks by Islamic State (I.S.) jehadists, is testimony to its spirit of resilience. Although a march in support of international action on climate change was cancelled on security grounds, it did not deter climate change activists from assembling at the Place de la Republique, the unofficial memorial to the victims of the November 13 attacks. A confrontation with the police met with tear gas, but the gathering was by and large peaceful, with activists placing shoes on the road where people should have walked, a symbolic gesture of participation.

Cataclysmic events can forever change the character and perception of a city, and Paris, regardless of the outward stoicism of its citizens in coping with the tragedy, is no exception. Although the city made a point of collectively mourning its dead in public spaces like the Place de la Republique, and Parisians repopulated their streets, shops, offices and schools two days after the massacre, a sense of anxiety and uncertainty lies just below the surface.

Unlike the attack on the office of Charlie Hebdo magazine in January this year, in which jehadists murdered 11 journalists, the November 13 attacks were carefully planned and coordinated. The indiscriminate shooting at venues of music, sport and recreation in the capital on a relaxed Friday evening killed 130 and injured 350, many of whom are still recovering in hospital. Five days later, Parisians woke up to the news of a raid by French security forces targeting terrorists holed up in a flat in the Paris suburb of Saint-Denis. A few days later came the lockdown in Brussels, Belgium, imposed by a government claiming a real and credible threat of a Paris-like attack from the remnants of the group responsible for the Paris attacks. The French are, therefore, justifiably nervous.

French security services working under Paris prosecutor Francois Molins now know that nine persons involved in the attacks are dead. Three attackers blew themselves up outside the Stade de France. Three died at the Bataclan theatre, where a concert was taking place. Two of them ignited suicide vests and the third was shot by the police. Another attacker detonated the explosives on himself outside a cafe at Rue Voltaire. A suspect named Salah Abdeslam, who is believed to have crossed to Belgium, is still at large. The police are now investigating if he could have been part of a planned fourth attack in the 18th district in Paris that never took place.

Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the suspected mastermind of the attacks, and his female cousin, Hasna Aitboulahcen, were killed by the police in the predawn raid in Saint-Denis. Seven suspects have been named and three remain unidentified. The killers worked in three coordinated teams and all the men were carrying the same type of assault rifles. A live suicide belt was found a few days later in south-west Paris.

Most of the attackers were French nationals and some were Belgian who either grew up in or formed associations later with Molenbeek, an area in Brussels. Salah Abdeslam and his brother Brahim Abdeslam, who detonated himself outside a cafe, were friends of Abdelhamid Abaaoud; all of them grew up in Molenbeek. The Belgian authorities have so far charged four people with involvement in the attacks.

Nature of outcomes

The short- and long-term outcomes of the attacks are several—for Paris, France, the region, West Asia and the world. There is the tragedy itself, one that France is still reeling from. At a memorial organised two weeks after the attacks to observe a national day of mourning, President Francois Hollande addressed a gathering of survivors, many of them in wheelchairs, and the families of those who died, at a service in the courtyard of the Les Invalides complex, which houses the tomb of Napoleon Bonaparte.

The 130 who were killed, Hollande said, represented, “130 laughs that we won’t hear anymore, 130 voices that went quiet forever”. He said: “These women, these men, embodied the happiness of life. They were killed because they were life, they were shot down because they were France, they were slain because they were freedom.” The average age of those who died was 35, “the rising generation”, he said. They came from 17 countries, a slice of the social mix that is Paris.

On the positive side, the attacks did not create the surge in Islamophobia that many feared it might, as the targets were directed against the diversity that Paris represents and celebrates. There were isolated expressions of hate against Muslims, but in the post-attack days, the French instinctively unified in resolve and grief.

Three weeks after the attacks, Marianne, a Left-leaning French magazine, succinctly expressed the need for unity in France, saying there is a “need to fight terrorism as if there were no Muslims in France and live with Muslims as if there were no terrorism”.

The French state imposes a strict distinction between the secular and the religious: religious dress or symbols are disallowed in government offices, schools and educational institutions. There is no exact count of the Muslim population, although estimates put it at around five million.

The hashtags #MuslimsAreNotTerrorist and #TerrorismHasNoReligion began trending worldwide soon after the attacks. The Imam of the Grand Mosque in Paris called upon Muslims to demonstrate against terrorism and Islamophobia after prayers on the Friday following the attacks, according to French media reports.

Indeed, it would appear that it is not religion but the erosion of values encapsulated in the phrase “the French way of life” that is of concern in intellectual and philosophical debates, the damage that could be wrought to “Laicite” or the founding values upon which French society is constructed. The “French way of life” loosely refers to the freedoms that the French enjoy and the sense of social rather than economic equality it accords, allowing people to live their lives according to a commonly acceptable set of rules and practices, which may be different from what are observed within the family and other entirely personal spaces.

“France is one of the most secular societies in terms of its laws and way of life,” said Ammar Abd Rabbo, a French freelance photographer of Syrian origin. “No one talks about god, they talk of the republic. There is no religious referencing, and that is the major problem for the Daesh [as the I.S. is known]. They want kids killed in bombings,” he said.

Abd Rabbo said that while there was religious radicalisation in France in the past few decades, it was “not necessarily militant radicalisation”, which only represented a “drop in the ocean” in demographic terms. “In France, religion is invisible. It considers it private, discreet and low-profile; even among Muslims, 85 to 90 per cent would identify themselves as French citizens first,” he said. The “French way of life” also includes real-life democratic freedoms, such as the freedom to demonstrate and protest, and other rights of the rule of law. This basket of rights has been curtailed severely under the new emergency measures imposed by Hollande’s government in the wake of the terror attacks. The 12-day emergency called immediately after the attacks was extended, with support from Parliament, for three months. Hollande has proposed changes to the Constitution to incorporate some of these restrictions.

Emergency measures

Hollande has acted on his solemn promise to strengthen internal security and “destroy the army of fanatics”. French media reported Prime Minister Manuel Valls as saying that by November 27, 1,836 premises had been searched, 305 people placed under house arrest, over 200 people detained after raids, and 293 weapons seized.

The French press also quoted Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve on November 28 as saying that 34 “hate preachers” were being deported and that stricter border controls were being imposed. Nearly 1,000 people had been prevented from entering France because of the suspicion that they could be terrorists, he said. In addition, almost 15,000 police officers, gendarmes and customs officers were placed on border control duty, with the tightest security on the eastern frontier, he said.

Obstructing the free flow of people within the European Union (E.U.) is in breach of the principles of the Schengen no-passport zone but is allowed in exceptional circumstances. The French government wants security tightened in view of the COP-21 conference which began on November 30.

Hollande invoked an article in the Lisbon Treaty that binds the E.U. Article 42.7 states that if a member feels subject to “armed aggression on its territory”, other E.U. members have an “obligation of aid and assistance by all the means in their power”. In the present situation, there appears to be support for such measures even among the sceptics and critics of Hollande’s government, but that may not last for long if these changes are applied in an insensitive manner.

“I think that to say the emergency measures imposed by the government will deepen the religious divide is going a bit too far,” a French academic who did not want to be named told Frontline.

“I think our legal apparatus may not be fit for the urban guerilla. It is a new situation. You cannot have policemen politely knocking on the door of a suspect asking him to get his lawyer before subjecting him to questioning. Whether the new laws are an infringement on our rights, we can’t say, but they will be discussed in the Assembly. We don’t believe it will be as bad as the Patriot Act in the United States,” he said.

Finally, there is the new international situation that the Paris attacks have given rise to. In Europe, this has resulted in the tightening of security measures, but also an increased hostility to refugees from Syria and elsewhere who continue to cross over to Europe, fleeing the war in Syria. This human crisis has only become worse since the attacks.

The attacks have also created a new set of international alliances in the fight against the I.S. Hollande, for the first time, backed down on his earlier stance of equating threats from the I.S. with that of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Isolating the I.S. as the primary enemy that must be eliminated, Hollande intensified French air strikes against I.S. targets in Syria, while personally meeting Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Barack Obama to forge an alliance against the I.S.

Most significant, according to the independent analyst Pepe Escobar, is the agreement between Russia and France in Moscow. After the meeting, Hollande reportedly said: “What we agreed, and this is important, is to strike only terrorists and Daesh and to not strike forces that are fighting terrorism. We will exchange information about whom to hit and whom not to hit.” This is seen as a significant concession to Russia. Now Daesh and Jabhat al-Nusra—the former Al Qaeda in Syria that is an amalgam of several Salafi groups that were earlier considered “moderate” by the West—targets will be hit.

According to Escobar, the French have also been convinced of the need to support “rebels” fighting the I.S. on the ground, which he says is “code for the YPG Syrian Kurds, one of [Turkish President] Erdogan’s nemeses alongside the PKK”.

In crafting this agreement, Putin is following the course set out in the Vienna negotiations on the Syrian war currently under way, and the terms of United Nations Security Council Resolution 2249 calling for international collaboration in the fight against the I.S.

The “clincher” in the Putin-Hollande agreement, according to Escobar, is the consensus reached on striking the fuel tanker truck convoys transporting Syrian fuel stolen by the I.S. that enter Turkey. The air strikes over Raqqa, believed to be the headquarters of the I.S., have intensified, with the United Kingdom now ready to send in fighter jets once Parliament gives its consent. Civilian casualties have been mounting in the region, despite claims by the countries bombing it that these are “precision” strikes.

The greater the number of civilian casualties, the greater the numbers making the perilous escape to Europe. The Paris attacks have sucked Syria, West Asia and Europe ever deeper into the vortex of war and human misery.

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