Monday 17 June 2019

The French people have 'linked arms' for a battle which challenges us all

A woman has taped her mouth displaying the word Freedom on the tape, as she gathers with several thousand people in solidarity with victims of two terrorist attacks in Paris, one at the office of weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo and another at a kosher market, front of the Brandenburg Gate near the French embassy in Berlin, Sunday, Jan. 11, 2015. in Berlin
A woman has taped her mouth displaying the word Freedom on the tape, as she gathers with several thousand people in solidarity with victims of two terrorist attacks in Paris, one at the office of weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo and another at a kosher market, front of the Brandenburg Gate near the French embassy in Berlin, Sunday, Jan. 11, 2015. in Berlin
Citizens carrying a banner which reads, "We are Charlie - Love stronger than the hatred" take part in a Hundreds of thousands of French citizens solidarity march (Marche Republicaine) in the streets of Paris January 11, 2015.
John Downing

John Downing

Friday was France's darkest day since those times in the 1940s which are not entirely dealt with, even yet. Yesterday, something totally uplifting and unique happened with 1.5 million people linking arms in the City of Light that is Paris, and a total of 3.5 million people marching in various centres across the land of wonder that is France.

In Marseille, France's second city and the one with the largest Muslim population, the mayor of the city's eighth district, Samia Ghali, told reporters that people there "were marching for tolerance and co-existence". Ms Ghali, a dynamic politician whose parents came originally from Algeria, has herself been the butt of racist slurs, and as a socialist she is taking a stand against the growing support for Marine Le Pen's far-right Front National.

A weekend spent by this writer glued to various French news media, mostly to the indispensable 'France Info' rolling news channel via internet radio, was a roller-coaster ride of all the emotions you can think of. It also evoked memories of years spent living in France and a decade living in neighbouring Belgium reporting European affairs.

The sheer dramatic horror of the past week's events has distorted many people's sense of time. France's three days of terror started last Wednesday, when the brothers Said and Cherif Kouachi burst into the offices of the satirical magazine, 'Charlie Hebdo', in the centre of Paris and sprayed bullets into the editorial meeting, killing some of France's best-known cartoonists. They then murdered a Muslim policeman as he lay helpless on the ground before heading off. The ensuing manhunt lasted more than 48 hours.

On Thursday, a third gunman, Amedy Coulibaly, shot dead a policewoman in a southern suburb of Paris. Coulibaly later reportedly said the gunmen had co-ordinated their efforts. And he claimed he was a member of Isil and avenging attacks by the international community on the extremist group.

Up to 90,000 French police and military continued a massive hunt for the attackers. This culminated in twin hostage dramas that gripped the entire world, as Coulibaly stormed into a Jewish supermarket in eastern Paris and seized terrified shoppers.

The two Kouachi brothers took one person hostage in a printing firm in a little industrial estate north east of Paris. After a tense stand-off, police shot them dead as they charged out of the building all guns blazing.

In a synchronized raid, the security forces also stormed the kosher supermarket in eastern Paris. They killed Coulibaly. But to everyone's horror they found that four innocent Jews had died during the hostage-taking.

But those bald facts go nowhere near evoking the sheer terror and disruption which accompanied these horrific events. Nor do they tell the tales of everyday people who showed astonishing bravery.

Many French politicians, on the Left and Right, offered insightful observations. But perhaps the best and most prophetic, as it turned out, came from a man called Jean-Luc Melanchon, who heads a new Left Wing citizens' movement. Asked what French people should do next, he said simply: "Il faut se serrer les coudes." The phrase is best translated as: "We must link arms."

That is what happened yesterday in a huge national display being compared with France's liberation from Nazi occupation in 1944. Let the begrudgers and carpers stand well back from this one here in Ireland. Taoiseach Enda Kenny was completely correct to attend yesterday's events. To do anything less would have been an insult to a near neighbour.

It was only mildly interesting to note that some ropey characters joined Kenny and the other world leaders. Some, notably Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban, have been the focus of controversy about commitment to democracy. But the day belonged to the people, making this a very minor detail.

Yet, despite the uplifting outpouring of national emotion, few people will be unduly carried away in the longer term. Most people know that this national coming together can dissipate quickly. Worse, it can take a negative turn.

The comments of Front National leader Le Pen just hours after the 'Charlie Hebdo' murders come immediately to mind. "It was to be expected. This attack is probably the beginning of the beginning. It's an episode in the war that is being waged against us by Islamism. The blindness and deafness of our leaders, for years, is in part responsible for these kinds of attacks," she said.

Ms Le Pen also called for a return of the death penalty. The solution to all those killings would be more killing, this time done with official sanction. There is every chance that the rise of the Front National will continue and may be given a further boost by the past week's events.

However, such a race to extremism is far from inevitable. The level of EU and other international co-operation in the battle against terrorism has a big role to play here. Such a battle has to look at the causes of terrorism as much as it needs to build up better intelligence and confront terrorists.

Meanwhile, the French people have begun a national conversation, which their philosophic outlook and language facilitates. They deserve all the solidarity it is possible to give. This one concerns all of us in a very real way.

Irish Independent

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