Sunday 22 September 2019

Why a prayer for Paris could offend terror victims

People light candles and pray outside Le Carillon restaurant, one of the sites where 130 people were killed in Paris
People light candles and pray outside Le Carillon restaurant, one of the sites where 130 people were killed in Paris

Clodagh Finn

It is hard to understand how the global outpouring of solidarity symbolised by the hashtag #prayforparis might cause offence to some Parisians, yet it does.

The support and the empathy is deeply appreciated, though not always the prayers.

France is vehemently secular. Under the 1905 law that separates church and state, all symbols of religious belief - head scarves, bibles, crosses - are banned from public life. Confining religion to the private domain is a fundamental tenet of a country founded on the principles of liberté, egalité, fraternité.

The country's rousing national anthem La Marseillaise harks back to that revolutionary ideology, though you have to wonder if its bloody message is apt for a time like this. The chorus exhorts: "To arms, citizens/Form your battalions/March, march/Let impure blood/Water our furrows".

For now, though, it serves as a powerful symbol in a country that won't be bowed by the terror attacks that left 129 dead on November 13 last.

I used to live around the corner from Place de la République, which has been turned into a shrine to tolerance, love, peace and the indomitable will of the French people to continue life as before.

It is a heart-wrenching display and you can't help but get behind it with every fibre of your being.

Under normal circumstances, that square is a starting point for the street demonstrations so beloved of the French public. It's ironic that a decade ago, it was filled with Muslim women protesting against the country's decision to ban the headscarf in schools in 2004.

They told this reporter they were reluctant to participate in public life without their headscarves and that some of their daughters would prefer to stay at home rather than attend school with bare heads.

That is the uncomfortable reality of French secularism. It can start to look like religious intolerance, particularly to the disaffected thousands living in the down-at-heel suburbs where jobs and opportunities are scarce.

Just last month, the clash between national identity and ensuring a place for France's 4.7 million Muslims erupted in a row over school lunches. The new major of Chilly-Mazarin, a town of about 20,000 in south Paris, announced an end to pork-free options in school canteens in the name of public-sector "neutrality".

Critics have condemned Jean-Paul Beneytou, a member of Nicolas Sarkozy's right-wing Les Républicains party, saying that he is hijacking French secularism and alienating Muslim and Jewish children.

Is he saying that to be truly French, you must eat pork? It sounds ridiculous but often the clash between secular ideals and the day-to-day realities comes down to seemingly petty rows over food and clothes.

Of course that is only part of the picture. The organisation Ni Putes, Ni Soumises (Neither Whores Nor Doormats) was set up in 2002 to fight for a change in attitudes towards women, particularly Muslim women, many of whom, it said, were under pressure to wear the veil, drop out of school and marry a chosen husband.

And yet, nearly half of European jihadists who have travelled to extremist-held Iraq and Syria are French, according to a study by the French senate in April.

At the time, senator Jean-Pierre Sueur said French intelligence had noted a 24pc increase in the numbers of French involved in Syrian networks. Now, there will be much discussion about the reasons for radicalisation.

Some may point an accusing finger at France's secularism, though, if anything, these attacks will strengthen it. And on balance, that has to be a good thing.

When I first moved to France, the spirit of tolerance palpable in a secular city felt like a breath of fresh air. Paris felt open, cosmopolitan and full of possibility in stark contrast to Ireland in the late 1980s.

Though, to my surprise, Paris also felt surprisingly local. I didn't quite expect to find an unshakeable sense of community in such a big city but it was there in spades.

I used to live just 10 minutes' walk from Le Petit Cambodge, the restaurant where terrorists killed more than a dozen people.

Its sister restaurant Le Cambodge, a stone's throw away, was a regular haunt. It's quite an experience: you can't book and diners are asked to write out their orders on slips of paper. It's a little quirk that is rewarded with great food: sautéed beef, noodles, salads and imperial rolls (a favourite).

When the queues of people would no longer fit into its tiny dining room, they opened the nearby Le Petit Cambodge in 2011.

I still go to the original because the tables are so close you'll invariably fall into conversation with the people eating at your elbow.

The 10th and 11th arrondisements, the focus of the attacks, offer that kind of opportunity. On my former street, rue de Lancry, you can still shop local, filling your basket up at the bakery, the butcher's, the magnificent fruit and veg shop with its five kinds of pears, the cheese shop and, of course, the exceptional wine merchant's.

Stay long enough and they'll come to know you personally, if only because you've made a comical attempt at DIY through French.

The man in the hardware shop always broke out in a smile when he saw me because my dad and I once had an exchange reminiscent of the infamous Two Ronnies sketch (the customer asks for "fork handles" but gets "four candles") when trying to buy some sort of a washer.

The last time I visited the Canal St-Martin was earlier this year. I met Irish chef Christine O'Sullivan at Chez Prune, a bobo (bourgeois-bohème) café just minutes from the targeted Le Carillion.

The former MasterChef Ireland finalist spoke about her plans to open her own pâtisserie in the area. In mid-June, she opened Broken Biscuits in the 11th district with partner Chris Wilson. The day after the worst attack on the city since WWll, they were open for business. Their message on Facebook read: "Like many others, we debated closing today but, truthfully, we needed to do this to show that we do not give in to terrorism... So, today, we will be in the shop, saddened by last night's attack but here if anyone needs a chat, a coffee or cake. Together we will stay strong, be safe Paris."

Some, perhaps many, will welcome prayers, too, but French journalist Luc Le Vaillant has a point when he urges people to adopt a new hashtag #Parisisaboutlife. Few can argue with that.

Irish Independent

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