A January rally for Charlie Hebdo in Trafalgar Square. Photo: Rob Stothard/Getty Images
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The horrors in Paris, flowers from Boris, and the spirit of Charlie Hebdo in London

The French ambassador to the UK shares how London's response to Charlie Hebdo gave hope after the attacks.

The new year began with unthinkable horror. On Wednesday 7 January, two brothers armed with Kalashnikovs stormed into the Paris offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and killed 12 people. In the two nightmare days that followed, a policewoman was shot dead at work and four hostages were killed at a kosher supermarket. France was in shock. France mourned its dead.

These attacks were cowardly, barbaric acts of violence. They have been condemned around the world. They have also sparked uplifting displays of solidarity between people of different faiths and nationalities, culminating on Sunday 11 January when four million people marched together on the streets of France. Difficulties lie ahead, but the unity we’ve seen in the wake of the Paris attacks is our most powerful weapon in dealing with them.

 

Fourth estate solidarity

I was on a tour of Agence France-Presse’s London office when the news of the first attacks broke. Being with journalists as their colleagues were being murdered for the same principles that they defend in their everyday work – freedom of expression, dialogue and debate – was an incredibly moving experience. That same afternoon, I met with Gérard Biard, the editor-in-chief of Charlie Hebdo, who happened to be in London on holiday with his wife. He echoed everyone’s feelings when he expressed his horror and incomprehension at the nature of this attack against a newspaper.

 

Security in equality

The fight against terrorism has long been a shared priority for France and the UK – we face many of the same threats and security challenges, and a lot of the measures we are taking are closely co-ordinated. While Theresa May travelled to Paris after the attacks to attend a meeting of interior ministers, here in London I met with Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, the Met Police commissioner, to discuss ways to make co-operation on security and policing even tighter. Since the attacks France has deployed 5,000 police officers and 10,000 troops around the country to protect people and sensitive sites – an unprecedented number on national soil. We have also reinforced internet surveillance; and, within the EU, we’ll be talking to major internet companies about making sure we can act quickly to detect content inciting hatred and terror online. While the security measures were urgent, they are just one part of our response. We also need to ensure equality of opportunity and fight discrimination so that everyone feels involved in society. That’s one of the aims of French laïcité: to try to ensure everyone feels that they are equal as French citizens, irrespective of their beliefs or origins.

 

Expressions of fraternity

Among the positive things to be remembered from the days following the attacks, one is the overwhelming affirmation of the UK’s support in times of need. David Cameron and the leader of the opposition took to the streets of Paris for the “Unity March”; on behalf of the royal family, Prince Harry came to the embassy to share his condolences; so did Nick Clegg. And when Boris Johnson declared “Nous sommes Charlie” on a card tucked into the beautiful bouquet of flowers he gave us, he spoke for what felt like all the people of London. The day of the great march in Paris, Trafalgar Square turned blue, white and red beneath the gaze of Admiral Nelson. In this bicentenary year of the Battle of Waterloo, this was a remarkable tribute to 200 years of friendship and peace between our countries. I’m sure the sweet irony of it wouldn’t have been lost on our friends killed at Charlie Hebdo. I think the survivors’ edition of the magazine captured the British – and French – spirit in the face of the attacks: “Keep calm and Charlie on”.

 

Paris in London

The French community in London, like many Britons, came out in force in the wake of the attacks, sending messages of sympathy, attending night-time vigils, and forming great queues outside the French bookshops of South Kensington to get hold of copies of Charlie Hebdo. The exact size of the French community here is a question that seems to provoke no end of debate. It’s tricky to know for certain the precise numbers but we estimate there could be around 300,000 French nationals living in the UK as a whole, with two-thirds of them living in the Greater London area. So I think it’s fair to say that the French love London; and it’s great to see how French expats are exporting French influence over here and increasing the cultural and commercial links between our countries.

 

Older conflicts

I’m sure that the shock and pain of the Paris attacks will be felt for a long time to come. I hope the spirit of unity we’ve seen – in the UK, in France and all over the world – will also endure. This year will be one of remembrance and sombre reflection in many respects. This April is the 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli campaign, which caused so many British, French and Anzac casualties. And, as the commemorations for the First World War continue, 2015 also marks 70 years since the end of the Second World War. Throughout the year, the French embassy will continue awarding the Légion d’honneur to British veterans who risked their lives on D-Day.

 

Beyond terrorism

Amid the sadness, 2015 is also a year for hope. One of our biggest focuses will be achieving a global agreement on climate change at the UN climate conference taking place in Paris at the end of the year. Last November’s agreement between China and the US on carbon cuts was an encouraging step on the road to Paris 2015. This is a major moment for our planet and for the whole of humanity, and it’s an opportunity we mustn’t waste. Let’s make sure this year ends on a more positive note than it began!

Sylvie Bermann is the French ambassador to the UK

This article first appeared in the 23 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Christianity in the Middle East

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Forget the progressive alliance - it was the voters wot won it in Richmond

The Labour candidate on how voters have acted tactically for decades.

The Richmond Park by-election is both a triumph and a setback for the concept of an anti-Tory progressive alliance. As the Labour candidate, I was bombarded with emails and tweets saying I ought to stand down to prevent Zac Goldsmith being re-elected long after it was technically impossible for me to do so even if I had wanted to. I was harangued at a meeting organised by Compass, at which I found myself the lonely voice defending Labour's decision to put up a candidate.

I was slightly taken aback by the anger of some of those proposing the idea, but I did not stand for office expecting an easy ride. I told the meeting that while I liked the concept of a progressive alliance, I did not think that should mean standing down in favour of a completely unknown and inexperienced Lib Dem candidate, who had been selected without any reference to other parties. 

The Greens, relative newbies to the political scene, had less to lose than Labour, which still wants to be a national political party. Consequently, they told people to support the Lib Dems. This all passed off smoothly for a while, but when Caroline Lucas, the co-leader of the Greens came to Richmond to actively support the Lib Dems, it was more than some of her local party members could stomach. 

They wrote to the Guardian expressing support for my campaign, pointing out that I had a far better, long-established reputation as an environmentalist than the Lib Dem candidate. While clearly that ultimately did little to boost my vote, this episode highlighted one of the key problems about creating a progressive alliance. Keeping the various wings of the Labour party together, especially given the undisciplined approach of the leader who, as a backbencher, voted 428 times during the 13 years of Labour government in the 1990s and 2000s, is hard enough. Then consider trying to unite the left of the Greens with the right of the Lib Dems. That is not to include various others in this rainbow coalition such as nationalists and ultra-left groups. Herding cats seems easy by contrast.

In the end, however, the irony was that the people decided all by themselves. They left Labour in droves to vote out Goldsmith and express their opposition to Brexit. It was very noticeable in the last few days on the doorstep that the Lib Dems' relentless campaign was paying dividends. All credit to them for playing a good hand well. But it will not be easy for them to repeat this trick in other constituencies. 

The Lib Dems, therefore, did not need the progressive alliance. Labour supporters in Richmond have been voting tactically for decades. I lost count of the number of people who said to me that their instincts and values were to support Labour, but "around here it is a wasted vote". The most revealing statistic is that in the mayoral campaign, Sadiq Khan received 24 per cent of first preferences while Caroline Pidgeon, the Lib Dem candidate got just 7 per cent. If one discounts the fact that Khan was higher profile and had some personal support, this does still suggest that Labour’s real support in the area is around 20 per cent, enough to give the party second place in a good year and certainly to get some councillors elected.

There is also a complicating factor in the election process. I campaigned strongly on opposing Brexit and attacked Goldsmith over his support for welfare cuts, the bedroom tax and his outrageous mayoral campaign. By raising those issues, I helped undermine his support. If I had not stood for election, then perhaps a few voters may have kept on supporting him. One of my concerns about the idea of a progressive alliance is that it involves treating voters with disdain. The implication is that they are not clever enough to make up their mind or to understand the restrictions of the first past the post system. They are given less choice and less information, in a way that seems patronising, and smacks of the worst aspects of old-fashioned Fabianism.

Supporters of the progressive alliance will, therefore, have to overcome all these objections - in addition to practical ones such as negotiating the agreement of all the parties - before being able to implement the concept. 

Christian Wolmar is an award winning writer and broadcaster specialising in transport. He was shortlisted as a Labour mayoral candidate in the 2016 London election, and stood as Labour's candidate in the Richmond Park by-election in December 2016.