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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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser