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

ELLIE FOREMAN-PECK FOR NEW STATESMAN
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Craig Oliver, Cameron's attack dog, finally bites

A new book reveals the spiteful after life of Downing Street's unlikely spin doctor.

It must be hard being a spin doctor: always in the shadows but always on-message. The murky control that the role requires might explain why David Cameron’s former director of communications Craig Oliver has rushed out his political memoirs so soon after his boss left Downing Street. Now that he has been freed from the shackles of power, Oliver has chosen to expose the bitterness that lingers among those on the losing side in the EU referendum.

The book, which is aptly titled Unleashing Demons, made headlines with its revelation that Cameron felt “badly let down” by Theresa May during the campaign, and that some in the Remain camp regarded the then home secretary as an “enemy agent”. It makes for gripping reading – yet seems uncharacteristically provocative in style for a man who eschewed the sweary spin doctor stereotype, instead advising Cameron to “be Zen” while Tory civil war raged during the Brexit campaign.

It may be not only politicians who find the book a tough read. Oliver’s visceral account of his side’s defeat on 24 June includes a description of how he staggered in a daze down Whitehall until he retched “harder than I have done in my life. Nothing comes up. I retch again – so hard, it feels as if I’ll turn inside out.”

It’s easy to see why losing hit Oliver – who was knighted in Cameron’s resignation honours list – so hard. Arguably, this was the first time the 47-year-old father-of-three had ever failed at anything. The son of a former police chief constable, he grew up in Scotland, went to a state school and studied English at St Andrews University. He then became a broadcast journalist, holding senior posts at the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

When the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson resigned as No 10’s communications director in January 2011 because of unceasing references in the press to his alleged involvement in the phone-hacking scandal, Oliver was not the obvious replacement. But he was seen as a scandal-free BBC pen-pusher who exuded calm authority, and that won him the job. The Cameron administration, tainted by its association with the Murdoch media empire, needed somebody uncontroversial who could blend into the background.

It wasn’t just Oliver’s relative blandness that recommended him. At the BBC, he had made his name revamping the corporation’s flagship News at Ten by identifying the news angles that would resonate with Middle England. The Conservatives then put this skill to very good use during their 2015 election campaign. His broadcast expertise also qualified him to sharpen up the then prime minister’s image.

Oliver’s own sense of style, however, was widely ridiculed when he showed up for his first week at Downing Street looking every inch the metropolitan media male with a trendy man bag and expensive Beats by Dre headphones, iPad in hand.

His apparent lack of political affiliation caused a stir at Westminster. Political hacks were perplexed by his anti-spin attitude. His style was the antithesis of the attack-dog mode popularised by Alastair Campbell and Damian McBride in the New Labour years. As Robert Peston told the Daily Mail: “Despite working closely with Oliver for three years, I had no clue about his politics or that he was interested in politics.” Five years on, critics still cast aspersions and question his commitment to the Conservative cause.

Oliver survived despite early wobbles. The most sinister of these was the allegation that in 2012 he tried to prevent the Daily Telegraph publishing a story about expenses claimed by the then culture secretary, Maria Miller, using her links to the Leveson inquiry as leverage – an accusation that Downing Street denied. Nevertheless, he became indispensable to Cameron, one of a handful of trusted advisers always at the prime minister’s side.

Newspapers grumbled about Oliver’s preference for broadcast and social media over print. “He’s made it clear he [Oliver] doesn’t give a s*** about us, so I don’t really give a s*** about him,” a veteran correspondent from a national newspaper told Politico.

Yet that approach was why he was hired. There was the occasional gaffe, including the clumsy shot of a stern-looking Cameron, apparently on the phone to President Obama discussing Putin’s incursion into Ukraine, which was widely mocked on Twitter. But overall, reducing Downing Street’s dependence on print media worked: Scotland voted against independence in 2014 and the Tories won a majority in the 2015 general election.

Then came Brexit, a blow to the whole Cameroon inner circle. In his rush to set the record straight and defend Cameron’s legacy – as well as his own – Oliver has finally broken free of the toned-down, straight-guy persona he perfected in power. His memoir is spiteful and melodramatic, like something straight from the mouth of Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. Perhaps, with this vengeful encore to his mild political career, the unlikely spin doctor has finally fulfilled his potential. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories