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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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.