After the Paris attacks, life goes on in a sleepless, grieving and edgy city

Andrew Hussey reports on the mood in a city struggling with complex questions about the attacks that have a specifically Parisian dimension.

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Last Sunday in Paris was a late autumnal treat. The sun shone and the sunlight was warm. Along the boulevards, those trees that still had leaves were putting on a final show of colour – all orange and golden brown. It was hard to believe that it was mid-November, when Paris normally takes on mists and a chill. The sunshine has been on and off in France for the past few weeks and most television news shows ended cheerily with reports of swimmers in La Rochelle or Biarritz.

All of that came to a sudden stop on the night of Friday 13 November, when the gut-wrenching news of the massacres in Paris came through. Today the city seems eerie and sinister – the abnormally good weather is another symptom of how weird life feels right now.

That didn’t stop people going out on Sunday for lunch, dinner, a drink or a walk. It was as if, after a grim Saturday when the city was all but deserted, we needed to re-assert our presence, to take up again the everyday pleasures of living in Paris. I went with my wife for lunch at one of the classic brasseries – the Zeyer – in the 14th arrondissement, where I live. For some reason I had an instinct to live well and do something Parisian. I was not alone. The place was packed with diners.

The Zeyer is quintessentially Parisian – a big, bustling eating machine, serving up a menu that has hardly changed in a century (it has been here since 1913). The waiters were funny and charming; the choucroute and wine were delicious. But, after the horrors of Friday night, as you sat in full view of the street, it was all too easy to imagine a gunman blasting a hole through the plate glass and to see the scene as a slaughterhouse. It took real effort not to be scared. And although the restaurant was alive with chatter, people had only one topic of conversation: are we now at war? And what does it mean?

There was also a guilty consensus that somehow, at some level that nobody wanted to articulate, these latest attacks were worse than the Charlie Hebdo killings. The guilt was there because those murders were, of course, terrible, but people felt even worse now. It was partly because this was a new, second and sickening blow but also because these killings were so indiscriminate – it wasn’t that Charlie Hebdo deserved it or had it coming but the killers, as disgusting as they were, had a rationale. None of this fresh horror seems to make any sense, or at least none that you can see.

Everybody I have spoken to over recent days, of all political hues, has been asking the same questions. Most have agreed that François Hollande was right when he declared that the mass killings were an “act of war”, although some are unsure about the follow-up attacks on Isis in Syria. They may be right; Hollande may have little choice but to retaliate, yet it does seem as if Isis is writing the script for the French.

Aside from the geopolitics, however, there are local issues. As the identities of the killers were revealed, it was with wearying inevitability that we learned that the group apparently included home-grown French radicals. France has been here before many times and the outside world is no longer unfamiliar with the issues of alienation, fractured identity, social exclusion and the sheer wretchedness of life in the poorest of France’s banlieue that have contributed to the process of radicalisation.

Yet there are complex questions that have a specifically Parisian dimension. If the killings were not random, who exactly were the Islamists attacking this time and why?

 

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In recent days this has led to deeper speculation about the nature of the attacks. The eastern part of Paris, where most of the killings took place, was not chosen by chance. This is the home of the anti-establishment Parisian left, people who read Libération and Les Inrockuptibles. It is a multicultural and multi-ethnic part of the city. It is stylish but not posh – it is, indeed, one of the pleasure centres of Paris and the lifestyle here is largely about food, sex, music and drink. All of this is an obvious affront to the angry puritans of radical Islam. There are, however, other details that are important.

The Bataclan has been here in one form or another since 1864, when it began its existence as a music hall. Ever since, it has been a central part of the Parisian cultural landscape, hosting concerts by Mistinguett and Maurice Chevalier in the 1910s and Motörhead in the 1990s, by way of Jane Birkin, Lou Reed and Oasis, to name but a few. In the past few years, however, there have been rumours in radical Islamist circles in France that the concerts at the venue were used to fund causes in Israel.

Throughout the tail end of the 2000s, there were frequent threats made against the Bataclan. In 2008, a group of pro-Palestinian militants recorded a video in front of the concert hall, in which a masked man declares, “In Mantes-la-Jolie, in La Courneuve [suburbs of Paris], there are brothers who will not tolerate these provocations.”

In 2011, the newspaper Le Figaro revealed that a Palestinian group called Jaish al-Islam (which is considered to be al-Qaeda’s franchise in Gaza) had been plotting against the Bataclan because its owners were rumoured to be Jews.

It is impossible to say whether any of this was in the minds of the killers on Friday but it is equally impossible to believe that it would not have been known to them. So far, unlike the killings in January, there has been no explicitly anti-Semitic motive for what happened.

For most of the French left, it has been a long-standing taboo to be seen to be taking the Israeli side in the Israel-Palestine conflict. From this position, much anti-Jewish feeling on the left is then confused with anti-Zionism and the desire to be on the side of the formerly colonised in the post-colonial world. In his 2007 book The Lure of Anti-Semitism: Hatred of Jews in Present-Day France, the sociologist Michel Wieviorka describes how contemporary anti-Semitism in France is inextricably linked to colonial history and in particular the history of the so-called pieds-noirs, the white settlers who returned to France from North Africa after the French handed independence to Algeria in 1962 after a long war.

Wieviorka links this history to “Islamo-progressivism”. This is a term used by the philosopher Alain Finkielkraut and it is related to the merged strains of Islamist thought and leftist post-colonial narratives. As Islamo-progressivism has popularised itself, there has been an emerging anti-Semitic counter-narrative from the right, in particular the Catholic nationalist groups that have rallied against the issue of gay marriage. The academic Pierre Birnbaum has written powerfully about the convergence of “anti-modernism” and “anti-Semitism” in a recent study, Sur un nouveau moment antisémite (“A New Anti-Semitism”), noting that at the right-wing demonstrations against gay marriage in 2014, the slogan “La France aux Français” (“France for the French”) was accompanied by the cry “Mort aux juifs” (“Death to the Jews”).

Birnbaum identifies an unlikely but powerful alliance between Islamo-progressivists, open in their contempt for Israel, and the coalition of religious groups in and around a right-wing caucus in the Catholic Church. This is how the disparate forms of anti-Semitism in France today are able to speak to each other.

 

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These elements came together in January with the Islamist attacks on the Charlie Hebdo offices and a kosher supermarket: both the Enlightenment spirit of political satire and Jewishness under attack in an amalgam of religious fanaticism and anti-Semitism. If anything, since then, the divisions have become deeper and wider in French society between those who believe in French universalism and those from a marginalised underclass who see France as a “totalitarian democracy”, in which Jews hold a privileged and controlling position.

From this point of view, the attacks of 13 November may have been a shock but they should not have come as a surprise. Throughout 2015, France has been the target of more than half a dozen frustrated or half-cocked attempts at murder by Islamist radicals. It feels as if variations on the same thing keep happening over and over again.

On 21 August, Ayoub el-Khazzani, born in 1989 in Tétouan, Morocco, was unfortunate enough to run into a group of vacationing Americans – two of whom were servicemen – on the Amsterdam-to-Paris train, as he was preparing to load a Kalashnikov. Overpowered by the Americans, el-Khazzani was prevented from murdering innocent train passengers in what could have been another disturbing but familiar display of nihilistic hatred.

There was something depressingly familiar, too, about el-Khazzani’s journey – alienated in his homeland, drifting between France, Spain and the Spanish enclave of Ceuta in North Africa, a young man in his twenties veering between delinquency and martyrdom. A massacre was averted but everybody in France – the intelligence services, the police, the government, ordinary people – was then just waiting for the next atrocity. And now it has happened: yet another massacre in a long war of shifting frontiers and elusive enemies.

There are no easy answers but what is certain is that the same political and cultural problems are being handed down from generation to generation. It is now nine years since Martin Amis used the term “horrorism” to describe the spectacular forms of violence that define contemporary terrorism. He was writing about the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, DC, trying to understand what had happened at the beginning of the century, “what was revealed to us” in the “vehement and desperate nostalgia” that led to mass murder: “maximum malevolence” in Amis’s words.

For Amis, 9/11 was not just an atrocity but the spectacle of an atrocity. This was what made it so terrifying. It is as if, following Guy Debord, what terrifies us most in the society of the spectacle is not just the experience of death but the image of death, transmitted globally. That is the terrible game of war that the radical Islamists are playing.

At the local level, there is now the feeling that we are on a front line and that bad things can happen to any of us at any time in France. That is why Paris remains so sleepless and edgy.

Andrew Hussey is a New Statesman contributor and the author of “The French Intifada: the Long War Between France and Its Arabs” (Granta Books)

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror