These are some of my impressions and thoughts on what went on yesterday in the whole of France, not only in Paris. The media in the US, and I’m talking about centrist media such as NPR or the NYT, were getting it wrong this morning in their “shows” or “stories” or on the printed page. They framed the demonstrations only and narrowly as a response to terrorism. Half wrong in the case of the NYT whose top title this morning was: In Paris, Huge Show of Solidarity Against Terrorism. These demonstrations were much more than that. The spirit of these demonstrations was that of solidarity but certainly not narrowly set as being “against terrorism”. It was much broader than what even the participants could imagine, it seems to me and to the family and friends I talked to. The marches were above all a referendum on the need to go beyond social and religious divisions. How is one to do that? Clearly, no one knows exactly what to do in schools, communities, political parties, or even religious institutions. The integration of large impoverished populations in a gloomy economic and ideological landscape, when all -isms have collapsed and religion is the only glue left standing for many, is a daunting project. And is it still a project? The demonstrators were saying yes. They were expressing their hope, their profound desire for the sort of unwritten future Ross Douthat wrote about recently in the NYT. So, the solidarity and unity they were showing in these demonstrations was not primarily or only a brave collective reaction to terrorism. That is straight-jacketing them into a much narrower purpose than the participants expressed yesterday. It conveniently and unthinkingly makes them part of the catastrophic, all-out rhetoric and war on terror the US has been waging since 2002–3.
I speak of a referendum and the expression of a hope as well as a statement on fundamental values of the republic, because huge, unheard of, demonstrations were held yesterday not only in Paris, Lyon, Bordeaux, or Lille, but in hundreds of medium-sized and small French cities. For instance, Lannion, a small city of ca. 20,000 people in northern Brittany, had 20,000 people marching. Rennes, a city of 210,000, had 115,000 demonstrators. The tally so far: about 1.5m in Paris, perhaps a total of 3.7m in the whole country, according to the wiki on the “Manifestations des 10 et 11 janvier 2015”.
The testimony by the brother of Ahmed Merabet catches much better than my words above how deeply felt is the need to go beyond violent solutions. Ahmed Merabet was killed Wednesday as he lay on the ground, wounded. I translate his brother’s moving message to families and to the world:
French of Algerian origin, of Muslim confession, very proud to bear his name, Ahmed Merabet, to represent French police and defend the values of the Republic, liberty, equality, fraternity. By sheer determination, he got his diploma of police inspector and was soon to leave the beat. His colleagues describe him as a man passionate for his work. Ahmed was a man of commitment and had been taking care of his mother and family since his father’s passing twenty years ago. Pillar of his family, his responsibilities didn’t keep him from being a protective son, a whimsical brother, a doting uncle, and a loving companion. Devastated by this barbaric act, we share the suffering of all the victims’ families. I speak now to all racists, islamophobes, and antisemites, that one must not confuse extremists and Muslims. Mad men have no color or religion. I insist on one more point: Stop amalgamating everything, stop triggering wars, burning mosques or synagogues. You are attacking people. It will not return our dead or give peace to families.
Many people are critical of the absence yesterday of Obama, Kerry or Biden, side by side with the marching forty-four leaders of European and other countries. I think it is fortunate that the US was only represented by its ambassador and that even Eric Holder, the attorney general, who was in France for police work, was not at the demonstration. The fact that Obama, Kerry, Biden, or god forbid the Clintons, were not there, gives everyone in Europe a better chance to understand the demonstration as a broad and historical statement of belief in freedom, equality (justice), and fraternity, not as a narrow, negative, mirror response to terrorism. The US let itself being sucked into a rhetoric of global war on terrorism as an end-all. The demonstrations in France remind me of the huge US demonstrations against mindless war at the end of 2002 and beginning of 2003. The media at the time tried not to report on them or on their spirit, which was very similar to that of yesterday’s demonstrations. Publications like even the NYT did their best to pull everyone towards war. They succeeded all too well in dragging the US into an unwinnable war. Yesterday’s demonstrations are a call and a reminder that war-mongering is not the solution. The absence of the US heirs and managers of an endless war against terrorism gives Europeans a chance to reexamine the path they are to take. The criminal fanatics who decided upon the attacks of last Wednesday in Paris are expecting more division and violence. It remains to be seen if people, communities, parties, and policy makers will give them satisfaction.