Writing Portfolio


Paris: A personal reaction

Cities across the world held impromptu vigils to show solidarity with Paris last night, and London was no exception. While landmarks such as Tower Bridge and the Eye were being lit up in the red, white and blue of the French tricolour, thousands of people descended on Trafalgar Square to light candles at makeshift shrines, wave home-made banners (“nous sommes Paris”, “London stands with Paris”) and break out into a chorus of ‘La Marseillaise’ every five minutes or so.

It struck me, briefly, that the notion of singing the French national anthem in a public place named after a British victory over France might be a bit surreal. But that thought was brief, for there were much bigger forces at work, big enough to make quibbling over a name seem a little silly, if not downright petty. There are times when national differences fall aside before common values, and in the twenty-first century the wake of a terrorist attack – or rather, series of attacks – is such a time. Liberté and egalité are not so much French values these days as fairly universal values in the Western world, and the worldwide vigils were a chance for people everywhere to show a sense of fraternité with the people of Paris. Fittingly, the National Gallery and the fountains were lit up in the French colours too, and I even spotted a couple of bottles of vin rouge being passed around; very French.

I have a habit of following rolling news and social media somewhat obsessively when major events unfold, and that’s what I’ve been mainly doing since Friday night. Usually it’s with a sense of mild fascination or curiosity, wondering what’s going to happen next, but on Friday night it was with a mounting sense of horror as the news of multiple attacks filtered through and the number of dead rose into three figures. It’s quite possible that a contributing factor here was that Paris is a city that Allison and I love to visit – we were last there in June. We walk a lot when we go to Paris – it feels a lot more compact than London – and to judge by the map we’ve been within a couple of blocks of some of the places where the attacks took place; we like to stay in the 11th and have been to a few of the cafés and bars in the Canal Saint Martin area. This felt a little too close to home for comfort. Going along to a vigil in Trafalgar Square may seem like a small gesture but it felt like the right thing to do.

I’ve done plenty of reading up as well as watching the news, and here are the best pieces that I have found (with hyperlinks). The sense of immediacy and perspective on show here are much better than anything I could come up with.

In Paris, a Night Disrupted by Terror (Pamela Druckerman, New York Times) Personal account of the night by an American journalist who lives and works in Paris – a “perfectly normal dinner party” is interrupted by news of the attacks. Guests get text-messages asking if they’re OK. The writer’s husband is actually at the Stade de France (he ended up getting interviewed on Dutch radio) while another couple try to contact their teenage children. Things really hit home when she sees a map of Paris on TV showing where the attacks happened – “My home is on the other side of those two sites … it’s not just Paris that’s in the news – it’s my Paris”.

Murdered for Being Parisian (Judah Grunstein, The Atlantic) Highly erudite account from a Parisian – I had to look up what ‘desuetude’ means – which quickly focusses on the “democratization of the carnage”. “Last time,” the writer says (referring to the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January), “the victims were targeted for who they were or what they’d done. This time the bullets were not aimed, but fired at random … This time it is the nation and its people themselves in the crosshairs”. These are times, he notes, when even going out onto the streets buy a cake becomes in its own way an act of defiance. The writer goes on to consider the question of ‘self’ and ‘other’ which ties in the recent refugee crisis by referencing Parisians opening their doors to help those unable to get home (the #portsouvertes phenomenon that for a few hours gripped Twitter) – “When thousands of Parisians become refugees in Paris … there’s no longer really a “here” or a “there”, no longer a host and a refugee”.

‘Crimes’ Jihadists Will Sentence You To Death For (Jeffrey Goldberg, The Atlantic) Ties in the Paris attacks with the bombing of the Russian plane in Egypt two weeks ago, and other Islamist attacks over the years, by giving a “partial, and only partial” list of aspects of modern life that Islamist militants find intolerable to the point of killing people for partaking in them. My one quibble is the writer’s use of the term “medieval values” when talking of the extremists; sadly, religious extremism is in its own way a very modern phenomenon (for more on this, try to get hold of a copy of John Gray’s Al Qaeda and What it Means to be Modern – a short but nevertheless excellent and thought-provoking read).

After Paris, Europe may never feel as free again (Nick Cohen, Observer) Nick Cohen is a writer who I find always has something useful to say, and who usually seems to be a few steps ahead of everyone else (for example, people have only recently started to notice his excellent book What’s Left?, which was published eight years ago). He argues that, thus far, the threat posed by Islamism hasn’t really changed Europe. “From Nigeria to Afghanistan, a clerical fascist doctrine that mandates mass murder and self-murder has pushed whole regions into civil war. Yet divinely sanctioned violence has failed to engulf our continent … In spite of all provocations, we are what we once were”. Cohen, though, feels that the Paris attacks will change this; he cites the closing of international borders, which had already started in some parts of Europe as a consequence of the refugee crisis, as evidence of this.

France will not let these horrific attacks break the Parisian spirit (Mathieu Vaillancourt, Independent) As with the Grunstein article above, this one looks at how ordinary people became the targets although the focus here is on hope that Parisian life will continue unbowed. “Like Londoners or New Yorkers, Parisians are strong and stubborn people. They will proudly continue their daily lives … This is how terrorism and fanaticism will lose the propaganda battle that is being waged by extremists.” Paris, of course, has a long history of violent upheaval and there are monuments to aspects of this all over the city; in a sense this is another bloody chapter in its notably bloody history. I was especially taken by the last paragraph with its call for people to continue to visit Paris. I’ve read similar articles recently in the wake of the Sharm el-Sheikh bombing and the same thing was said after the massacre in Tunisia in June. Mass travel abroad is a relatively recent phenomenon in the wider history of mankind and it is in its own way a major means of reducing barriers (and increasing understanding) between different peoples and cultures – which is probably why the Islamist militants hate it.

The strange relationship between Islam, violence and French football (Freddy Gray, The Spectator) It somehow seems odd bringing football into this, but then one of the venues attacked was the Stade de France during an international football match. As such, it’s worth noting that football is – or at least was once considered to be – one of few areas where Muslims could be seen as successfully integrating into French culture, which might explain why Islamist extremists would choose to attack it (and it could have been a lot worse, for according to some reports one of the bombers had a ticket but had been turned away; worth bearing in mind that President Hollande was at the game). Sticking with the Stade de France for a minute, I found one of the most moving scenes on Friday night was the footage of fans singing ‘La Marseillaise’ as the (eventually) left the stadium – maybe it’s because I associate the song with that scene in Casablanca, but it’s always struck me as a particularly stirring song of defiance in the face of adversity. It later transpired that one of the French players lost a cousin in one of the other attacks, and when the German team were told that they couldn’t leave the stadium due to safety concerns the French team insisted on staying with them; as was the case with the Parisians who opened their doors to strangers, a crisis can bring out the best in people. Incidentally, the friendly between England and France on Tuesday is going to go ahead despite obvious security concerns; life, as has been mentioned above, must go on. There have already been calls for the English fans in attendance to show some fraternité and sing along to ‘La Marseillaise’ before the kick-off. I hope they do – it’s already been sung by thousands under Nelson’s Column, so why not at Wembley? These are, after all, times when national differences fall aside before common values.

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