Updated: Oct 20
It was a weird Saturday. On this 14 October 2023, France woke up under ‘alerte attentat’ (attack alert), the highest level of Vigipirate, the country’s national anti-terror alert system. A first since the 2020 stabbing in Nice, and a third since the creation of this special level in 2016, following a wave of islamist attacks, the deadliest since the Second World War. This time, ‘alerte attentat’ was triggered in the afternoon of 13 October by Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne, in response to a stabbing in a north-of-France secondary school the morning of the same day. A former pupil of the Gambetta high school in Arras injured two people and murdered Dominique Bernard, who taught literature. The attack shocked the nation, almost exactly three years since Samuel Paty was killed by an islamist fanatic for displaying caricatures of prophet Muhammad in civic education class.
It was a weird Saturday, thus, as the French once again experienced mourning, but also fear and panic. As if, somehow, we’d been thrown back to 2015. On my way to work, I walked by the iconic Place de la République. This large square, which features an impressive statue glorifying the values of the French Republic (liberté, égalité, fraternité — freedom, equality, brotherhood), had been the rallying point of people wanting to pay a tribute to the victims of the 2015 attacks, as well as the scene of multiple demonstrations. On Sunday 11 January 2015, more than a million people, including foreign heads of government, had gathered here to say ‘no’ to terrorism, after Al-Qaeda had killed several journalists in the newsroom of satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo. Ever since, it’s looked like this bronze lady, raising an olive branch in her right hand, has been guarding democracy and promoting peace. But looking back, perhaps, on that Sunday morning, we had been too naive.
Rally in support of the victims of the 2015 Charlie Hebdo shooting, Place de la République, Paris — 11 January 2015. Credits: Sébastien Amiet, CC
On this weird Saturday, I felt this naiveness as I worked in the Marais, a neighbourhood with a life of its own. In my little gallery, I spent time admiring the new artworks we had recently mounted, almost forgetting about the news and the cloudy atmosphere — both literally and figuratively. Reality came back to me occasionally, in the form of push notifications. “Franceinfo, 1:00pm — BREAKING: The Louvre museum has been evacuated and closed ‘for security reasons’.” “Le Monde, 4:00pm — The Château de Versailles and its garden are being evacuated due to a ‘bomb alert’.” Two major cultural landmarks of the capital being evacuated because of threats on the same day was surprising enough. So when the news came in the early evening that the Gare de Lyon, one of Paris’ busiest railway stations, had been emptied out because of a ‘suspicious parcel’, I just thought “well, that’s just another one on the list”. A business-as-usual feeling that I had last felt in 2016, when the list of terror attacks in Europe was getting longer by the month. Thankfully this time, nobody was physically hurt neither at the Louvre, nor in Versailles or the Gare de Lyon. Nonetheless, the panic was back.
On this weird Saturday, I read an even weirder headline: Woman taken into custody after a neighbour heard her greeting ‘Assalam aleykum’ to workers. According to the woman’s lawyer, Nabil Boudi, the police explained that “in the current context, we couldn’t take any risks”. Since 2015, the words “Allahu Akbar” (‘God is great’ in Arabic) have been giving many shivers. Flashbacks of the Kouachi brothers yelling that very expression as they came out of Charlie Hebdo. What originally was a demonstration of faith suddenly became a callword of terrorism. In Arras, it was reported that the killer, of Chechen origin, was heard saying it too. However, ‘Assalam aleykum’ means nothing but ‘Peace be upon you’. Fact-checkers from Libération* brought some nuance to the story: the lady was arrested following an argument with the neighbour who called the police, after the latter yelled “Long live Israel” at her. For Nabil Boudi, the police’s response was not proportional to what essentially was a neighbourhood dispute. Nonetheless, it may be the latest sign of rising islamophobia and xenophobia in France — something the country is now well-known and mocked for.
Since 2015, we have had two runs of presidential and general elections. Each showed a never-stopping rise of the far-right. Although centrist Macron won each time, there has been a backsliding in his and his government’s discourse. No later than last September, Education minister Gabriel Attal was banning abayas — a type of traditional, loose dress worn by women in Muslim countries, but not considered as Islamic attire according to the French Council of the Muslim Faith — in high schools. And the latest geopolitical developments seem to be highlighting the French government’s disdain towards Muslim and Arab communities. As this weird Saturday came to an end, I left the gallery and exited its quiet street, walking back into the real world, where the word “terrorism” was on every single newspaper on display at the kiosks. In addition to the Arras stabbing, it had been a week since Hamas’ inhumane attack against Israeli civilians. As Israel launched yet another war on Palestine and started inhumanely attacking civilians in the Gaza strip, France displayed their support, like most states in the West as well as the European Union. After all, for Western liberal powers, supporting what’s usually described as the Middle-East’s only liberal democracy appears to be a consistent stance. But what happens when these very liberal powers turn their backs on their democratic values?
A “Free Palestine” tag on the Monument to the Republic, Place de la République, Paris — 16 October 2023. Credits: Jonathan Wijayaratne
I arrived at Place de la République at the same time as a dozen vans bearing the seal of the CRS (Republican Safety Corps, the French police’s general reserve usually tasked with riot control). My curiosity at this sight delayed my taking the metro home and brought me closer to the statue, where I met two students. “Do you know what happened here?”, I asked them. “Pro-Palestine protest. They arrested lots of people and fined a few others”, one replied. “Most people who got arrested were young people and mothers”. Indeed, as Le Monde* explains, Home Affairs minister Gérald Darminin had banned “almost all pro-Palestine demonstrations” the day before, “because they are likely to generate public disorder”. While Germany had implemented a similar ban earlier, on that Saturday, a peaceful protest in support of Palestine took place in Düsseldorf, while hundreds of thousands gathered in London for the same cause. At République, on the other hand, “the police were violent and kept insulting people in the crowd”, as told by the two students I spoke with. Even the far-right Foreign minister of Italy, Antonio Tajani, called out France for restricting the freedom to demonstrate.
As I am writing this article, on Monday 16, teachers throughout the country are preparing for the first day of class since Mr Bernard’s assassination ; they are working on finding the right words to explain to children as young as five years old what happened and what we can do to prevent it from happening again. While France enters a period of reflection, the French perhaps ought to meditate on the following: since terror hit the country at its core nearly a decade ago, and as the pandemic came along, there seems to have been a decline of personal liberties, and a rise in police violence; while Muslim and Arab communities have been depicted as outcasts and scapegoats by politicians and the media. This reflection, although necessary, is a complicated one, as it requires looking back on a History that is repeating itself. Terrorism in France is not new, but neither are Islamophobia and xenophobia. The students I met at Place de la République, well aware of this, told me that they were organising an event commemorating the 17 October 1961 massacre — when the French police killed more than a hundred peaceful Algerian protesters in Paris, in the context of the Algerian war of independence.
Sources with an asterisk (*) are in French.