Our Principles Are All We Have

In the aftermath of the November 13 attacks, Paris hovers between defiance and disorientation

Outside the Bataclan concert hall on November 14, 2015: “Neither the media nor the government response inspires hope” (©Marc Piazecki/Getty Images)

According to an astonishing footnote on page 285 of the second volume of Charles Moore’s biography of Margaret Thatcher, President François Mitterrand, when asked by King Fahd for permission to build a mosque in France, is said to have replied: “Your majesty, if you permit one church to be built in Saudi Arabia, I shall let you build a hundred mosques in France.” Unimaginable now. Another reason to feel nostalgic for the wily old bird, as some of us, to our own surprise, now do.

If France had actually applied the principle of reciprocity instead of permitting the poisonous tentacles of multiculturalist ideology to creep further and further into the political and social fabric, despite the cherished principle of laïcité, perhaps things would now be very different. But then again, perhaps not.

There is little to rejoice at either in people’s reactions or in government responses to the slaughter in Paris on November 13, nor much to contribute to the gaiety of nations, so we do our best to appreciate what we get. In the latter category there was the demonstration in the Place de la République protesting against the ban on demonstrations. The price of pork is apparently down by 22 centimes a kilo; people obscurely feel that this must be significant but no one can suggest why. A Femen activist stripped to the waist in front of the memorial to the victims at the Bataclan theatre, but again, no one can work out what she intended to convey by this. An organic farm in the Périgord was searched by the police, by order of the prefect of Dordogne, for signs of terrorist activity. Nothing was found and the owner wonders what they expected: exploding vegetables? The Pope caused his shoes to be left with others in the Place de la République to protest against too much climate, which he thinks causes poverty, which in turn causes terrorism. Or perhaps the other way round. John Kerry, who has delivered himself of similar opinions, did not, as far as anyone is aware, leave his. Nor did Barack Obama.  

All this cheers us up slightly (though the spectacle of heads of state worrying more about climate change than about terrorism does not evoke much hilarity) now that it’s too cold to sit defiantly outside on café terraces. You do see people on terraces, but they are there to smoke, poor souls. We still go out to restaurants as much as we can, but it doesn’t feel quite as defiant, somehow, as sitting out on the terrace. And we can’t afford to eat out indefinitely. So the restaurants feel a bit empty — the clientele “fluctuates”, the owners say — as does the Metro. At the  first performance of the opera after the attacks, we all sang the “Marseillaise”, which, in spite of the idiocy and hypocrisy, was uplifting to the spirits. For a while  people displayed a tendency to burst into patriotic song at the slightest pretext but they seem at last to have stopped, perhaps afflicted by seasonal laryngitis.

As for rejoicing, neither the media nor the government response inspires hope. As in January 2015 after the slaughter at Charlie Hebdo and the kosher supermarket, at first both shied away from pronouncing the word “Islam” in any connection with the attacks and the air was thick with the mantra “pas d’amalgame!” (between the attacks and Islam). But perhaps a tiny glimmer of hope can be discerned in the reactions of ordinary people.

Of course, there are still plenty of useful idiots who sit around singing “Imagine” and others who go around with signs saying “Je suis Paris” and circulate petitions to build a memorial to the victims of this latest “tragedy” (but without mentioning its perpetrators, as if it were an act of nature or God, like a flood or a tornado). But there has been a slight change. One hears much less about not “offending” Muslims, and this is clearly — well, fairly clearly — not just because “innocent people” (rather than Jews, journalists, cartoonists, etc) were targeted; nor does one hear the phrase “innocent people” used in that juxtaposition. There are signs that the French are slowly waking up to the fact that this is not about Jews, or journalists, or about what anyone has done to give offence, and that just chanting “laïcité” and “La République” is not enough: we must take them seriously. This means insisting that French Muslims act like French citizens and respect the institutions of the country they live in. It also means realising that France cannot go on permitting the existence of lawless Muslim ghettoes which have effectively opted out of French society and French law, and insisting that something be done about them. Of course nothing will be done; for one thing, it is far too late.

But a year after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, people are asking questions: why, for instance, did it take the police three hours to storm the Bataclan theatre? There is talk — as there was not after Charlie Hebdo attacks, although, God knows, even then there was good cause for it — about the failure of French intelligence and policing, the failure to keep tabs on known radicals, on radical imams, on the no-go areas in the suburbs, on known terrorist cells in France and Belgium. There is talk, too, about the most spectacular failure — the fact that one of the terrorists was stopped three times and then released and allowed to go happily on his way, and later to fly to Syria — but the more general failure of French intelligence since last January remains central. This is (somewhat) encouraging. People are no longer satisfied with the mouthing of platitudes. This is reflected in a new surge of support for Marine Le Pen’s Front National (not noticeable after Charlie Hebdo), and both the Socialists and the centre-Right know this. Whether they will take effective action or continue to mouth platitudes is another matter.

Those failures have been denounced on the internet by the sister of one of the victims, who is outraged that in France you can, among other things, “have  known links to a terrorist organisation and still go back and forth to Syria quite freely”. She is also outraged that nothing is done about imams preaching violence at the 89 French mosques known to be radical. And she is, as far as I can see, widely read and supported. Perhaps the climate is changing. Unfortunately Obama meant climate in the literal sense when he said that the hour when it will be too late to do anything “is almost upon us”. The people who left shoes in the Place de la République (presumably rich enough to be able to afford to sacrifice a pair of shoes) apparently share his vision of “submerged countries”, “abandoned cities” and “floods of desperate peoples seeking the sanctuary of nations not their own”. The majority of the French are well on the way to sharing it as well (except for the bit about submerged cities), though we think it will come about because of uncontained and unfought radical Islam, not climate change.

Perhaps the French will be encouraged by the example of Italy, where for the first time Muslims took to the streets and demonstrated, in Rome, to condemn Islamist terrorism. It was not a huge demonstration, but it was a start. There has as yet been no such demonstration in France, but a (small) number of Muslim authority figures have (with varying degrees of conviction or feebleness) come out with condemnations.

It may be wishful thinking to imagine that the attitudes of the French, if indeed they have changed at all, will be taken into account by the French political class. It almost certainly is. The only thing they will take into account is the strength of Marine Le Pen, and so far there is nothing to indicate that they have a plan to counter it. We have no Mitterrand to lead us; there is no one remotely likely to provide statesmanship, as indeed there has not been since his day. The principle of laïcité may not save us, but in France there is no other option; it has, up to a point, worked in the past. It has protected France from some of the grotesque symptoms of multiculturalism we have witnessed in England. (I’m pretty sure the mayor of Strasbourg was an exception: he famously justified his decision to ban pork and serve halal meat in the city’s schools while refusing to serve fish on Fridays with the claim that the former was required by respect for religion while the latter was impossible because of the principle of laïcité).

Secularism, indeed, is the only thing we have to cling on to. There is still a vague historical awareness among the French of Europe as the sphere of Christendom, but it will not last. Certainly the Eurocrats are doing their best to obliterate it from human memory. The principles of laïcité and equality before the law are the best weapons we have. No one has any idea if they could — given the political will, which is conspicuously lacking — be enforced even in the French suburbs, let alone in the face of millions of refugees, many of whom are discinclined to accord much respect to laïcité. The example of countries like Sweden does not inspire optimism.

In short, yes, it is probably all wishful thinking. But those principles are all we have.