Wednesday, January 28, 2015


This month France has made front-page news worldwide and left us with indelible images of the shocking terrorist attacks at Charlie Hebdo magazine and a kosher supermarket in Paris. Just as unforgettable was the subsequent show of solidarity and unity on city streets. Who has not seen the picture of dozens of world leaders marching arm-in-arm with President Hollande in Paris in defense of democratic values and in universal condemnation of religious fanaticism? Of course, we may question the motives of some participants with spotty human-rights records at home; the massive show of international support nevertheless served to give a much-needed boost to François Hollande's stature as president and of France's place in the wider world.

Unity march Paris, 1/11/2015

As terrorist groups like Al Qaeda, Daesh/ISIS or Boko Haram continue to hit with seeming impunity in Pakistan, Afghanistan, the Middle East and Western Africa, France has repeatedly suffered acts of Islamic terrorism at home, inflicted by its own radicalized citizens. The country is growing its own extremists and should take a hard look at the reasons why these French-born immigrants decide to wage war at home, for which they are trained in Syria or Yemen. To avenge a perceived disrespect to their Prophet Mohammed they have killed cartoonists, Jews, soldiers, and even little children in front of their Jewish school.

Within days of the huge solidarity march on January 11th, Prime Minister Manuel Valls admitted that there had been security lapses in France and announced the following immediate measures:  nearly 2700 new hires in the ministries of the Interior, Justice and Defense (including border control and increased intelligence exchange), with a three-year budget of €735 million. This includes 60 additional prison chaplains and five separate prison wings for holding radical islamists.

Manuel Valls before Parliament
In a rousing speech to Parliament, Valls reiterated that secularism (la laïcité) is a cornerstone of the French republic and that any attack on French Jews or Muslims is an attack on France itself. "We are at war against terrorism, jihadism and radicalism, not against Islam and Muslims," he said, adding that Islam, the country's second religion after Catholicism, "has its place in France."

It should be remembered that in 2013 France sent troops to Mali to push back the invasion of AQMI (Al Qaida au Maghreb Islamique) extremists who threatened to overrun the capital and impose sharia law. It has taken part in airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq, and stood ready to provide arms to Syrian opposition forces as part of an international coalition against the regime of Bashar al-Assad. At the last moment, the US withdrew from this coalition and the plan fell apart. Today the Charles De Gaulle, France's nuclear-powered aircraft carrier and largest war ship in Western Europe, is still cruising in Mediterranean waters, ready to deliver airstrikes against Islamic militants. This is undoubtedly one of the reasons why France is regularly threatened by jihadists.

The government's actions during and immediately following the January attacks have been applauded by both the left and the right, with François Hollande and Manuel Valls each gaining in the opinion polls. They re-emphasized the French republican values of Liberté, Egalité and Fraternité, as well as the principle of the secular state.

Nevertheless, the recent events have opened a debate about the theory that "religion has no place in state schools" and led to a growing demand for French schools to teach religious awareness in order to develop greater understanding between people of different religions, notably with regard to France's Islamic minority. Religious education is not officially banned from state schools it can take place after school hours. Nearly 20 percent of French students attend subsidized private (mostly Catholic) schools, which are open to all faiths.

The typical profile of the Islamic jihadist in France is that of a French-born immigrant who grew up in the suburban housing projects with higher-than-average unemployment and a high crime rate, who is poorly integrated into the French mainstream, has few or no employment prospects, and becomes an easy target for radical Islamist recruiters. They join the Jihad, get sent to Iraq or Syria or Yemen for training, and return to France with a mission to avenge the Prophet.

Merah killed seven, including children
Manuel Valls has said that 1400 Muslims living in France have either joined or are planning to join the jihadist cause in the Middle East. With improved intelligence and increased resources, he hopes to hunt down and eradicate these extremist cells in France and to arrest returning radicals at their point of re-entry before they can go into action. Meanwhile, the country remains on high alert.

Fear has entered the national consciousness, as much of religious fanaticism as of the rise of the extreme-right National Front party of Marine Le Pen. French Muslims are fearful of retaliation; Jews have increased the protection of their synagogues and schools; Le Plan Vigipirate (highest alert) is still in place at airports, railroad stations and tourist sites, and public security forces have been reinforced by 30,000 soldiers "for as long as it takes" according to the Minister of Defense. The January 7 attacks have marked France as "9/11" has marked the United States and may have shaken up a certain complacency in this country known for its quality of life and a good bit of hedonism.

But life goes on. A nation-wide truckers' strike has entered its second week with no agreement in sight, the labor figures for December are in and show a continued rise in unemployment (up by 5.8 percent in 2014), Europe is nervous about the recent election of left-wing Alexis Tsipras as Prime Minister of Greece who wants to renegotiate the Greek debt (with potential consequences for Italy, Spain and Portugal), and so on.

Perhaps the old motto of CARPE DIEM is still our best guide. But with eyes and ears wide open.

Monday, January 12, 2015


If I were more computer-savvy this blog would be bordered in black today. As it is, the black borders remain virtual but the mourning does not as France is reeling from two attacks by Islamic extremists this week, leaving 17 dead and a number of wounded. Their targets were the satirical magazine CHARLIE HEBDO (a weekly named after Charlie Brown) and a kosher supermarket in Paris. 

Followed a three-day-long horror movie/cop show televised live in France.
In their well-planned attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo magazine during the weekly editorial meeting on Wednesday with staff writers and five cartoonists around the table, two French-Algerian brothers, Chérif and Saïd Kouachi, killed ten and severely wounded four people and killed an additional two policemen outside, shouting "We have avenged the Prophet!" before making their getaway in a stolen car. In their flight from pursuing police they managed to ditch their car and commandeer another from a frightened driver, and to slip out of town. Put on high alert, police began to stop and search cars and the next day, at one such checkpoint in nearby Montrouge, a 26-year-old policewoman was shot and killed as she tried to pull over 32-year old Amedy Coulibaly, a French-born immigrant from Mali. Coulibaly and his female passenger got away.

On Friday, the police caught the fugitive brothers in their dragnet and trapped them in a printing plant in a small town north-east of Paris, where after a seven-hour standoff France's special anti-terrorist forces killed them in a shootout and liberated their lone hostage. That same Friday, Amedy Goulibaly walked into a Jewish supermarket in Paris where he took 16 people hostage, demanding the liberation of the Kouachi brothers with whom he appeared to have close ties and a shared radicalized belief in Islam. Before the day was over, he had killed four of his hostages and was killed himself when anti-terrorist police stormed the market. Four policemen were wounded in the operation.   

As the story of Wednesday's attack on Charlie Hebdo unfolded, a spontaneous reaction of outrage, grief and defiance drove thousands of people into the street where they gathered to honor the victims and demonstrate their support for the magazine and what it represented. These demonstrations have spread all over the country with large numbers of people gathering every night, carrying JE SUIS CHARLIE signs. Thousands of burning candles have been left in front of city halls throughout the country, and walls covered with messages, cartoons and pencils stuck into the cracks in the wall. It is as if all of France rose up as one, united in its condemnation of this murderous attack on freedom of speech.

Charlie Hebdo's covers may have been shocking, crude, offensive, or even blasphemous at times, their right to be so has never been questioned. Not only were they seen as a form of free speech, they also fulfilled a national craving since deep inside the French soul is a need to mock. Provocation is the name of the game and gets people's attention.

That provocation comes with risks. In 2004, Dutch filmmaker and provocateur Theo van Gogh was murdered by a young Dutch-Moroccan Islamic fundamentalist for having produced a short film that was considered offensive to Islam. The killer shot van Gogh, who had received threats but ignored them, as he bicycled to work in Amsterdam, and left a ranting Islamic message pinned to the body with a dagger. Charlie Hebdo also had received threats, and after its offices were firebombed in 2011 its editor, Stéphane Charbonnier, was given police protection. In an interview in front of his burned-out office, "Charb" (as he signed his cartoons) responded with the French children's expression Même Pas Peur to indicate he was not afraid at all and added an extra barb to his next cover by changing the name Charlie Hebdo to Charia Hebdo. He may have been pushing his luck, but his luck had never failed him. Until it did.

Editor Charbonnier in front of destroyed office
Convinced that satire and humor are the best weapons against a society's aberrations, Charlie Hebdo spared no one and heaped its irreverent criticism on politicians and religious leaders across the board, even when its cover cartoons sometimes got dangerously close to the edge. Cartoonists are very popular in France and those at Charlie Hebdo were considered the best. Restraining them would be seen as censorship and therefore unacceptable. Savaging the high and mighty is a national sport in France, and no one did it better than Charlie Hebdo.

Ten percent of France's citizens are Arab immigrants from the Maghreb countries, most of them practicing Islam. By and large this group is moderate and well integrated and in no way seen as a threat. They have made every effort to distance themselves from the extreme views of the militant Islamists whose fanaticism they strongly condemn.

French Jews, on the other hand, have been leaving France for Israel at twice the usual rate last year following a number of deadly anti-Semitic incidents, often perpetrated by young Arab immigrants. Peaceful coexistence between these two groups, as well as the new immigrants from Eastern Europe, is one of the challenges for today's political leaders, especially in times of high unemployment.

After the horrendous attacks of this week France remains jittery and on edge, but the fantastic show of unity and solidarity in its wake has reignited a sense of pride among the French and a strong determination to stick together in the face of terrorist threats and religious fanaticism. As my husband and I marched in Aix-en-Provence yesterday, waving our signs and chanting I AM CHARLIE in a massive chorus, we were immensely proud of France and its resolute rejection of crime in the name of religion, of terrorism in all its forms. All of diversified France was there, Muslim, Catholic, Jewish, but above all French, speaking with one voice for once.

In this country of human rights wrought from revolution, as its national anthem La Marseillaise
reminds us every day, today France was for all the world to see a country of LIBERTÉ, ÉGALITÉ, FRATERNITÉ and UNITÉ. It was beautiful.

Place de la République, January 11th

As for Charlie Hebdo, its survival seems assured. The next issue will come out on time, next Wednesday, with a print run of one million copies, and thousands of people have pledged to become new subscribers. The surviving Charlie staff have been welcomed and temporarily housed by the daily newspaper Libération while their offices are being repaired. On borrowed computers they are hard at work to create future issues worthy of their colleagues who died for the sake of free speech. Untold numbers of grateful Charlie followers stand behind them, whispering encouragement and support.

It took a tragedy to bring out the best:  an unforgettable image of a nation, joined by foreign leaders of all stripes, marching arm in arm in Paris in a united stand against fanaticism and terrorism.
It's Charlie's legacy - may it live forever.