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Paris attacks: Capital declares itself 'battered but still afloat'

Who would have expected to hear England supporters sing the Marseillaise before a match against France at Wembley?

John Lichfield
Saturday 21 November 2015 23:01 GMT
Paris last week: ‘We are a very old civilisation … we will uphold our values’
Paris last week: ‘We are a very old civilisation … we will uphold our values’ (AFP)

In normal times, the world has a mixed view of Paris. Beautiful, yes, but a little predictable and stuck in the past. As for the Parisians, mon Dieu: so haughty, so rude, so effortlessly and so annoyingly good-looking.

The world has a less ambivalent, and often stupidly exaggerated, view of the French (whoever “the French” may be). Arrogant; pretentious; unreliable; lazy; irritatingly good at cooking and football.

How strange, therefore, and how strangely moving, to see the world daub itself blue, white and red. How odd to see so many people proclaim “Je suis un Parisien” and adopt the Eiffel Tower as an emblem of peace and tolerance.

England v France at Wembley

As someone who has lived in Paris and written about France (the good and the bad) for nearly 19 years, I confess myself to be heartened – and perplexed. I once saw England football fans lay waste to a town on the French-Belgian border. Who would have expected to hear England supporters sing the Marseillaise before a match against France at Wembley?

This is partly defiance: an instinctive two fingers to the terrorists. All the same, I suspect that the slaughter of 130 people in Berlin or Madrid or Brussels would not have had the equivalent emotional impact. Paris – like London or like New York – is bigger than itself. It symbolises something about the way we live and the way that we want to carry on living. That, of course, may be why Isis attacked Paris in the first place.

On the day after the Friday 13th massacres, this sense of a global citizenship of Paris was beautifully expressed by a reader on The New York Times website. The prose poem, by “Blackpoodles” of Santa Barbara in California, went viral on both English and French language social media.

“France embodies everything religious zealots everywhere hate: enjoyment of life here on earth in a myriad little ways: a fragrant cup of coffee and buttery croissant in the morning, beautiful women in short dresses smiling freely on the street, the smell of warm bread, a bottle of wine shared with friends, a dab of perfume, children playing in the Luxembourg Gardens, the right not to believe in any god, not to worry about calories, to flirt and smoke and enjoy sex outside of marriage, to take vacations, to read any book you want, to go to school for free, to play, to laugh, to argue, to make fun of prelates and politicians alike, to leave worrying about the afterlife to the dead.

“No country does life on earth better than the French.”

On Tuesday, a Parisian woman called Danielle, aged 77, gave a street interview with BFM TV. She urged people to read Ernest Hemingway’s eulogy to Paris, A Moveable Feast.

“We are a very old civilisation and we will uphold our values at the highest level,” Danielle said. “We will fraternise with five million muslims who practise their religion freely and kindly and we will fight the 10,000 barbarians who kill, supposedly in the name of Allah.”

The clip of her interview also went viral. Two days later A Moveable Feast rose to second place on the Amazon bestseller list in France.

Paris has lived up to its motto: Fluctuat nec mergitur (“Battered but still afloat”). On the night of the attacks, the legendarily frosty Parisians opened their homes to survivors. Taxis took the slightly injured to hospital without charge.

Since then, Paris Métro journeys have fallen by 10 per cent. Shopping in the big stores has collapsed. Sitting on a café terrace, however, has become a form of resistance.

There are many French people – especially outside Paris – who do not think like Danielle. There has been a surge of attacks in provincial France on mosques and women in Muslim headscarves (though fewer than after the Charlie Hebdo massacre).

Marine Le Pen’s National Front, which was already expected to do well, is likely to post record scores in regional elections next month. “After all of this, she will just have to bend down and pick up votes lying on the street,” said one depressed centre-right politician.

But for now, like “Blackpoodles of Santa Barbara”, let us cling to the positive. The prose poem ended: “The forces of darkness will ebb. They will lose. They always do.”

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