Winter in Paris has been damp, grey and generally lacklustre. After the shockwave of the November 13 attacks and COP21 in December, January and February have felt uneventful in comparison. A degree of normality has returned, as Parisians go about their daily lives almost as before. Bars and restaurants are packed again - I recently had trouble finding a place with a group of four friends on a Wednesday night - and those hit by the attacks are open for business. The majority of the flowers, candles and pictures that flooded the sites have gone. Theatre and concert-goers are venturing out again, and The Cure has confirmed that they will be the Bataclan's first concert when it reopens later this year.
Nonetheless, there are a number of signs that indicate that the city, and indeed, the country may never return to its pre-November 13 state. Before, an attack was an abstract notion that had never even crossed most people's minds. Now, the possibility, no, the probability of another attack subtly permeates everyday life. I am reminded by the barriers and ID checks by guards with large, muzzled dogs when I arrive at work every morning. This has prompted me to formulate escape/hiding options in case the place ever is attacked, and then feel absurdly ridiculous for doing so. Nonetheless, the boss of a friend of mine working for a French-Arab think tank has a bodyguard shadowing her, who has suggested to all colleagues that they map an escape plan in their heads.
Every time I go to a public space - a concert hall, a museum, even certain shops and shopping centres - I am obliged to open my coat and bag for inspection before entering. Whenever I go out, I now check to make sure I know where the exits are and, upon admitting this to some friends, learned that they now do the same. Every day, suburban trains (RER lines) are stopped multiple times for "colis suspect" (suspicious bags or packages). The Paris municipal government has a website on how to react in the event that they find themselves at the scene of an attack [i], and has published full-page spreads in numerous newspapers. I read an article in Le Monde about local police stations giving first aid/survival training sessions in case of an attack [ii] and, upon trying to sign up, found that all sessions were full for the next two months.
Although not as concrete, the changes happening at the level of national government are just as concerning. The Constitutional Council has approved the extension of the state of emergency for another 3 months, until 26 May, thereby continuing to give police increased authority and impunity at the expense of civil liberties. Apart from redoubling the bombing of Syria and putting special undercover forces on the ground to prevent further radicalisation in too-close-for-comfort Libya [iii], Hollande's flagship measure as France's "chef de guerre" has been the highly polemic "déchéance de nationalité". Based on the fact that the perpetrators of the November 13 attacks were dual citizens with French or Belgian nationalities, this measure allows the French nationality to be stripped of those suspected or convicted of terrorist activity. Almost all of my French friends are outraged at this based on principle. So are a number of French members of government, with the Minister of Justice, against the measure, resigning over the affair, and the law only being passed with a majority of 14 votes. I am simply perplexed that the government is spending so much time, energy and political capital on this. If anything, this will make those of dual Middle Eastern-French nationality feel even less welcome than many already do. On a practical level, I am less than convinced that this will make terrorists-to-be quake in their boots. What does a suicide bomber care if they are no longer French?
Apart from the “état d’urgence” and the "décheance de nationalité", however, French headlines have largely moved on from terrorism, focusing now on the migrant crisis (most recently on the camp in Calais, of which the southern half was destroyed last week [iv]) and reforms to France's inflexible labour laws currently being battled out in parliament [v]. Paris is making a bid for the 2024 Olympic games and seems to stand a decent chance. The conversion of a strip of the highway along the left bank of the Seine into a pedestrian area looks set to become a reality next year, following the huge success of the pedestrianisation of the rive droite.
One more entertaining controversy has been that surrounding the changes proposed by THE authority of the French language, L'Académie Française, to modernise the way that French is written [vi]. Notorious for not being written the way it is pronounced, a number of "unnecessary" letters and accents, including the humble circumflex, may now be removed. "Oignon" (onion), for example, can now optionally be written as "ognon", “coût” (cost) can be written “cout”. Although most French people make spelling and grammatical errors often, many are outraged at this bastardisation of their language whose complexity they are nonetheless proud of.
To master the French language is something that citizens feel to be a grand, hard-fought achievement, and they are quick to point out the spelling and grammatical faults of others. To simplify the language is to belittle the effort they have made, to make it too easy for the generations to come! Given that the changes were approved as far back as 1990, though, and that are only optional, does make it seem as though the French might be making a tempête dans un verre d’eau.
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