Yes, but what a day!
As a frequent Parisian, and as a citizen, it was impossible not to participate in the march this past Sunday. It was one of those rare political occasions of which one will always proudly tell: I was there. My wife and I were among the 1.5 million (or 3 million, as some French commentators had it) proclaiming 'Je suis Charlie', streaming together on the eastern part of Paris' Right Bank, closing down a whole quarter of the city. We two were blocked in with tens of thousands on the Place de la République, unable to move for an hour and a half before we could proceed anywhere. It didn't really matter; the point was being there.
The mood was unbelievable. Parisians, famous for their impatience and occasional rudeness in everyday foot and car traffic, were impeccably behaved. That was, after all, the point: a show of quiet and strong defiance in the face of murderous action and a show of best civic behaviour against a direct attack on civil society. A show especially of multi-ethnic and multi-religious tolerance as an answer to an assault on the liberty of expression at the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, and to a concurrent anti-Semitic crime at a kosher supermarket.
Inevitably Sunday's warm glow of unity and purpose will pass as we all go back to our daily lives. The real test for what we claim as our way of life — the Western type of open, tolerant and democratic society — will be how the authorities and society in its voting behaviour will react.
The authorities first. As the French PM Manuel Valls (son of a Catalan father and a Swiss-Italian mother and fairly typical of today's multi-ethnic France) conceded freely, there had been serious, in part incredible security lapses which allowed the three main terrorists and some of their fellow travelers to go undetected while preparing and executing their despicable crimes.
Why, to start with, was the close observation of convicted and formerly imprisoned Islamic terrorists not successful? The answer appears to be at least in part terrifyingly banal. The terrorists' own phones were tapped and they knew it. Instead they used the clean ones of their wives as part of a determined effort to lay low as long as it took: no beards, a normal job (one of the two Kouachi brothers had been even received by then President Sarkozy as part of a successful 'back-to-work' program for disadvantaged ghetto youths) no visits to Mosques with radical Imams.
This is not to happen again. An international conference to combat violent religious extremism, called by Washington for mid-February, is supposed to look not only at better international cooperation, but also to compare best national practice. What the latter constitutes is now one of the big questions being discussed in France. There appears to be consensus across the political spectrum that more resources for surveillance, and tougher enforcement of existing legislation (such as solitary confinement for imprisoned terrorists) are required, but there will be no extraordinary legislation such as the US Patriot Act.
Here may lay part of the answer to the question of why it was the US Government and not the French which initiated the February anti-terrorism conference. Could there be a sort of division of anti-terrorist labour at work here?
France, seen as the cradle of human rights and the sort of civil society the West treasures, furnishes the moral justification as expressed by Sunday's march, while the US — principal source of and expert in the mastery of technology — provides the technical tools. Both share the will to fight in defence of the 'enlightened' world, if necessary on hostile territory. Edward Luce in the FT appears to go in this direction ('America finds common cause with oldest ally'), while Ross Douthat in the NY Times goes even further in seeing France as the crucible in the fight for 'the European way'.
For those less inclined to editorial hyperbole, addressing the organisational overload of French authorities might also be part of the answer. Sunday's march, with the participation of a number of statesmen, was a major organisational and protocol headache stretching French security resources to breaking point. And this will not change in the foreseeable future, as the Government has pledged to protect every Jewish structure in the country. France has not only the largest Muslim but also the largest Jewish population of all European countries. Another direct attack on the latter is to be avoided at all costs, as PM Valls categorically stated, adding that 'France would not be France without its Jews'. After all, without the infamous incident in New York, France would likely have a Jewish president at this time, since former IMF head Dominique Strauss-Kahn was considered a shoe-in for the socialist presidential nomination a couple of years back.
The overriding question after the attack on 'Charlie' is the public reaction, both here in France and elsewhere in Europe, at the polls. Will the xenophobic right — Marine le Pen in France, Nigel Farage in the UK, AfD ('Alternative für Deutschland') as well as Pegida ('Patriotic Europeans against the Islamisation of our fatherlands') in Germany, among others — make serious gains in future parliamentary elections? There is no shortage of indications that this will be the case. Le Pen, Farage and to a lesser degree AfD scored heavily in the last European election. Pegida has sprung out of nowhere and is already busy trying to establish branches in other German-speaking countries.
Or will the 'Charlie' terror act mobilise the majority of European citizens who will never vote for a nationalist party of the far right, including those who normally don't bother to vote at all? Will they realise that the stakes now are higher than at any time since the Second World War and thus make that 'Charlie' feeling last longer than a day?
Photo by Flickr user Anne-Christelle.