“Interesting times” in France

First of all, many thanks to the surprisingly large number of people who have contacted us in various ways to thank us for last week’s blog.  Much as we would like to talk about ecology or pretty landscapes, this is inevitably something of a sequel, and because there’s so much to say, inevitably a bit of a compilation of thoughts and reactions.

In the week since the previous blog the impact of the terrible events of Friday night seems to have increased rather than decreased. Part of this is inevitable: the casualties are now no longer simply numbers but individuals with names and faces, there’s been a dramatic St Denis shootout and some extraordinary political developments.  Part of it though is artificial: it would appear that Parisian hotels vacated by scared tourists are now filled by journalists looking for new angles on what is obviously a very newsworthy series of events. After all, like the most chilling horror tales, it’s a story that carries with it with it the unnerving implication: that this could happen to you. Who has not sat in a cafe this week and wondered what would happen if gunmen burst in?

The flag at half-mast outside a town hall

The flag at half-mast outside Frejus town hall, and Christmas decorations

Police outside a town hall the day after the shootings

Police outside Frejus town hall the day after the shootings

Personally, we have been only indirectly touched by events. After all, given the size of France, anyone in Britain south of a line from the Lakes to Leeds is closer to Paris than we are. Nevertheless, one person that Chris regularly emails was a witness to one of the attacks and another person who has been helpful in the COP 21 arrangements has had one colleague killed and two injured. COP 21 itself has quite understandably had the marches banned but the two events A Rocha has been labouring over are continuing (see here for a summary). Practically, down here in the rural South life seems little changed. Mind you Alison had her handbag checked by a security guard as she was going into the supermarket rather than out of it.

One distinctly curious feature has been the difference in the response to the January terror attacks on Charlie Hebdo and the Jewish supermarket. Flags have been at half-mast and we have seen a tiny handful of posters. Nevertheless we were in Cannes yesterday evening for a church council meeting and walking down the main street with its shops all dressed up for Christmas and along the Croissette with its luxury hotels we didn’t see even a single reference to the events of a week ago. Other than the fact that Paris is a long way away there are two reasons for this different attitude. The first is obviously commercial: reminding people that they might be murdered is not good for business. The second is more subtle. The attack in January on Charlie Hebdo was a focused attack on a high profile target that had made enemies and it was necessary to protest in order to remind sections of the French community that this was an utterly unacceptable form of censorship. In contrast, these attacks of Friday 13th were so utterly indiscriminate and callous, that no one needs reminding that this is an abomination. Despite journalists looking for the most negative possible angle on events no one seems to have discovered anybody in even the most depressed suburb who thinks that they were justified. The Charlie Hebdo killings threatened to divide France; for the moment these seem to have united it.

One shop which did have posters up last Saturday

One shop which did have posters up last Saturday

So to a large extent ‘business as usual’ is actually the wisest response and not just in the commercial sector. Last Sunday Chris was leading the service and he and Giles made the decision that after a minutes silence at the start of the service we would simply continue as normal or, preferably, with even more vigour than usual. As Chris pointed out with an unsubtle nod to French history, when you are faced with a world in which evil seems to rule, to take part in a worship service is a “deliberate act of resistance”.

One other observation. Last week we included a link to Pray for Paris. There was widely reported criticism of this in certain quarters saying very strongly that religion was the problem and the cause of terrorism. This of course is the John Lennon Imagine meme of “Imagine there’s no heaven. It’s easy if you try…” There is much that can be said about this but from any point of view, especially a French one,  it combines an extraordinary naiveté with a devastating historical illiteracy. Perhaps the most appalling event in French history was La Terreur, the Reign of Terror of 1793 to 1794 which occurred in the turbulence after the start of the French Revolution, which to remind you, overthrew both monarchy and church. Although it lasted under a year, la Terreur saw the deaths, frequently by guillotine, of well over 16,000 people from all levels of society. It was a purely political event carried out by people who were for the most part atheists and indeed many of the victims were executed precisely because they were Christians. The answer to bad religion is not no religion but good religion. Go on praying!

And now for something entirely different. At last Courmettes has a brand-new website to which Chris has contributed a number of pictures. It will come up in French, but if you look in the top right-hand corner you will see a link “English” which will take you to the English version of the site.

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