My parents escaped their families’ disapproval by getting married in Paris and staying on as students: he of the piano, she of etching. There I lived for the first three years of my life, and when we got back to England, I apparently spoke more French than English. My father never stopped wishing they’d stayed, even during the German Occupation, but we never lived there again, though we had French family holidays as soon after the end of the war as we were allowed to. I did a “French exchange” when I was 16 and then spent most of my gap year in Paris. So Paris has always been there across the sea, smaller and prettier than London, a whole day’s journey away in the old days, with always the threat of seasickness. Now you can get there between breakfast and lunch and be back by teatime.
That’s not all that’s changed. It’s said that there are half a million French people living in London now. They’ve come here to work, to shop, sometimes to study, and perhaps even for the food and the fun. The French no longer speak the comical English our films and plays so cheerfully ridiculed, while our public figures still make a point of speaking French as if it were really English. You should hear them intone the words “Nous sommes solidaires.”
And we should indeed show solidarity, if not quite as we’re told to. Some of us may envy the French their republican faith in free speech and secularism. Yet those ugly and offensive cartoons in Charlie Hebdo, the banning of Muslim women’s dress and that triumphalist arm-linking “Nous sommes Charlie” parade in January — its exclusion of Muslims at least as manifest as its inclusion — have been, to my mind, needlessly provocative. But the truth is that both London and Paris (and indeed Brussels) are vulnerable in similar ways, and we are certainly no wiser than the French or the Belgians as to what should be done about it.
We’re probably no safer having sent our planes to join the French and the American ones that were already bombing civilians in Syria and making a pretty limited impact on ISIS. We were bombing them already in Iraq, after all. Raqqa, in Syria, is full of civilians who have nowhere else to go, and surely the fighters will have the sense to move elsewhere. However, we’re told that it has to be done (that it is, as they say these days, “the right thing to do”) in order to protect us from the sort of attacks Paris suffered. Yet most commentators here and in France who know about these things seem pretty certain that bombs, let alone more bombs, are unlikely to deter those furious young men — and one or two women — in large European cities from causing their particular brand of mayhem in the countries where most of them have grown up. The bombs might even encourage them.
A recently rediscovered pleasure has been reading French. Laurent Bonelli and Olivier Roy, both writing in Le Monde, and both expert on these groups of angry and reckless young people, believe that religious Islam and the so-called Caliphate are neither the source nor the inspiration for these murderous activities. Instead, they are not much more than handy justifications. These analysists see the likelihood of unemployment, the sense of futility and marginality in the cities where these young people have grown up, and their alienation from parents and grandparents, who may seem to a younger generation to merge too compliantly with the host society, as more effective recruitment mechanisms than ISIS.
There are clearly differences that matter between those European young people who actually go to Syria to support ISIS, or even marry into it, and those who stay in Europe and murder people indiscriminately: differences of motive and differences of justification invoked.
Our parliament voted to bomb a city full of people as “innocent” as those who were killed in the Bataclan theatre, the Stade de France and La Belle Equipe, Le Petit Cambodge and Le Carillon restaurants.
Who will stop it all?