French democracy in danger

As a French-born citizen, it is hard to describe one’s feeling after what happened on that very dark Friday, November 13. Shock, dismay, sadness, sense of belonging? A couple of days ago before all this happened in Paris, while attending a conference, someone volunteered and praised France to me in the middle of a wide-range conversation. “You French have understood the world long time ago.” What did he mean exactly?

Having spent 20 years of my working life outside my country, I try to keep a fair judgment about France. I am grateful for a national culture that has given me such an intellectual opening. Although I spent most of my working life abroad, I do not belong to the bitter, tax-exiled expatriate group. In 2004, I went back to France to work, and spent a decade there before moving again last year across the Atlantic. In 2014, I stood for election and briefly held political office, which helped me understand the pressure faced by some of my fellow citizens.

A France coping with globalization

A secular country for over two centuries, France has been coping with globalization, sometimes with difficulty. Our colonial past kept haunting us; so did World War II, the Algeria War, and even the student movement of 1968. The 1970s and 1980s were prosperous; no one had doubt France was to remain one the world’s most powerful, richest, and leading nations. Things didn’t go so well perhaps lately, with the rise of unemployment, growing de-industrialization, and perhaps the realization that our multicultural society was not as happy as we—the mainstream—thought it was.

Immigration, either from our former colonies or from the rest of the world, was strongly encouraged by most of the successive governments. Although the integration of newly-arrived citizens was fairly easy at the beginning in the 1960s (when economic growth and jobs weren’t an issue), it became increasingly problematic at times of high unemployment, especially in the case of the second and especially the third generation who felt left over by the society.

The French system has its well-known flaws, such as the size of our public sector, but it is one of the birthplaces of Western democracy. Thinkers like Diderot, Montesquieu, Voltaire, and Rousseau all played key roles in the creation of a thoughtful modern France, which included and still include the imperatives of free speech, resistance to tyranny, and religious tolerance. The French constitution of the 5th Republic provides the right of all members of the same civil society, provided they have subscribed to these fundamental principles: to vote, to education, to employment, and to expression irrespective of ethnic background and faith.

The republic’s motto—liberty, equality, fraternity—is engraved on the walls of every single public building, and resonate for every French citizen—and many others, too. For over 1,000 years, Paris has been France’s capital and one of the world’s most important cities, a city of lights where lofty ideas (and sometimes eccentric ones) would originate. People like Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Raymond Aron, Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco, Tahar Ben Jelloun, André Glucksman (an advocate of tolerance who passed away days before the attacks) built their careers and reputations out of a certain Parisian free spirit. Today, these values, this spirit, and this society are being challenged at heart by the one of the nastiest forms of ideology, and by its most radical translation: suicide bombing.

How the Paris attacks are different

The Paris attacks are quite different from anything we have seen, including the terrible acts that bloodily targeted the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and the Kosher supermarket of Vincennes in January. The cartoonists had been deemed “provocative,” thus long-considered “obvious targets;” an attack against a Jewish place was seen as “retaliation” for the situation in the occupied territories and France’s support for Israel.

This time, it will be not be enough to blame the French system, presumably for its lack of integration of all groups. It is mainstream France that was targeted: soccer fans in the National Stadium where France was playing its best ally Germany; young music fans of all races at the Bataclan; professionals enjoying their drink on a Friday night, or just people on their way home. The orchestrated attacks targeted a generation of young adults who lived in one of the city’s most dynamic quarters where families and singletons alike enjoy the lively streets of the old Paris. These acts were committed against French values, and mainly by French passport holders. How would they know otherwise about the Bataclan, a small Parisian concert venue?

Over the past few days, countless French voices expressed a common feeling: that we should “carry on,” that no terrorist will ever be able to overthrow French (or Western) cherished values. But we need to acknowledge the fact many of the second or third generation immigrants, sometimes badly hit by unemployment, feel rejected by the system. Meanwhile, the refugee crisis is threatening the European Union’s free circulation rule: For the first time since the Schengen regulation was introduced, the French president has declared a closure of borders; this should be music to the ear of isolationist leaders from countries like Hungary, Poland, or Slovakia who are linking migration and terrorism. We should do our utmost to avoid this language.

COP 21 and regional councils elections

France will be in the news again soon with two major developments: In less than two weeks, Paris will host a massive world event: the COP 21 conference on climate change, welcoming thousands of state and governments leaders, company executives, environment experts, and non-state actors. In addition to the very top issue of climate, my belief is that COP 21 will turn into another rally for democratic values. After this shocking wave of attacks, democrats of all nations will probably need this, too.

Secondly, on December 6 and 13, France will see important elections for the country’s 22 regional councils. On Friday, all party leaders jointly decided to suspend the campaign but—just like schools, government offices, companies which have reopened on Monday—there is no reason why the campaign should not start again. There is no guarantee, though, that far right leader Marine Le Pen will not take advantage of the situation to scare the French electorate even further. Even before the Paris attacks, the odds were that the National Front might win a majority of seats in at least two regional executives in the Northern region and in Provence.

For all these reasons, it has never felt better (with the exception of 1944 perhaps) to receive support from our allies from around the world, people we share values with. As France’s longest ally, the United States plays a central role in this support. The French may be a proud people (too proud, I sometimes hear), but they will never forget the wave of humanity which is reaching Paris at this traumatic moment. France is at war, so are free societies.