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A Moveable Feast? Reflections on the French Coverage of the Paris Attacks

[Image of the Eiffel Tower illuminated with the Tricolor following the Paris attacks. Image by Passion Leica/Flickr] [Image of the Eiffel Tower illuminated with the Tricolor following the Paris attacks. Image by Passion Leica/Flickr]

Writing on the relationship between acts of terror and the mystification of liberalism in 1947, Maurice Merleau-Ponty wrote that, “cunning, violence, propaganda, and realpolitik” appeared “in the guise of liberal principles” and were “the substance of foreign or colonial politics, and even of domestic politics.” [1] He was not writing about religious fanatics, but he was rather concerned with another specter that once faced Europe: Communism. Unlike the Cold War, if France is indeed “at war,” one is at a loss to characterize what kind of war it is, or against whom it will be fought. Perhaps we are in what Jean Baudrillard categorized as a “Fourth World War,” in which the symbolic singularity of terrorist acts disrupts postmodern flows of culture and capital. [2] We should not be surprised then, that responses to this war have come in the form of hashtags, online prayers, and a public show of solidarity by figures such as Justin Bieber. Surely Baudrillard would have been amused while reading that some individuals have tried to capitalize on the violence by registering hashtags such as “#PrayforParis” and “#JesuisParis” with the French National Institute of Intellectual Property (INPI).  

The “Pray for Paris” campaign was fundamentally at odds with the cultural context of the attacks: the young, progressive Parisians targeted in the attacks tend to see prayer as a reactionary pastime engaged in by the dimmer-witted Republicans (i.e. us) across the pond. If one was looking for a language of compassion, offering a prayer struck an odd note. Other misunderstandings also occurred in the Anglophone coverage: Saint-Denis and the banlieue were portrayed as remote, exotic, and dangerous locales as journalists denied the realities of time (in 2015, it is mainly historians that remain obsessed with the Algerian War) and space (line thirteen of the metro). In fairness to my linguistic compatriots, there have been some excellent articles by a few writers–such as Adam Shatz (and the #ParisSyllabus hashtag organized by a group of historians who work on France)–who actually knew what a banlieue was before the 2005 unrest. While French reporters have also provided plenty of ignorant commentary on the attacks, some of the domestic and regional context of the attacks seems to have been lost in translation.

“Reinforcing the Borders”–but which Ones?

Along with the death of 130 individuals, the Paris attacks had a more technocratic victim: the Schengen Zone. Unlike the proverbial dead horse that is killed first, and beaten later, the Schengen Zone had already received a number of swift kicks before the interior ministers of the European Union gave it a near death sentence. Already under pressure due to the refugee crisis, the introduction of the security measures inspired by the War on Terror crushed the dream of a borderless Europe. Marc Cher-Leparrain, writing for the excellent blog OrientXXI has called these measures “ill-adapted and counterproductive.” Nevertheless, France’s historical distance from US foreign policy in the Middle East seems to be coming to a close, as Hollande met with Obama to put aggressive action in Syria back on America’s military agenda. Even if mainstream news sources implicitly recognize that Islamic State (IS) was born from the American invasion of Iraq, it has largely fallen to alternative news sources to criticize the folly of copying American strategies in the domains of security measures and military aggression. 

There are other borders to protect as well–borders internal to France. The far-right and on-the-rise National Front (FN) has declared that Saint-Denis (where the mastermind of the attacks was found) should be placed “under supervision.” The French phrase used–mise sous toutelle–is wonderfully colonial in tone, though the argument the FN made is not rooted in colonial history, but in local politics. Others on the Right have followed this amalgam of leftist politics and Islamic activism by articulating a notion of “Islamo-gauchisme.” Saint-Denis’ status as a “red” (i.e. communist) banlieue, an expression of working class solidarity, has been framed as proof of the link between struggles for economic justice and a culture of terrorism. This profiteering uses the specter of communitarianism to further undermine the public infrastructure (such as the state-owned public transportation company Régie Autonome des Transports Parisiens, RATP) that serves the outer reaches of “Greater Paris” (grand Paris). Paris’ urban gentrification rests on expanding the city’s border beyond its historic center, and thus physical “reinforcements” are impossible. But the FN, poised to profit from the attacks in the upcoming regional elections, are finding ways to erect internal boundaries in novel ways.

Regardless of the dreams of spatial and cultural “reinforcement,” [3] it is clear that the nation-state is no longer the correct frame of reference to understand the attacks: the arms trade, financial flows (especially regarding the “petro-monarchies of the Gulf and Saudi Arabia”), infrastructures of illegal human transport (expanded from boats to trucks with tragic consequences) is creating a new geography of war and displacement. While Anglophone commentators such as Robert Fisk have focused on the erasure of borders in the Middle East, a reading of the French media shows that a re-territorialization is also occurring in Europe. We might think of the introduction of terrorscapes that connect spaces in new ways. [4] How else could we explain one of the (many) conspiracy theories that emerged after the attacks: that a single girl had lived through multiple terrorist attacks (Boston, Sandy Hook, Paris). While school and police shootings haunt the American terrorscape rather than representations of the banlieue, the use of particular repertoires and stagings of violence may also partake in the “spirit of terrorism” that relies on prior inspiration while also seeking absolute singularity.                          

Ethnocentricism and Hashtags

Social media has been a particularly unpleasant place for many of us who felt personally connected to the attacks. Facebook offered us the French flag as a “filter” for one’s profile photo, and adapted an existing “check in” function (used in the past for natural disasters) to be used during the attacks. Cries of hypocrisy resounded. Attempts to reestablish (or dismantle) hierarchies of suffering hailed from Beirut to Baghdad and beyond. Nadia Marzouki, a political scientist particularly well-suited to think about suffering in a comparative (and connected) frame, asked in Le Monde: 

Is it not pretentious and orientalist to depict the citizens of the Arab world only as victims of attacks and of a lack of empathy in the West? The citizens in the Arab world have no need for the pity of the West to affirm themselves as sovereign actors regarding their future. The compassion of good conscience (bien pensant) expresses both of form of narcissism and paternalism so that once again we speak of “us” and “our” sentiments rather than of others and the increasing hybridity of our collective destinies.        

Marzouki was not the analyst who threw into stark relief the impossibility of conceptualizing an “us” versus a “them.” Given that the attackers were born in Europe and some spent time in Syria, the line between the domestic and the foreign has never been as blurred.

Political scientists Olivier Roy and Jean-François Bayart–both major figures in French political science–took differing positions. Roy framed the problem in terms of the “Islamization of radicality” (as opposed to the “radicalization of Islam”) and posited the problem squarely inside the metropole: the caliphate will eventually disappear, he claims, but the generational revolt among French youth will remain. Bayart’s theory postulating the return of a “boomerang,” on the other hand, tended to foreground France’s foreign policy. Another prominent political scientist–Jean-Pierre Filiu–wrote off any attempt to explain the attacks through the lens of politics, preferring to explain the violence by focusing on the apocalyptic beliefs of the perpetrators. Economist Thomas Piketty said the violence was a problem of “importation” asking: “How can these young people who have grown up in France confuse Baghdad and the Parisian banlieue, and try to import here the conflicts that taking place there?”

Yet reading the attacks in terms of an “importation” has dangerous echoes with the discourse of a clash of civilizations, and it seems to take solace in the distinction between “us” and “them” that Marzouki’s article so skillfully deconstructed. Threats of European eurocentricism are everywhere, it seems. Even the hashtag the New Anticapitalist party (NPA) used, “#vosguerresnosmorts” (your wars, our dead), has also (unjustly, I would say) been the subject of eurocentric accusations. The question of how to account for the multiple spaces in which these acts were incubated might start by asking: what is France in the first place? Indeed, a more radical take sees the clash as a war between two global ideologies: the first is organized around the economy and prioritizes the neoliberal gospel that prioritizes work, productivity, and social capital, while the other is Islamic fundamentalism. Far from being an expression of nihilism, the attacks thus appear as a mark of a deeper set of divisions that are not limited to territory or identity. 

The liberal reading of terrorism presents the violence as an attack on the “French way of life.” The notion that Paris is a “moveable feast,” a symbol of festivity, and the capital of culture is of course a self-flattering image to explain one’s own victimhood. It also allows the hashtag #JeSuisEnTerrasse (I am having a drink on a terrace) to appear as an act of resistance. Rejecting the economistic argument above, it would seem that these commentators view Paris as an overflow of joy, of life, and of entertainment. Of course it is reassuring to see one’s culture as so superior that it must inevitably provoke jealousy and hatred, as Thomas Serres has argued on this site

The young Parisians who were killed, overflowing with “cultural capital,” are often imprecisely referred to as bobos in the French media. Yet the symbolism of this target is not, as it might seem, diametrically opposed to the attack that was allegedly planned (but not carried out) on the financial center of Paris at la Defense.

As Frederic Jameson reminds us: “The becoming cultural of the economic, and the becoming economic of the cultural, has been identified as one of the features that characterized what is now widely known as postmodernity.” [5] It was thus telling that when the Socialist Party’s new Minster of the Economy, Emmanuel Macron, called for a “greater opening of French society,” he presented this as synonymous with a parallel opening of the economy. Unlike Prime Minister Manuel Valls, who refused any explanation (social, sociological, or cultural) of the attacks, Macron converted the violence into a platform to introduce more neoliberal reforms. In thinly coded language Macron spoke of the “glass ceilings and corporatisms” (read: unions and regulations) that he claimed have “fed the frustration of individuals and created economic inefficiencies.” 

Islam and Bureaucracy

Increasingly, the press postulates that the alterity of “radical Islam” (now used as a catch-all phrase despite the importance differences between Salafist and Takfiri branches, for example) can be eliminated through the bureaucracy. This bureaucracy is increasingly appearing as the “law of equivalence” on which Europe is based.[6] On the one hand, predictable measures have been proposed to make Islam subservient to the French state: prohibiting Arabic sermons, asking Muslims to condemn the attacks (désolidariser), and encouraging imams to have a state-affiliated certification, for example. The rise in Islamophonic acts has also been striking. The State of Emergency, first introduced during the Algerian War, has prompted protests and raised questions about the abuses of state power that are already underway. But on the other hand, one has the impression of technocrats that doth protest too much. What emerges from the evidence presented in the French media points to overwhelming proof of bureaucratic ineffectiveness rather than a lack of existing procedures.

For example, the mastermind of the attacks, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, had been featured prominently in the Islamic State's official magazine, Dabiq, and yet, he continued to move between Syria and Belgium. Another one of the attackers, Salah Abdeslam, was pulled over on a highway the day after the attacks and then Belgian authorities subsequently released him. It was not that these attackers were unknown to the French state–almost all of them had a file with the French authorities. But as all bureaucrats know, the devil is in the details. Many of these individuals were the object of the now infamous “S form” (Fiche “S” for atteinte à la sûreté de l’Etat, threatening national security). Rather than being an effective marker of risk, the sheer number of these files (currently estimated at 20,000) renders them all but meaningless. Indeed, while 20,000 individuals are classified as “threats” to the state, 10,500 of them are specifically marked as radicalized–a category that includes the extreme right, the extreme left, as well as those accused of being radical Islamists. While the “fiche S” is an element of surveillance, it neither carries proof of guilt, nor an obligatory surveillance system. 

In the midst of these discussions, it has become a common refrain in the French media to refer to the violence as the “deadliest attack ever to take place on French soil.” Yet that distinction likely belongs not to 13 November 2015, but to 17 October 1961, when the Paris police attacked a peaceful demonstration of 30,000 Algerians as their nationalist sentiments were often seen as a form of terrorism and associated with Islam. The lesson to draw here is not that there is some causal link or “blowback” between the Algerian War and the present. Rather, we should note that the cruelty of the liberal state and the specter of Islamic radicalism are not competing–but complimentary–phenomenon. As Baudrillard reminds us, "The repression of terrorism spirals around as unpredictably as the terrorist act itself.” [6]


[1] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Humanism and Terror (translated by John O’Neil), New Brunswick: Transaction Books, 2000 (1969), xiii.

[2] Jean Baudrillard, The Spirit of Terrorism (translated by Chris Turner), New York: Verso Books, 2002, 12.

[3] The French the word renforcer is particularly polymorphous; listed synonyms include bétonner (literally to make into metal), armer (to arm) and, finally, radicaliser (to radicalize).             

[4] Here I am borrowing from Arjun Appadurai’s notion of five “scapes” that connect flows of information (1990) and which he labels ethnocscapes, technoscapes, fianscapes, mediascapes, and ideoscapes.

[5] Frederic Jameson, “Notes on Globalization as a Philosophical Issue” in The Cultures of Globalization, ed. Frederic Jameson and Masao Miyoshi (Durkham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1998), 54-77.

[6] Baudrillard, 35.

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