Grief and phobia in a French village after Paris

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The French village of Segré, a small town the Loire where I am teaching this year, is in mourning. Outside the town hall, the French and EU flags fly at half-mast, each tied by a black ribbon. The mood is still and sombre: we give each other sad smiles in the street; newspapers are emblazoned with “horreur”; the message circulates that at 10pm tonight, we will be putting candles in our windows and turning off the lights in order to send a message of solidarity and hope in response to this tragédie. 300km from Paris and 40km from the nearest town, Segré is the prototypical small French village; its reaction to Friday’s attacks in Paris are mirrored across France.

But this is not simply grief; there is now the feeling of a country at war. In Segré, the mood has hardened and the siege mentality is palpable. In the bakery this morning, the customers express their anger, their outrage, and their conviction that France will not se laisser faire, remain passive, in response to what President Hollande has dubbed “an act of war”. At Saturday evening mass, the congregation bursts into a spontaneous rendition of La Marseillaise, just as members of the French Parliament did at an emergency meeting earlier today. Just days after the village gathered together to commemorate the glory and bravery of its soldiers in the First and Second World Wars, one man comments: “this might be World War Three.”

The news slowly trickled through last night while I enjoyed an aperitif with some of the teachers I work with; one phone rang, then another, and the severity of what had happened slowly became clear. On the news, commentators said that these locations had been chosen not only due to their high concentration of people, but in order to attack the French way of life: drinking and going to concerts, listening to what, the commentators explained, Muslims think of as “the devil’s music”.

And so began the inevitable and insidious conflation of a violent strain of radicalism with all of Islam. While the closest thing Segré has to an immigrant is your author, my students and neighbours have often explained to me that their country is bursting at the seams with people who don’t belong here and lack French values.

As I see this village and this country lurch to grab the Tricolores, to start its fighting talk, to defend “French values”, “European values”, “Western values”, I wonder what this wave of national solidarity, and Western solidarity with France, is meant to consist in. For the people of Segré, there is doubt as to whether ‘Muslim values’ can be compatible with ‘French values’. In the bakery, they explain to me, the foreign girl who doesn’t understand, that Muslims don’t like alcohol and they make their wives wear veils: “lots of them are nice people, but France is about liberté.” Many seem to see as a random attack by Muslims, divorced from any context of IS in the Middle East. In an hour-long news special about the attacks, not even a passing mention was made of France’s involvement in Syria.

The horror of the attacks in Paris lends fuel to the fire of the pre-existing anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant feeling to be found across France, both in cities with large migrant populations, and in villages like this that rarely encounter immigration. And this is, of course, what IS wants; these sentiments will just lend further legitimacy their barbaric agenda.

I leave the bakery with the distinct impression that France believes itself to be at war not just with IS but with the Muslim world. I fear that If the people of France are unable pinpoint exactly what they are fighting against, IS has already won.

Image credit: Tristan Nitor