Language, Literature and Culture

Letters from Professor Michael Spingler

Michael Spingler is an Emeritus Professor of French at Clark University who is currently living in Paris. Following the terrorist attacks that occurred there November 13th, 2015, he wrote some text reflecting the atmosphere in France and the feelings of some of his Parisian friends and himself. The entries are below

Three days after the attacks, here are some random thoughts and observations, not, I fear terribly well organized. More in the way of an anecdotal diary than “expert” analysis; I will leave that to the media, the journalists, pundits and politicians.

First of all, a response to a headline I saw today on the Huffpost — “Paris stricken by panic.” Paris seen from afar. That is not at all my impression. Yesterday, I saw a large banner on the statue in La place de la République that said “Pas même peur,” literally translated as “Not even fear.” Better translated perhaps as “We’re not even frightened.” That, I think, is a better reflection of the mood in the city than alarmist headlines intended to entertain the reader. There have been some isolated incidents when some idiots have set off firecrackers that scattered small crowds, but, in general, the Parisians are going about their lives as usual. I’ll be back to this throughout. So here is my more or less day-by-day account.

Saturday. Ventured out at 10 to go across town to see Jean-Claude, a friend with whom, on Saturdays, I sometimes go to a flea market in Vanves in the 14th. The line Porte de Clignancourt-Montrouge that runs through the center of town was operating normally except for one station (Strasbourg-Saint Denis) that connects with another line that runs through the quarter where the attacks took place. There were quite a few people on the metro — not as many as usual, but it was a Saturday morning. They did not appear to be particularly frightened. The flea market, however, was closed. Should have expected that. The city has closed all public places — large markets, theaters, cinemas, and concert halls — where large groups might gather. Supermarkets, on the other hand, were open and reasonably full. Ditto sidewalk cafés, at least on the Rue Daguerre in the 14th, which is a good distance from where the attacks took place. On the other hand, Mac went to meet a friend at 11 a.m. at the "Sarah Bernhardt," a large café on the Place du Châtelet, beside le Théâtre de la Ville, and that café was pretty empty. So it depended, apparently, on where you were in the city. After lunch with jean-Claude, dropped by Léo’s bookstore in the Daguerre quarter. Lots of passers-by, people browsing the books outside. Twoyoung men, late teens or early twenties, ask Léo if he has a copy of Leon Trotsky’s writings. He does and they buy it. Young Frenchmen interested in how others thought a long time ago.

Sunday. Took the metro to the Aligre quarter to see my friend, Gérard Martin at le Baron Rouge. Usual large crowd standing and drinking on the sidewalk outside. Aligre is just a few blocks away from where the attacks took place, so there were people there who knew other people who had friends, relatives among the victims. Talked with one man who had invited six neighbors in his building to a get-to-know dinner Friday night. He’d been meaning to do that for a long time. The six went to le Carillon across the street from where he lived for a drink before dinner and all were among the victims of the attack. He would have joined them but he was busy cooking the dinner. He says he’s finished crying and now he’s here to drink. He is the only one whom I have encountered who has a direct connection with the victims. A wag looking for black humor, says, “I’d rather be shot here than die trembling under my bed.” This attempt at gallows wit is greeted with wry smiles. It may not be everyone’s point of view, but no one accused him of being inappropriate. In the meantime, I've been in touch with most of my Paris friends and they're okay. Ditto Gérard whose friends are also okay. On the corner across from the Baron, a large sidewalk café crowded with people enjoying the sunshine on this bright late autumn Sunday. Long walk back from Aligre to Barbès. The Grands Boulevards crowded with pedestrians, sidewalk cafés full. A good-sized crowd in La Place de la République, in spite of an official edict against large gatherings. The banner on the statue, “Pas même peur.”

So, by and large, Parisians are not listening to the official advice to stay inside and go out only when absolutely necessary. Typical authoritarian blather: stay home, watch TV and wait for further instructions. Tremble. Give way to fear. Which is exactly what the bastards who did this want. That's the definition of terror. The mofos chose their targets carefully: The liveliest quarter of Paris, where the young go out to party on a Friday night. The Worcester equivalent of the rue de Charenton, the Carillon and the Bataclan would be Water Street, Green Street and the Lucky Dog. The victims were not members of a particular ethnicity; they were not cartoonists with Charlie Hebdo; they were kids between the ages of 20 and 30 out for a night on the town. So it was the heart and the spirit of the city that the bastards attacked. I don't think that Parisians will give in. They will grieve, but they'll find the way to go on. They may be frightened or uneasy, but they are not going to let the bastards know it. “Pas même peur.” An in-your-face reply to the fanatics. “A bras d’honneur,” a defiant middle finger raised.

Before I close, a couple of words about the reactions in the political world. Among, the right wing (and that, I fear, includes a good many of the "socialists" in the government) there is already a cry for more repression, more surveillance, more control, which is exactly what the terrorists want. Close France down, put it into a state of siege, plunge it into civil war, Christian against Muslim. Sarkozy the clown, who appears to think he is still the President of France, has called for “total war.” An unfortunate choice of words since the term was prominently used by Hitler and Goebbels in 1943 when the tide was turning against them. Hollande is not much better since he, as well, is rattling the sabre. I don’t see how a conventional war can be successfully waged against a nebulous web of terrorists like Isis. Bombing the shit out of them has accomplished little aside from killing as many innocent civilians as terrorists, a circumstance that provides an efficient recruitment for the jihadists. And what can we say about Trump the clown, who apparently thinks he can be president of the United States? Mr. Trump said in Texas that if the people seated at le Carillon had been armed, they would have been able to stop the terrorists in their tracks. A quaint childish fantasy: take out your rod like Dirty Harry and blaze away. Mr. Trump’s compassion for the victims and his understanding of France seems somewhat limited. He thinks France’s problem is that it does not enjoy the blessings of the 2nd Amendment.

But I digress, so I better stop. I remain hopeful that the French people will, by and large, respond in a measured, informed, intelligent and rational way to this atrocity. I cannot hope as much from their politicians.

The Candles and Flowers of the Place de la République

The homeless are shivering under their tattered blankets on the sidewalks, old women are begging on the street, the unemployed musicians, of varied talent, are back busking in the metro, and Joe Long, my friend from Dublin, had his pocket picked Saturday while grocery shopping in a local Franprix. So we could say that life in Paris is getting back to normal.

Because of the recent horrific events, The Republic now has other things to do than care for her forgotten children, unable to reap the fruits of modern Capitalism. As the television has informed us, France is at war, and war is expensive. So, once again the poor, the miserable, and downtrodden will have to wait for that chance that never seems to come. As far as the protection and security that the government claims to offer its citizens, the down and out are very much on the bottom of the list.

There is a dispiriting similarity between France's socialist government's response to the obscene attacks of November 13th and the rhetoric of America's crazed Republican (and some Democratic) politicians. The list is long and the suspects are the usual, so I won't bother to name them all. In general, the responses are depressingly predictable, xenophobic and hysterical: Allow in Christian refugees only; give me your tired and your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free, provided they have found Jesus. Register all Muslims in the country, and even identify them as such on their passports. Round up refugees and put them in internment camps (Internment camps might not be such a bad idea provided they were reserved for politicians, but that is another debate.) Eerie echoes of Hitler. What else can we expect from the mediocrities that govern us or hope to do in the near future? It would be bad enough if such babble were confined to the Lepens and Trumps of the world, but Hollande, Vals, and other so-called Socialists are very much on board. France is under a 3 month Etat d'Urgence, one notch below a State of Siege, the difference being that in a State of Emergency it is the police, not the army that does the dirty work. But in terms of tactics and armament, there is lately little difference between the army and the police. Because of the "Urgence", France has recently passed its own version of the Patriot Act, which, as we remember, was supposed to be temporary but is still very much with us. Much the same thing, I fear, will happen in France. Once a government takes away our basic liberties, it is in no hurry to give them back.

Sunday, on the occasion of the opening of the conference on climate change, the police arrested 137 citizens in La Place de la République, citizens who had the temerity to disobey the recent prohibition against public gatherings, and to demonstrate, for the most part peaceably, in favor of some action to address the problem. The authorities claimed that many of the demonstrators were violent. Well, we know that the planting of agents provocateurs is an old tactic. Whatever the circumstances, it is clear that the police are just as eager to arrest demonstrators as they are to round up terrorists. Draconian order, in the name of security, must be maintained. Already the kangaroo courts meeting out expeditious justice are at work: a young woman condemned to pay a 1000 euro fine for refusing to be fingerprinted; a young man condemned to 3 months in prison for allegedly throwing a beer can. Meanwhile, the banksters and other financial criminals are free to continue their nefarious business. But that need not detain us because we are at war.

Isis, or Isil, or El, or Daesch (its many names reflect the disturbingly nebulous character of the entity) could not have hoped for a better outcome to the atrocious attacks of November 13th. France is "en guerre" and so, according to the lunatic logic of war, there must be more repression, more surveillance, more control, which is exactly what the terrorists want. The politicians and their media lackeys are doing their best to keep the populace shaking in their boots. It's a special kind of abject fear, the one that encourages people to turn to the Security State and plead, "Do anything to keep us safe." Viewers are treated to repeated television shots of the carnage with the title "La France en Guerre."

And off we go. All our saber-rattling leaders remind me of the gang in "Duck Soup," gaily singing "To War! To War! We're going off to war!" Our governments are eagerly preparing the next acts in the bloody tragi-farce that they have created. George W. Bush, who would have made an excellent character in a Marx Brothers film, started the current version of this sorry business. He treated the Iraqis to "shock and awe," and we have seen how that turned out. France wisely sat that one out, but now it is more than on board, eager to play a leading role. Sarkozy continues his noise from the sidelines. Perhaps he hopes that people have forgotten that when he was president, he cut 13,000 posts in the police and renseignements genéraux, which makes ensuring the security of France a bit more difficult. This does not keep him from screaming that the Government is weak on security. In the meantime, according to the polls, the Front National is gaining in popularity, and the prediction is that it will do well in the upcoming regional elections this coming Sunday. Of course, in reply, Hollande must assert that he is indeed a fearless warrior who will lead the West in its crusade. It was he that provided the TV channels with the catchy title "La France en Guerre."

We now hear solemn talk of a "Union nationale," nay, a Union sacrée, an ominous reappearance of the motto to which millions marched willingly to the slaughter of the First Word War. And don't forget to fly the flag. The government is currently urging the French to put the le drapeau tricolore in their windows. This apes a quaint patriotic American custom that has been going on for years. We will have to wait to see how many French patriots will fall for it. Already a few flags have appeared, some drooping above the homeless huddled below.

One wonders where this great buzzing confusion, this sound and fury, these tales told by idiots may lead us. One wonders if France is not slowly shambling back towards Vichy. And what about The U.S.? I believe it was Sinclair Lewis who might have said (attribution uncertain), "When fascism comes to America it will be wrapped in the Flag and carrying a cross."

How many times need it be said? This is exactly what Isil wants. The great Armageddon, the Great War, the final battle between Good and Evil, with, of course, each side persuaded that it is the other side that is evil. We are faced with a never-ending "war between civilizations." I will not say much about Islam and its problems here. I do know that saying that the crazed and fanatical jihadists, with their odious virtues, represent all of Islam is much like saying that the Christian Talibans of The Westboro Baptist Church, with their odious virtues, represent all of Christianity. Nonetheless, the "War between Civilizations" has succeeded in pushing off the radar screen the other war, the class war, the one between rich and poor. I doubt that "Occupy Wall Street," the domination of the 1%, and an economy that is shrinking for everyone but the obscenely rich will be the major issue in the upcoming presidential campaign. We can say good-by to Bernie. The debate will center around patriotism and national security, a topic that plays to the strengths of the far right.

Is there any ray of hope in this great decay? Lately, I have been going down to La Place de la République where, for the past weeks since November 13th, small groups gather around the statue of Marianne, Goddess of the Republic. For the moment, the police are allowing this since it is not, technically, a demonstration. The people have built a shrine rising around the statue, flowers, candles, and signs with messages of peace and love. I confess that, in the past, I entertained a certain degree of skepticism, not to say contempt, for the candles and flowers that appeared in America every time some criminally insane thug exercised his 2nd Amendment rights. Now, I have changed my mind. There is a quiet weight and dignity to the display at the République. The messages are written in many languages, French, English, Chinese, Arabic, Vietnamese to name but a few. They appear to be written by Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, and Pagans. They vary from the learned ("There is no happiness without liberty, and there is no liberty without courage." Pericles), to the simple ("Même pas peur"). The signs and flowers fade in the wind and the rain, and the candles flicker out. When they do, someone kneels down and tries to light them again.

The Place de la République has become a repository, a "lieu de mémoire," for those who proclaim that they will hold on to whatever shreds of decency, tolerance, and understanding remain, and not give into the vengeful clamor of the fear and war mongers. For those who believe that there must be an alternative to the useless and unacceptable measures of the Security State. For those that maintain that there is a place for a politics of sense and sensibility (which is as good a definition of Democracy as I can think of) rather than a totalitarian politics of vengeance. Tattered by the wind, drenched by the rain, the memorial of flowers, candles and messages of La Place de la République may not remain for long. Yet it represents what is best not just about France, but about all who hope that measured reflection and compassion will ultimately prevail. My hope is that we will remember it for a long time to come.