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Paris wants to fight terror with culture. Will it work?

6 February 2017

5:24 PM

6 February 2017

5:24 PM

The news about the machete man in the Louvre broke just as my Eurostar was approaching Paris. Was this just a one-off, or were there more terrorist attacks to come? In the Gare du Nord that lunchtime, the atmosphere was humdrum. Armed policemen passed by like ghosts, unseen and unnoticed. For Parisians, these incidents have become a normal part of daily life.

I figured the Louvre would still be cordoned off, so I headed for the Musée d’Orsay. If the Louvre attack was part of a co-ordinated assault on the cultural institutions of the French capital, the Musée d’Orsay would be another prime target. Would the museum be closed, as a precaution? Would the visitors stay away? Neither. People were queueing to get in, tourists and locals. The mood in the queue was laid back. I admired their sang-froid. Inside, the place was packed – business as usual. Paris kept calm and carried on.

But for how much longer? Thankfully, the Louvre attack was just a one-off, but nobody here in Paris supposes this will be the last incident of this type. Donald Trump was quick to tweet ‘GET SMART US’ (in block capitals, just in case anyone didn’t hear him), but how can France ‘GET SMART’? The suspect had travelled here from Egypt, one of the Middle Eastern countries that Trump excluded from his travel ban (and where, coincidentally, he also has business interests).


That evening, I went to stay with a family friend in the 18th arrondissement, a well-known immigrant area. My friend has lived here for a decade now – she used to live in London. She came here to help her son raise his three children. She’s white, her son is white, her grandchildren are all mixed race. She loves living here, and has become good friends with lots of locals (of all colours) but walking her grandchildren around the neighbourhood has been sobering. She’s been shocked by the racism from French Caucasians, and also between Arabs and black Africans. During the last ten years, she reckons it’s got a lot worse.

Her immigrant neighbours who’ve been to London tell her London is far less racist. So why are things so bad in Paris, a city whose history is entwined with the Islamic countries of North Africa and the Middle East? The problem, as she sees it, is that these second generation immigrants, who were born here, are far less keen to integrate than their parents, who came here when the French colonies of the Maghreb won their independence. Why? She doesn’t know.

My friend is fairly typical of liberal opinion here in Paris. She’s not blind to this growing problem. How could she be? She’s living at the sharp end. Yet she doesn’t have any easy answers – nothing that can be condensed into a single tweet. Her only solution is to follow Ghandi’s dictum, ‘to be the change you want to see.’ Day to day, in her own small way, she does her bit for race relations – confronting racism wherever she encounters it, befriending people of every race. Will this be enough? The signs are not encouraging, and she knows it. But she feels sure Marine Le Pen will make a bad situation even worse.

Next morning I went to the Centre Pompidou, that bastion of French cultural life. It’s the fortieth anniversary of this iconic building, and this weekend it was hosting a jolly jamboree. There were all sorts of free events – rock bands, jazz bands, dance troupes, film shows, exhibitions. People were queueing across the cobbled square to clear security, indifferent to the pouring rain. Inside it was like a street party – happy families altogether (though after my evening in the 18th, it struck me that this crowd seemed overwhelmingly white).

Is culture really an adequate riposte to Islamism, or are we merely fiddling while Rome burns? That machete attack in the Louvre was a minor incident. Next time we may not be so lucky. In Paris, culture means something far more than art galleries and concert halls. It’s the spirit of the Revolution – it’s a state of mind. Liberals like my friend have no doubt that this cultural life is something worth fighting for, but how can they fight a battle on two fronts, against the atrocities of Islamic fundamentalism and the simplistic solutions of the Alt-Right? Like my friend I have no answers, save to keep calm and carry on. But increasingly, neither of us feel quite so sure that this will be enough.


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