When the Ostrich Lifts up Its Head: Reflections on France Part I

[This is the first installment of a multi-part essay, Paris Notes, Spring 2006 on my most recent visit to Paris (March 4-14). It is linked to a series of earlier essays posted as Essays on France.

“Nous sommes tétanisés,” said my French friend. [We are paralyzed.]

The French are beginning to wake up, beginning to lift up their Ostrich head from the sand. As opposed to the frequent dismissals I ran across in the past – when it wasn’t accusations of racism – I now met an increasing number of people willing to say, “we don’t disagree” (the French really don’t like to say “you’re right”). But, as my friend put it, we don’t know what to do. “We’re paralyzed.”

I have been visiting France fairly regularly all my life, but particularly since 2000, the nature of those visits has changed, and I’ve watched a radical split occur between the Jewish community in France (which has grown increasingly alarmed at the violence against them) and your typical Frenchman and woman, who consider Jewish alarm – if they even notice it – as, well, alarmist. (For earlier posts on what I noticed, see here and here.)

I haven’t been in France since last Spring, so a number of factors played in the mixture. Obviously the Fall (Ramadan) 2005 riots that started in the Parisian suburbs and spread through France sobered people considerably, despite the official position of the media, political, and academic elites that this was not a religious or cultural issue, but one of socio-economic inequities that could be solved by addressing those inequities. But more recently, there had occurred two things that sobered them considerably.

First, the Danish cartoons. Most every Frenchman I spoke with (especially the non-Jews, who are in most denial about the religious dimension) mentioned them. Even the French, who do not have much of a sense of humor about other people making fun of them, understood that the Muslim reaction revealed a level of immaturity beyond anything they had, in their cognitively egocentric slumber, ever imagined. It was for them a sobering look at a religious mafia, intimidating anyone who dare criticize it. The cultural gap between the French and an Islam which, they had begun to acknowledge, played an increasingly powerful role among its immigrant population, lay bare before their eyes.

Second, the slow torture of Ilan Halimi, a Jewish youth, kidnapped and tortured to death over a three-week period in one of the “territoires perdus” of the Republic, awoke the French to the depth of barbarity that had grown up under their noses. That Islamic hatred played a role came across unmistakably with the calls to the Jewish parents and the reading of Quranic verses over the sound of their son tortured in the background. But the gang was really more a mostly Muslim collection of immigrant sons from the hood, from the “territoires perdus.”

Indeed the most terrifying part of the tale came when the leader of the gang got arrested in the Ivory Coast (whence his parents had emigrated before his birth). His picture smiling and making the V sign with his fingers shocked people with its utter lack of any sign of conscience, and his subsequent interview confirmed the impression. Indeed the photo was so shocking, that after consulting with three lawyers, AFP took the photo down because it was “a blow at the private life” of the suspect, but “above all, there was no imperious necessity to diffuse this highly provocative photo.”

Ah, if only they had felt that way about Muhammad al Durah, they might have spared themselves much pain. But that would have meant sparing the Jews and the Israelis.

But those with eyes, like Nidra Poller, could see. Youssouf Fofana was not a religious fanatic poisoned by paranoid underground hatreds. Here was Nietzsche’s blond beast in blackface, without conscience, a predator who feels no need to apologize to his prey. Robust sadism. The barbarians at the gates… in the suburbs. And their neighbors, who remained silent for weeks as they heard the cries of the tortured youth – not even an anonymous call – illustrated how powerful the dominion of the killers in these territoires perdus.

For Part II, see here.

2 Responses to When the Ostrich Lifts up Its Head: Reflections on France Part I

  1. Rogemi says:

    Je suis trop paresseux pour vous écrire en anglais mais je voulais juste vous remercier pour votre blog que je trouve remarquable et que je visite tous les jours.
    Salutations amicales de Haute-Bavière

  2. RL says:

    merci beaucoup. n’heistez pas de commenter en francais.
    r

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