This is not a story about baby boomers. But it is by a baby boomer, one who occasionally contributes to BoomerCafé, and we think it is too important, and too unique, to overlook. That boomer is Mort Rosenblum, a seasoned and award-winning American journalist who chose decades ago to make his home in France. So he knows France well. And wants us to know the background of the nation, against the canvas of what happened in Paris. Writing from Draguignan in southeastern France, the title of his report is, Paris Is Not Burning.
I was asleep among olive trees with a P.G. Wodehouse novel on my chest, blissfully unaware, when a friend called from Miami to make sure I wasn’t a statistic up in Paris. A lifelong traveler with serious smarts, she knew that 8 million people in and around the French capital were unscathed. But terrorism, as it is designed to do, terrorizes.
So far, the main reaction is shocked belief. A young friend came by to help whack away brush. He watched TV over my shoulder for a moment and then turned away in silence, eyes moist. Unable to compute monstrous inhumanity so alien to our hillside, he simply went to work.
A few shots echoed in the distance. It’s wild pig season. Hunters had absorbed the news from Paris and were back at it, stalking a fat sanglier — wild boar — for dinner. Guns worry me in America. Here, if I don’t wear brown and scruffle in the bushes, I trust guys with permits and small-bore carbines.
France does not scare easily. During four decades based in Paris, I’ve never figured out that shibboleth about French cowardice. Duplicity perhaps. Unlike in some brand-name countries, government here tends not to be hypocritical about its hypocrisy. French presidents, essentially elected monarchs, shape principles to suit the nation’s interests. Yet when the need arises, French troops do much of the West’s dirty work.
I often joke that U.S. policy in Africa is to fight bad guys down to the last Frenchman; it’s not that funny. As I covered the war in Bosnia, when Americans held back, I stuck close to the French Foreign Legion.
As a society, the French resist infringement on their rights and freedoms — by authorities or anyone else. The Charlie Hebdo horror rattled Parisians 10 months ago, but they had seen worse. Life soon relaxed back to its usual pace.
Yet now, at calamitous extremes in a post-9/11 world that it tried hard to move in a different direction, France faces its greatest challenge since Liberation in 1945.
The French know war too well to use the word lightly or to wage it without reason. Yet President Francois Hollande, his voice quavering after police rushed him to safety from a soccer match, condemned “un acte de guerre”— an act of war. He pledged to respond mercilessly. The question is, against whom?
Hollande singled out what the French and others call Daesh, the Islamic State, which says it punished France for bombing its positions in Syria. But for many here, ISIS is as much a state of mind as a geopolitical entity. Beyond its own actions, it inspires other groups and loners.
If Hollande has declared an amorphous war on terror, as President George W. Bush did in 2001, France could get ugly. Like some Sorcerer’s Apprentice nightmare, each casualty creates countless more people who hate enough to kill.
Self-styled jihad is an outlet for dead-end frustration among young Muslims from immigrant families who see European societies not as melting pots but rather as mezzes of dishes that don’t mix.
A certain Robin Hood appeal attracts a wide following. Friends tell me, among other instances, of three young Christian women they know in a prosperous town near Paris who sneaked off to Syria.
But the bulk of extremist support comes from impoverished housing developments like one near Paris, which prosecutors say produced at least one of the eight Friday the 13th assailants.
The French call these “les banlieues.” The term, a misnomer, means suburbs. Slum is not much better. They are multistory projects on streets with such names as Moliere and Monet meant to evoke the glories of France.
Some history is important here. When I came to France in the 1970s, Lebanon was in flames, and brushfires smoldered elsewhere. Terrorism was mostly sponsored by states. Moscow and Teheran, among others, adopted it as diplomacy.
French authorities allowed terrorist groups sanctuary as long as they operated elsewhere. Into the 1980s, as terror evolved into the poor man’s weapon, tacit accords came unstuck. Police and intelligence agents struggled to keep the lid on.
Back then firearms were scarcer than decent jobs in the banlieues. Still, police were reluctant to confront unfocused hostility. One tough teenager told me, “There is nothing here, nothing. All we can do for fun is take the metro to Paris and beat up a Frenchman.”
One Friday in the 1990s, I took note of the shoes piled high before prayer at an outdoor mosque: yellow Senegalese slippers, sandals of every sort, gleaming Nikes, scuffed trainers, fancy French pumps. If anyone got to these disenfranchised young men of disparate background, it was their imam.
After 9/11, Bush used the word “crusade,” and told the world that people were with us or against us. Many in the banlieues chose the latter. With open borders in Europe, guns came in at a fast clip. Israel’s conflicts with Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank fed fiery rhetoric.
Tension spiked in 2003. During those months before the Iraq invasion, American correspondents in Paris fought with editors on desks back home who wanted to know why France, true to its reputation, was too chicken to join in.
The French were ready, I told my editor, but first they wanted to hear from inspectors about Saddam’s reported banned weapons. He asked why France wasn’t grateful for Normandy? It was, I said, and Americans ought to thank the Frenchman Lafayette for not having to drink English tea every day at 4 o’clock. It is not that simple.
Torture pictures from Abu Ghraib made the difference. The banlieues turned sharply political. Extremist recruiters found eager listeners among committed zealots and rebels seeking a cause.
Eventually, and inexorably, France found itself in the thick of it. Embittered Sunni militants who survived torture in Iraq created ISIS. A free-for-all conflict engulfed Syria. After the daily paper Le Monde revealed that Bashar al-Assad had used poison gas on civilians, Hollande ordered French jets to exact punishment. He stood them down when Britain and the United States demurred.
And now unholy warriors with a death wish and no regard for innocents have brought an unwanted war home to the Seine.
If the French hold onto what has kept their society solid, responding to the specific threat and not giving in to terror, the danger may well recede. If not, and excessive repression plays into the hands of fanatics, we are all in very serious trouble.