2015 in review: Contemplating war in France


First published 15 November 2015

On 11 November I marched with fellow Pompier for Remembrance Day. The Pompier, the voluntary emergency team of our small village, led the parade to the cemetery. The names of soldiers who died in the world wars were read. We responded, 'Died for France.'

Bataclan Theatre in ParisDespite the presence of dead soldiers' relatives within the crowd, war seemed long ago. School children sang the Marseillaise. Their peace-filled voices echoed like uninterrupted innocence. I wondered, 'How long will these villages keep these ceremonies? How long do they grieve? When will someone decide these wars are too long ago or too far away, as today war is fought on other people's soil?'

Two days later, after an evening at our local organic market, Paris was attacked. The news came like war does — sudden and violent, fracturing freedom with mass death. Then came declarations of a state of emergency and the closing of borders. That night my eldest daughter was over the border in Switzerland without a passport. War starts in increments — in the small ordinary worries of families.

More than any other western polity Europe knows war down to its bones. The memories of war on their soil brought a sobriety to the first days of this tragedy. French friends were not hysterical. They exhibited a quiet mourning and attempted to grapple with events.

French media didn't bombard with hyper-emotive images but relayed a connected respect for the dead and injured with reasoned analysis of government responses. State of emergency details were picked over to ascertain what they meant for freedom and whether they were necessary. Trauma experts explained how the neurology of trauma victims alters, making clear decision making impossible.

While the threshold of tolerance had been crossed, rather than screams, silence and quiet conversation pervaded, from the streets of Paris down to small villages. Candles spoke from household windows.

War rhetoric entered official statements quickly. Le Pen and Sarkozy dived deeper into declaring divisive politics alive. The nebulous war spoken about by politicians became inflated by imaginary nationalism rather than quiet resignation to state necessity.

'The problem', aptly summarised by Catherine Malabou, 'is how to fight democratically against non-democratic attacks and movements ... ISIS is trying to trap Western democracies into their own contradictions. Very clever and very dangerous.'

After eight years in France I join many in anger and desire that vital freedoms are protected from violence. However the necessity of military force to stop death cults invading ordinary freedom, in part, originates from French involvement with the violence in Syria, and a complex web of political interventions and cruelties beyond here.

When they woke to the news on Saturday, my kids felt French. They believed they belong to a culture under attack for its reason, traditions and laicite — not merely it's military interventions. My two eldest could have been at the targeted events, which weren't sites of traditional political significance or obvious ideology like Charlie Hebdo, but places of diversity, art, football, and conversation. The neighbourhoods targeted are where the artists, thinkers, writers and creatives live. Not the wealthy, powerful and homogenous.

Strategic targeting of ordinary places makes any resultant declaration of war fuzzy. What does this mean? An extension of the monolithic war on terror? More attacks on Iraq and Syria? Does France descend into a bolt-hole of closed borders and military permeation of everyday life?

The choice of targets, unfortunately, could easily mobilise a population to assent to more war. Whether in Syrian, Beirut or Kenyan bombings, war disrupts the ordinary to the point of intolerability.

War morphs to take different forms. Now there's no such thing as a civilian. The externalised enemy dissolves into fused geographies and unclear cultural demarcations. The morning after the attacks, at the large markets in a nearby town, military police walked through streets with massive, alert guns. Beside them, stalls sold chevre frais and hijabs in equal measure.

My youngest ran past the soldiers without noticing. Is this how we habituate ourselves to war? Do soldiers and perpetrators walk amongst us to mark ordinary activities as the battlezone? In other places, the territory of war shifted into the ordinary a long time ago. Now, it's here.

History illustrates the equation of justifying invading everyday lives due to an attack on those lives, can lead to a fascist infinity. In the context of war sites being intimate civilian activities, declarations of war seem like a replication of the cause dressed as a solution.

The most powerful post on Facebook in the last few days was the poem by Warsan Shire:

later that night
i held an atlas in my lap
ran my fingers across the whole
and whispered
where does it hurt?
it answered

On Friday night the French imaginary of war altered, but not the grief and trauma of its violence. The thought I had on Remembrance Day forgot repetitions of world history. 'Lest we forget' that this country, like others, painfully knows war down to its inherited cellular and quotidian levels. Grief and hurt pervades the people.

Whether it's at war or not, it's an historical, difficult and reluctant moment for the French people.

Bronwyn LayDr Bronwyn Lay worked as a lawyer in Melbourne before moving to France where she now works as an legal consultant for international NGOs. She is also the creative director of the Dirt Foundation and her book Juris Materiarum: Empires of Earth, Soil, and Dirt will be released in early 2016. 


Topic tags: Bronwyn Lay, Paris, Islamic State, Bataclan Theatre



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Existing comments

I must have missed this article back in November; it's fabulous. So is the poem by Warsan Shire quoted towards the end. The article gives a sensibly optimistic view of France at the time it was written.

Jim Jones | 14 January 2016  

" the necessity of military force to stop death cults invading ordinary freedom, "..... There is an alternative response to 'death cults'.- to defuse the main attraction of the deaths. i.e., the 'promise' of an after-life of beatitude or of 72 virgins. These 'promises' are easily made, without cost, responsibility, or accountability. Instead of promoting love of God, which is the passport to fulfilment, they promote self-interest, often involving anti-godlike behaviour. If 'A better future for our children'. or for 'greater peace and harmony for the human race' were made the goal of our endeavours, we might see more godlike ambitions and behaviour from zealots, to the betterment of all concerned.

Robert Liddy | 14 January 2016  

The elephant in the room is that the West started bombing rebels in Syria and effectively entered into a state of war. We should not be amazed that we experience some of the misery and suffering that people in the Middle East are subjected to. We should not only see the suffering in Europe on our colour television sets, but all the gory details of the wounds that our bombing inflicts on the Middle East.

Theodoor | 14 January 2016  


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