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Contemplating war in ordinary France


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

Thank you Bronwyn. Your article was deeply moving for me. Hope you and your family stay safe. Chris (Oz)

Chris vincent | 16 November 2015  

Your article speaks to and for what I imagine is so many of us and Warsan Shire's poem! I cried. What can I wish for you? And for our world? Safety and Peace.

Mahdi | 16 November 2015  

Praises for Mother Suu's victory after a long courageous struggle. Proof again that Good does conquer as Amal reminded us. Thank you . Aileen Williams.

Aileen Williams | 16 November 2015  

Thank You Bronwyn for a beautiful thoughtful article

Kevin Kelly | 16 November 2015  

Well expressed Bronwyn. We are now in UK, but after 10 years living in Gex in France we too mourn as if French The poem was indeed the best expression of what the world now faced

Chris charstone | 16 November 2015  

Incisive. I remember watching on TV the orderly and dignified way in which the uninjured spectators left the Stade de France singing La Marseillaise. That and the deep feeling and dignity of mourners in Paris. It was very similar to what happened after the London bombings in 2005. There was no hate speech, no screaming of abuse. I think it is this quiet dignity and firmness which will defeat Daesh/Isis in Europe. Two of Daesh's strategies are to terrify people and to polarise the community into 'us' and 'them'. I think these will fail. Militarily I think Daesh will be defeated. The concern then will be to protect the vast majority of Sunni Muslims in Iraq and Syria who were not Daesh supporters. This is a tremendous test of civilisation both in Europe and the Middle East. I think it can be done. Like Chris I am glad you and your family are well and am sorry so many were wilfully murdered. Like most Australians I would want to tell the French people we are with them in sympathy. Vive la France!

Edward Fido | 16 November 2015  

So poignantly written - thank you Bronwyn for both your insights and poise in such horrific circumstances. I remember being in Paris in the 1970s on Bastille Day. We were near the Champs Elysees but not on the actual Boulevard when we started to feel the earth shake and jiggle like a jelly. It became louder and more pronounced the closer we got to the Boulevard where its sources was coming from. What we saw were tanks after tank rolling down the Boulevard in a spectacle of might and power. It's the closest I've ever been to military might and all it represents. It has left an indelible mark in my memory ... Lest We Forget indeed. But now the rules of engagement in war/political-religious conflict have changed ... 'morphing' is a good word for it. It's now insidious, ubiquitous, sinister, anonymous, neighbourly-situated, ordinary, and very deceptive ... 'people of the lie' in our everyday lives. There is no 'us' or 'them' ... it's the evil capabilities of 'us' all. We need to keep our trust in each other alive and healthy. We need to make sure we say sorry, express gratitude, and praise goodness in all our daily living to counteract this insidiousness ... May God keep us all safe and bless good people protecting us from harm.

mary tehan | 16 November 2015  

Thank you, Bronwyn, for this quiet and heartfelt mourning piece. Thank you, too, those who have posted such supportive messages to the French people, who have given us, in the midst of their grief and horror, an example of how to be. I hope we can follow this when the time arrives.

Joan Seymour | 16 November 2015  

Thank you Bronwyn. This is a powerful article, so sensitively written.

Laurie Chilko | 16 November 2015  

Thank you , Bronwen, your fine article rose to the sad occasion.

tony kevin | 16 November 2015  

Yes, remember your Creator now while you are young, before the silver cord of life snaps and the golden bowl is broken. Don’t wait until the water jar is smashed at the spring and the pulley is broken at the well. For then the dust will return to the earth, and the spirit will return to God who gave it. (Ecclesiastes 12:6-7)

AURELIUS | 16 November 2015  

Hi Bronwyn, We were last in France two years ago, almost to the day . We visited the Somme where my Uncle was killed in 1917. We walked the streets of Paris where these terrible atrocities have now happened .We remember the good times while we were there. It was bitter sweet to see these same streets on the TV. We are deeply shocked by this horror . Our prayers and thoughts are with you and yours .Keep safe.

Gavin O'Brien | 16 November 2015  

Merci Bronwyn pour ton témoignage. Les français sont très sensibles aux messages de compassion. Ton témoignage, en tant qu'australienne vivant et connaissant bien la France est très important.

Catherine | 17 November 2015  

I appreciated your piece, Bronwyn. Thank you.

Adrian Glamorgan | 17 November 2015  

Beautiful, insightful piece Bronwyn. Thanks for illuminating something that has been missing from mainstream coverage. Keep up the great work, and take care. Karen (Perth)

Karen O'Sullivan | 18 November 2015  

Thank you Bronwyn for a moving story of the events and people in France. It help flesh out meaning from the TV images. I welcome Mother Suu's amazing win. It was a Ghandi, Mandella moment of courage in history. I too took out a map of the world and wondered how many states were at war? I didn't write a poem but continued to reflect and pray. Religion cannot win these wars, only God in true image can.

Mary Nola Viney | 20 November 2015  

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