Dreaming about Paris

It starts with a view from Montmartre, the mountain in the North of the city, a view onto a sea of beige beauty. In between two of the old, green streetlights with their antique glass shades you see it all spread out in front of you. Images change quickly: the bright red blades of the Moulin Rouge, the Arc de Triomphe and the Champs-Élysées lined with rows of perfectly green trees and the blue-white-red of dozens of Tricolores. Elderly gentlemen playing the most French of all games – Boules; the intricate backside of the most famous church in the world, Notre Dame, and then one thing over and over again, shot from every imaginable angle: the triangular, sky-reaching iron skeleton of the Eiffel Tower. This is how Woody Allen paints Paris in the opening scene of his 2011 Midnight in Paris, a historico-fantastic celebration of every thing civilized which ever happened in the French capital. Hemingway meets Dalí meets Scott Fitzgerald meets Gertrude Stein meets Man Ray meets royal antiques, dreamy hotels, real castles and a lot of culture. Paris: the capital of Western civilization.


At 10pm on Friday I received a text message from a friend warning me of attacks close to Place de la République. I had an immediate urge to walk out of the restaurant I was in, about 10 minutes south-east of République, to call her and ask her for more information. But I didn’t even make it outside. People were storming into the restaurant with expressions of shock and fear. I heard screaming and was pushed backwards immediately. With about 250 other people my girlfriend and I spent an hour huddled under tables and chairs and hiding behind columns and corners. Nobody had reception.

News about what was happening came slowly: Automatic weapons, hostages, bombs; Le Petit Cambodge, Stade de France, a club in the 11th arrondisement. When the police let us out in small groups, we didn’t know that we were just 200m north of the Bataclan where people were still being executed. The police we saw were heavily armed but seemed shocked themselves. What had happened? It took us another hour of searching for a cab, calling friends, jumping on bikes, all while trying to avoid supposed locations of the attacks before we finally opened my front door.

We couldn’t sleep. We had been too close to all of this. Too close not only today: my girlfriend and I had our first dinner in the Petit Cambodge. I took friends there regularly. Opposite at ‘Le Carrillon’, we loved to stroke the owners’ cat every now and then. We made sure that our loved ones knew we were safe, followed the news on live streams and Facebook feeds.

I must have fallen asleep at around 2am and the tone had already started to shift online: ‘this has happened too – but nobody has posted anything about it, nobody has proclaimed their deep sympathy with the victims of the Beirut attacks.’ I felt disturbed: can we give Paris a minute to mourn perhaps? On the other hand, you might be right. Nobody HAS been talking about Beirut. Why does Beirut rightly feel forgotten?


Lengthy analyses have already been made in prominent outlets over the last few days blaming both the media and us as ‘consumers’ for the imbalance in solidarity. The attacks in Beirut were not such a shock as Lebanon saw a violent war approximately 25 years ago. Its government is still not stable. Similarly for Kenya where 147 people died in April in an attack on a school. It has a porous border with Somalia, one of the world’s most fragile states. More than 600 people have died, mostly through the hands of Al-Shabab and its sympathizers, in retaliation for Kenya’s military involvement in Somalia. People in the West are also not surprised by yet another suicide bomber in Iraq or Afghanistan; an attack might be registered silently with a thoughtful ‘It’s just horrible’ but people are less shocked by an incident in a state which is known (or stereotypically perceived) to be on the verge of terror and insecurity.

On the other hand, France is – for the same people – a symbol of Western civilization and achievement. How many of you have been to Paris? How many of you have seen pictures of it, can create an image in front of your inner eye of its old buildings, of the Seine, of the pictures in the Louvre? Like New York – and particularly the World Trade Center – Paris stands for history, power, and a world of liberté, égalité, fraternité. While what happened in 2001 might be seen as an attack on Capital and Capitalism symbolized by the World Trade Center, last Friday was about an ‘enlightened’ state of mind, a French culture deeply linked to laïcité. The concept of laïcité (secularism as written into the constitution) is indeed deeply French, but its ideal really becomes tangible in more comprehensive values such as the freedom of speech (and blasphemy), free schooling, free medical services, the right to your (reproductive) body. The catalogue is extensive and it is these values and cultural tenets that both the attacks on the satiric magazine Charlie Hebdo earlier this year and on the restaurants and bars and clubs last week shook.


Dreaming away

The attacks reveal just how unreal the idea of an untouchable Paris, and with it, Western Civilization (which for many other people is just as much a symbol of imperial supremacy, racial segregation and inequality) really is. The Paris of Hollywood’s grandeur, of Woody Allen, of Paris, Je t’aime or 2 Days in Paris, of fashion and its bombastic display of splendor and glamour, of Haute Cuisine and the reinvention of modern literature, is a fragile dream. In fact, this dream has often been severely shaken from within. Paris is far from being equal and free for everyone and it is surely not non-violent: think about the 2005 riots in the Parisian banlieues for instance and the conflicts along class and race lines which have since then regularly erupted in the suburbs; police have also recently clashed with migrants in Paris and Calais. It was also a long fight to reach a gay-marriage act in the face of heavy protests trying to defend the secular France against non-natural marriage. Racism exists not only towards Roma, but against people from its former colonies, such as Algeria or Mali, who have lived in France for generations. This sentiment now spread even further by Front National paroles has already dug deep lines into French society over years. But because France and the West have been collectively dreaming along, living under delusions, at least partly ignoring fault lines and trenches, the attacks from last week are such a shock.

Source: Markus Schreiber.
Source: Markus Schreiber.










We are not all part of this

Now in the aftermath of the attacks, a second, partly related dream comes to the fore: We are all part of this – we are all Paris. With Facebook filters and sympathetic rants of all-encompassing solidarity, the West evokes a dream of equality which, this time, is on an international scale including our targets of violence such as Beirut or Nigeria. We are all one civilization. Our mourning – suddenly – becomes all-encompassing. We are all in this together.

But we are not at the moment. There are deep barriers of inequality and difference along class and racial lines for instance. Our worldview is hypocritical and usually denies the right for liberté, égalité and fraternité to most countries and people – perhaps even big parts of France – and instead accepts segregation and inequality to be the norm. We are shocked about Paris because of our idealized, dream-like vision of what it stands for and can often easily brush aside similar events happening in Beirut and Nigeria and Kenya and Syria and Afghanistan because we expect them to happen there. The majority of people were only screaming that we need to think beyond our own little islands of comfort after the dream was hit in Paris. When we felt threatened deep inside our secure, comfortable, homely, fluffy center, right there at the symbol of all the good in the world, we started to think about others too.


In Japan, the awakening from the ‘Paris dream’ – when tourists arrive in the capital of love full of expectations and find it more or less disappointing – is called the Paris syndrome – Pari-shoukougun. I believe we have reached a collective moment of shoukougun – of West-shoukougun. We need to wake up now.

We, the privileged West in particular, should wake up and adjust our dreams. We need to stretch the boundaries of what we dream about – and our feelings of solidarity will follow. One concrete way of doing this is right in front of us: we can start by welcoming refugees. Germany has surprised me as a country in this respect by leading the way. Sweden is even more concerned and willing to welcome people – unlike its Scandinavian counter-parts in Denmark and Norway. What about the US and the UK? Things need to become more concrete now and we shouldn’t only talk about the states and politicians and their abstract decisions alone, but its citizens. What about solidarity with your new neighbor from Syria? Couldn’t she and her family be part of a sentiment of unity, of a dream; couldn’t we accept that they are in many ways just like us? We would be killing two birds with one stone: while widening our dream-circle, we would also take the battle ground of oppression away for the hatred leading to exactly the kind of attacks we saw in Paris. Perhaps we can collectively dream less about Paris as the ideal, the absolute core of Western Civilization and dream more (and more concretely) about how to help the people of other, less privileged races, classes and nations.


List for further reading:

1. A long piece full of testimonials put together by Alexandra Schwartz for the New Yorker who spoke to a survivor of the attack on the restaurant, the co-founder of Médecins sans Frontières who helped during the night and a French Muslim filmmaker and novelist. The article links the attacks back to Charlie Hebdo and is a meditation on France, its values and how people are dealing with the current inter-racial and inter-religious conflicts in the country.
2. NPR’s Greg Myre asks How did France Become a Leading Target for Extremists and looks into its colonial past, disaffected Muslims at home and the French idea of laicité or secularism.
3. Going back to the reactions to 9/11, Pankaj Mishhra writes in n+1 against the recent ‘reality-concealing’ analyses searching for the problems abroad (or in Jeremy Corbyn) rather than criticizing our self-congratulatory Westernism. Mirroring Susan Sontags 13 year old idea, he asks: how can we avoid growing stupid together when grieving together?
4. Renowned French philosopher Jean-Francois Bayart searches for the reasons for the attacks at home in his piece in Libération. French and European foreign policy in Palestine, Turkey and with the oil-monarchies has heavily provoked the kind of reaction we are currently seeing according to his argument. (in French)
5. Mirroring the KR piece, Bérengère Parmentier criticizes the idea of the always joyful and drinking Paris in his Liberation piece. The French are not always outside drinking; in fact even French people have to think a little bit harder about integration and living together. (in French)
6. In a witty and polemical reply to ISIS and its attacks, Oscar laureate Michel Hazanavicius describes France`s response: more sex, more champagne, more life. The attacks won’t change France, he argues. (in French)
7. Frankie Boyle criticizes in the Guardian how now in the aftermaths of the attack, the state is grabbing more and more authoritative powers while responding with more violence and bombs. He forces us to remember our very own mistakes from the past and inability to battle extremism at its roots: unemployment, poverty, the security state.
8. Oliver Roy, a sociologist specialised in the understanding of Islamwrites in Le Monde about what ISIS is and what the kind of djhadist ‘war’ the West is currently part of. A special focus is on ISIS (or Daech as it is called in the francophone world) link to France. (in French)
9. Adam Shatz argues in the LRB that ISIS has confronted us with the harsh side of globalization: that we live in a connected but unequal world in which Europe’s problematic relation to its own Muslim inhabitants is no longer separable from sectarian proxy wars and failed states in the Middle East.

Johannes Lenhard is currently a post doctoral researcher at the Max Cam Center for the Study of Ethics, the Economy and Social Change at the University of Cambridge and a College Research Associate at King’s College, Cambridge. His work is focused on the intersection of alternative economics, social theory and the ethnographic study of homelessness and mental health. His new project is discovering the ethics of venture capital investing and is the current editor-in-chief of KR.