Will Paris Attacks Kill French Spirit of Liberté?

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Police officers stand guard near the Eiffel Tower which has its lights turned off on November 14, 2015 following the deadly attacks in Paris.
Police officers stand guard near the Eiffel Tower which has its lights turned off on November 14, 2015 following the deadly attacks in Paris.Credit: AFP

Anyone who ever visited Paris for even a few days knows the intoxicating feeling that sweeps through the city come the weekend. Paris sloughs off the typical grumbling mien of a frenetic metropolis and becomes an effervescent city of revelers. Short-tempered Parisians give themselves over to the weekend atmosphere and head for bars, cafes, clubs, shops, theaters, cinemas and restaurants.

That is precisely the spirit that the terrorists who sowed death in the Paris streets on Friday night sought to destroy. It seems they carefully chose anything that symbolized for them the French mode de vie: cafes, bars, restaurants, a concert hall where a rock group was performing, the national soccer stadium. The main scene of their crime, the 11th Arrondissement, is a gentrifying neighborhood in the heart of young Paris. The victims thought they were going out for a glass of wine and a good meal, to dance at a noisy concert or cheer a favorite soccer player. But to the murderers, they represented everything Paris is proud of, the feeling of personal liberty and freedom of choice of every citizen.

“Liberté,” “égalité” and “fraternité” is the holy trinity on which France has been based since the French Revolution of 1789. Liberté has of course undergone changes over the years and it was never total, but it was and is the cornerstone of the French ethos —the freedom to speak out, to protest, to believe or not to believe in God, to go on strike against one’s employer and also to have a good time. That is exactly what the murderers chose to kill.

It is too soon to evaluate the implications of these bloody events, events that are largely considered a direct continuation of the Charlie Hebdo and the Hyper Cacher kosher supermarket in Paris in January. But clearly there will be security, political, economic and also social implications.

The first challenge involves security. The agencies that failed to prevent the attacks will have to quickly prove that they can adequately protect French citizens. At the same time, the nation’s leaders will have to decide how far they are willing to become mired in a ground operation against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, with or without the support of European allies and the United States. There is also the potential damage to France’s enormous tourism industry in an already-fragile national economy. Politically, the extreme right is lying in wait for the socialist President Francois Hollande, who will once again have to try to prove that he’s made of the right stuff.

Tensions between France with its Catholic roots and its Muslim citizens could flare up, a situation that would of course be to the advantage of National Front leader Marine Le Pen, who is already demanding the closure of mosques throughout the country. All this, when all of Europe is struggling to cope with the crisis caused by the influx of large numbers of refugees from Syria, which magnifies tensions between immigrants and veteran citizens.

But beyond all these important questions, we must examine the change that France will experience precisely from the angle that the terrorists intended, and took full advantage of, the issue of liberty. Under fire, France will now have to significantly limit personal freedoms — that was the clear implication of the president’s declaration of a state of emergency before dawn yesterday.

Now, we must see how far the “birthplace of liberty” and the Declaration of the Rights of Man will go in imposing restrictions on what is considered a fundamental value of the Republic. The United States faced exactly the same questions after 9/11 and chose, under the influence of President George W. Bush and the public mood, to significantly limit citizens’ rights. It seems that France will have no choice but to institute restrictions in this realm in the name of national security. How serious these restrictions will be and what responses they will engender remains to be seen in the days and weeks to come.

This is precisely where not only the response to the enormous challenge to the French people will be forged, but also the fight against Islamist terror in the entire Western world. What France does will be seen as legitimate throughout Europe and in fact in every other Western country. France, which contributed a great deal of the spirit of “liberté” to the freedom-loving world, is now responsible for the new face that this same world will put on in the war that the Islamic State has declared in the name of extreme Islam against the entire world.

Finally, with regard to some of the disgusting comments on Israeli social media and websites, among them the apparent schadenfreude with regard to the tragedy in France. More than a decade ago in Paris I met the renowned French author Jean d’Ormesson, a courageous friend of Israel. He told me then, during the second intifada: “If Israel disappears we will not have enough tears to shed over it.” If France as we know it disappears, we too will not have enough tears to shed over it.

Anyone who does not understand this, and did not shed a tear like the silent crowd at Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square last night, is not worthy of speaking in the name of the supreme values that France has bequeathed humanity.