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The Paris Attacks: An American Perspective

By Nellie Peyton

Rue Bichat is a small street that runs along an old stone hospital in the east of Paris. At its intersection with Rue Alibert there are three restaurants where lively crowds sit at outdoor tables and spill onto the sidewalks, laughing and drinking, on Friday nights. Last Friday, these tables and chairs were overturned amidst body bags in photos I saw appear online while I listened to ambulances whiz past my apartment, four blocks away. The next day there was sawdust sprinkled outside two of the restaurants, covering up the blood.

That night, five hours were compressed into one surreal moment. I felt numb as I located my friends, called my parents, watched the death count rise. The next morning the fear began to sink in. I left my apartment, cautiously, the afternoon following the attacks and walked through eerily quiet streets, past groups of mourners and TV crews at the now boarded-up Carillon and Petit Cambodge. “This changes everything,” I told one of my friends, not sure at all that I knew exactly what that meant. Right away there were calls on social media to re-occupy our favorite sidewalk terraces, to keep living our lives and show that we were not broken, but it felt too soon. As another of my friends eloquently wrote, “We have the right to be afraid, and for a long time yet.”

I had lived in Paris for five months when gunmen stormed the office of Charlie Hebdo last January. Then, I felt like an outsider, unable to entirely access the shades of emotion that were gripping the French. I lived much farther from the attacks, and when I ventured into the city center the evening after I found that Parisians had already risen in defiance. They chanted angrily, and sang La Marseillaise, and carried homemade signs and banners. This time, the scene at Place de la République — where Parisians gather instinctively — was very different. People brought flowers and lit candles, but jumped and ran at the first unexpected noise. I think I share their sentiments when I say that the will to defy persists, but spirits are battered and peace feels fragile.

France is in the throes of a difficult period, and would be even without these attacks. The influx of refugees, among other factors, has stoked the flames of a historical debate: how to reconcile the country’s “Republican values,” namely strict secularism, with its increasingly diverse population? The marginalization of France’s poor, ethnic minority citizens is so severe that the Prime Minister referred to it as “segregation” in January. This problem, and the denial of it, is tangible in everyday life. A journalist asked me this week if I knew any French Muslims whom he could interview. I don’t. I don’t see them in my communities, I don’t know what their lives are like, I don’t hear their voices in the public sphere.

So to me, the rallying cry of many young people here — to go out to bars and continue to live our lives — is not resistance, or not the right kind of resistance. I have heard many people say that they “fear the backlash” from Europe’s growing far-right movements. Instead of being resigned to it, France and other countries should fight this backlash as a counter-terrorist strategy. If our governments and fellow citizens turn their backs on refugees and Muslims, they will be helping the Islamic State toward its goals and facilitating its recruitment. Already, The New York Times has reported that appeals for solidarity with Muslims, fairly prominent after Charlie Hebdo, are absent in France right now. If politicians had a forward-looking gaze, they would use this moment to admit that actually, French society needs to change.

The French government has responded primarily in military terms, which is also appropriate in the face of a foreign attack. In his speech on Monday, President Hollande made a direct plea for international support against the Islamic State and alluded to the feeling that France is leading the charge alone. “We, France, are striking… but we need a large coalition of all who can capably fight this terrorist army,” he said. The United States falls into this category, and should be a strong ally in the months ahead. So far, Obama has suggested an “intensification” of the tactics he is already using, primarily airstrikes and assistance to local forces. He is right to reflect on his strategy rather than act rashly in response to the attacks, but his credibility now depends on this intensification coming through.

“It cannot be an American fight,” said Hillary Clinton, when asked about the Islamic State on Nov. 14. The statement is concerning. Americans may be tempted to consider New York and Paris worlds apart right now, but to the Islamic State that distinction is not so meaningful. The U.S. should acknowledge that we’re in this together before the enemy makes that clear.

*****

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Nellie Peyton is a former editorial assistant and a graduate student at the Paris Institute of Political Studies.

[Photos by Nellie Peyton]

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