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Why France should have kept calm and carried on

Image credit: ©CNN


This probably isn’t the most sensitive thing to be saying right now, but simply put, the French government has made a string of fatal mistakes.

I was sat in Costa with a gingerbread latte, blissfully ignorant of international affairs, when I found out about the terrorist attacks in France. I checked my newsfeed to find that a significant number of my friends had resigned from posting pictures of cute animals and were ranting about intolerance and ‘sending their prayers’ instead.

So here’s a whistle-stop tour of what happened: separate but seemingly coordinated attacks happen in Paris at around the same time as each-other. Shootings and suicide bombers target certain places, including a football stadium, a rock concert and (intriguingly) a café. World leaders send unimaginative tweets. The death toll goes up. People in the UK get very vocal on Facebook. Sites like that of Britain First have a field day and a general campaign of Muslim-hate ensues, eventually leading to a counter-campaign by Muslims attempting to protest their innocence. Hollande closes down France and everybody worries. And then, out of nowhere, twenty bombs are dropped on Syria.

The first thing to which I took umbrage (after of course that fact that this catastrophe had happened at all) was ‘#prayforparis’. Prayers? Really? I see the merit in it. It’s a nice gesture. It’s a show of religious unity in the face of extremism and that’s commendable. If you’re of a religious persuasion, then praying is probably a good shout.

But, honestly, I think that the sudden need to ‘pray’ has come from the fact that most people have assumed (and after ISIS claimed responsibility, accepted) that the attacks were religiously-motivated. They (and by they I mean the users of the hashtag) are pitting their own faith against the obviously misinformed beliefs of others. Maybe we need to transcend religion, not hang onto it like a moral weapon.

It’s fascinating how willing everybody is to accept ISIS’s claim that they were behind all of this. Yes, they’ve claimed responsibility for the attacks, but who knows if that’s true? ISIS are bound to lay a claim on any attack that happens because their entire deal is provoking ‘the west’ (whatever that means anymore). Their number is virtually tiny and any excuse to seem more powerful than they really are is an opportunity not to be missed. Personally, I’m not about to trust the word of anyone who thinks it’s commendable to blow people up. Even if ISIS did plan and carry out these acts of terrorism, then surely it’s just feeding their ambition to, at the drop of a hat, start pretending that they’re the only terrorist group that exists. My point is that we shouldn’t attribute more influence and power to a group which functions through fear.

It’s pretty clear that we’re dealing with extremists with a vendetta against France – bit of a strange target though, isn’t it? We’re not talking a formidable military power here. ISIS (or whoever else is involved) were probably very shocked but also completely delighted that the French president got so agitated. I love a croissant as much the next person, but France has given ISIS, regardless of whether they were behind the attacks or not, exactly what they were after. The French borders haven’t been shut, not once, since 1944. Is the fear of terrorism really so strong that it levels with the Second World War? At the moment the total death toll stands at 132. In light of the attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices earlier this year, it’s understandable that tensions are high. However, President Hollande has closed his country down for the equivalent of an annual ‘flu mortality rate. He has let the actions of a handful of terrorists lead to a lock-down.

Of course that’s not all that has happened – around twenty bombs have been dropped by the French on Syria. All of a sudden France has gone from sealed borders to “let’s-go-to-war”, and as much as Sky News insists that it isn’t about ‘wanton revenge’, it certainly looks like it. Violent retaliation starts wars, and I would really like to hope that the only people interested in that are the terrorist groups. We’re meant to be working against that eventuality, not ensuring it.

Admittedly, the title of this article might suggest that I’m advocating total inaction, but really by ‘Keeping Calm’ I mean showing a little consistency. France shouldn’t do a USA and gradually lose everyone’s respect by charging around the global stage like a bull in a china shop.

Unfortunately what Hollande government has a) given the extremists a perfect reason for retaliation, b) ensured that they are a future target for terrorist attacks, c) fed the fear, and d) generally freaked out, somewhat understandably. Maybe I’m just too liberal, but I would really think about bombing anybody, terrorist or otherwise, for more than twenty-four hours. The success of terrorist attacks is not about how many people they kill, it’s about how many they frighten. Right now, Hollande is looking pretty scared.

I’ll reiterate, particularly for the benefit of one of my fellow writers for The Yorker, that military action, the action he advocates vehemently, is completely the wrong way to go about international affairs. He suggests that there has been “continued inaction” by “our leaders”, which is in my opinion more than a little ignorant of what has actually happened. Furthermore, whom exactly does he mean when referring to “our leaders”? Is he referring to Western leaders, or global leaders excluding ISIS, or simply the government of the UK? Of course the only three leaders he mentions in the article are Barack Obama, David Cameron and Francois Hollande, which offers a fitting summary for the scope of his opinion.

“Continued inaction” is a bold statement to make, especially as no less than twelve nations are intervening in Syria. At the beginning of the crisis in 2011, the USA supplied the Free Syrian Army with non-lethal aid like food rations and then weapons. The Islamic State was put under US surveillance. Alongside humanitarian efforts, the USA, Canada, Australia, France and the United Kingdom (including others) have been actively supplying troops and intelligence to moderate rebels. Unfortunately weapons have also been sold to the extremists by western powers, but that opens up a completely different can of worms.

Nevertheless I think I’ve demonstrated my point – it’s somewhat perplexing that my fellow writer advocates action without seeming to know that action has very much occurred. I wholeheartedly agree that it has not been the right action, but our definitions of what is right differ considerably. The ‘war on terror’ is as much about attitudes as it is about AK-47s. Despite the admirable confidence with which my fellow writer asserts it, brute force is not going to kill an idea.

Gandhi, who could, ironically, be described as an extremist, famously postulated that “an eye for an eye will make the whole world blind”… but in light of this weekend, I think an eye for an eye will lead to the Third World War.