Some Thoughts on November 13 and After
My son and I were both so excited. It was my first time attending a soccer game at a stadium. And it was a momentous match, pitting the French national team against their counterparts from Germany. The Stade de France just outside Paris was full of almost 80,000 spectators of different social groups, ethnicities, ages and genders. Watching a match at a stadium, I realized, is very different from watching it on television. I was thinking about my Iranian sisters who cannot enter a stadium in Tehran as I can in Europe.
Then we heard the first blast. The whole stadium shook, but the match went on. Some said the noise was just a firecracker as is very common at these events. Then came a second bang. The players looked puzzled, but nonetheless the game continued again. We had already begun to feel uneasy, but we still had no clue as to what was happening outside.
Later, our phones buzzed with calls and messages from family and friends, who told us that bombs had gone off outside the stadium and that people had been massacred at the Bataclan concert hall and cafés in the city. We tried hard not to panic, and in fact remained seated until the end of the game, when some in the crowd started to run, screaming that terrorists had entered the stadium with guns.
At that moment I felt powerless, unable to protect my 17-year old son and lacking control over my own life as well. I had participated in the 1978-1979 Iranian revolution. Every morning when I left home headed for a strike or a demonstration I was conscious of taking the risk of being shot. But I was an agent—I was taking responsibility for my life, striking for my dignity, fighting for utopia.
But on November 13, 2015 I had no subjectivity, no agency, nothing but vulnerability. Our lives were in the hands of terrorists or the security forces deployed against them.
On that horrible evening 129 people, most of them young, were killed in attacks claimed by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS. The French president, François Hollande, stated that the attacks were “an act of war” and that France would hit back hard both at home and in Syria. He pressed the United States and other allies to do the same. Parliament answered his request to extend the 12-day state of emergency to three months. But Hollande went even further and demanded that the constitution be revised to make extraordinary presidential powers permanent. Taking a turn that left the French right with little to say, Hollande ordered house arrest for persons deemed possibly dangerous, brought in 1,500 soldiers to join the 10,000 patrolling the capital since the January shootings at the offices of the magazine Charlie Hebdo, and announced the hiring of 5,000 additional police.
So, though France is officially at war, Hollande wants us all to feel secure and breathe a sigh of relief. But did everyone live in peace before ISIS waged war? The number of innocent people killed on November 13 is precisely the number of women who are killed each year in France by their husbands or partners. And no war has been declared against those men. Some argue that ISIS attacked us because France is a secular society that values life, freedom and gender equality. Streets and public transport are now considered unsafe because ISIS militants might intrude with bombs or guns. But these public spaces have never been safe for women, many of whom have been raped there, sometimes even before passive fellow travelers. If a woman wants to be safe, some said when confronted with these facts, she should stay at home. And were Muslim migrant youth who live in poor suburbs really safe when their mere presence in Parisian neighborhoods is considered suspicious and they endure regular racial profiling and police harassment, even in their own neighborhoods?
By the constitutional amendments that Hollande has proposed, people with dual nationality can be stripped of their French citizenship if they act against the national interest. But it is unclear what is meant by that last term. The rule change would create two categories of citizens—those born in France to French parents and those born in a foreign country or born in France to parents of foreign origin. French citizens would thus be differentiated as “good” or “bad” according to their national or foreign backgrounds. The amendment does not clearly state what is meant by “foreign,” but as Emmanuelle Cosse, national secretary of the French Green Party, argues: “This will encourage xenophobia and stigmatization, especially vis-à-vis Muslims. This is precisely what Daesh [ISIS] wants.”
Once again, the practice of Islam is being stigmatized. But mosques in France have been under surveillance for years. As several investigations have demonstrated, the majority of “jihadis” in France were not “radicalized” by Islam. Only 10 percent are attracted to such groups for religious reasons, said one such study, and 90 percent had been common delinquents. The author of that study is Pierre Conesa, a former senior official at the Ministry of Defense who is now a professor at Science Po, Paris. He recently contended that 80 percent of those who have gone to Syria from France have been neither in prison nor in a mosque.
Do the militarization, hypermasculinity and nationalistic sentiment that have become predominant in the public sphere and the media really secure peace? Or are they rather used to justify wars that France has already waged itself in Libya, northern Mali, Iraq and Syria—and that have in turn increased violence in France?
Two weeks prior to the November 13 attacks, I attended a conference in Paris organized on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the October 27, 2005 riots in the city’s poor suburbs. On that day, three teenagers fled the sound of police sirens in the heavily immigrant and working-class suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois. Two of them died trying to hide at an electrical substation. Word of the deaths spread quickly, and for the next two weeks there were confrontations between youths and riot police in Paris and cities across France, like today prompting Parliament to extend a state of emergency from 12 days to three months.
At the conference, activists who are second- or third-generation immigrants explained that back in the 1980s they took the initiative to get involved in national politics to secure a better life for themselves and millions of French citizens from migrant families. They organized nationwide marches to demand equality, but the Socialist Party then in power hijacked their autonomous initiative. They activists continued that they were effectively excluded from the national political community and full citizenship rights. Some were coopted, but many others refused such individual opportunities. The speakers talked about blocked horizons, a long series of denials of rights, and the patent failure of the men in power.
The neoliberal economic policies of today’s Socialist government are likely to widen the gap between the rich and the poor, the whites and the rest, and women and men, but also among women themselves. Ten percent of working-age women belong to the upper and upper middle classes and identify with upper-class males, while more than a third of working-age women are employed in low-paid, part-time jobs. These women, many of whom are Muslim migrants and wear a headscarf, make up the majority of the working poor. They are major targets of the radical laïcité, or state secularism, that has effectively become a racist ideology against the Muslim minority. The slogan that gender equality is a French national value sounds hollow indeed.
Security can never exist for all without social, racial and gender justice. “Equality, fraternity and liberty” are empty words in a class society where poor Muslim migrants are being ghettoized and branded as threats with no positive outlook for the future. Unless public policy is aimed at narrowing inequalities of class, race and gender, unless social justice truly becomes a French value, more youth, including women, are likely to be attracted to ISIS or its ilk, groups that offer them a territorial home as well a sense of power and “national belonging.”