Making Sense of Terror Attacks in France, Episode 92


Making Sense of Terror Attacks in France
Photo Zlatko Vickovic

New terror attacks in France have been making the headlines for over a week and have shocked the world. It is important to try to make sense of what happened with the attacks of Nov 13th, 2015 and put it in the context of French culture and history. Guest Patrick Béja comes on the show to share his experiences as a news commentator and a resident of Paris. Patrick is the host of a news commentary show in English as well as two French language podcasts on Tech news and Gaming news. He comes on the show today to help Annie make sense of terror attacks in France.

Making Sense of Terror Attacks in France Episode Highlights

  • Recap of the Events of Nov 13, 2015
  • What the State of Emergency Means in France
  • Should You, Potential Visitor, Change Anything As a Result of these Attacks?
  • The Effects of Terror Attacks on Tourism
  • What the Word "Laïcité" Means in French
  • The Issue of Wearing the Veil in France
  • How Much Religious Accommodation Is Too Much?
  • Religion and Patriotism Are Not What Unify French People, the Republic Is!
  • Where Do You Draw the Line?
  • Law Against Conspicuous Religious Signs in Schools
  • Conclusion: Making Sense of Terror Attacks in France

If you liked this episode, also listen to How to Stay Safe in France, Episode 50 and Secularism and Free Speech in France, Episode 51.

Making Sense of Terror Attacks in France
Patrick Béja

Recap of the Events of Nov 13, 2015

Attacks on the Stade de France where security did its job and did not let the attackers in. Then attacks on a café and a restaurant near the Canal Saint Martin. Then attack on the Bataclan where most of the victims died. There are some important differences between the attacks on Charlie Hebdo that took place in January 2015 and the attacks of November 2015. In the first, the victims were journalists who took risks by steering controversy. But in the second it was regular people who were targeted. It is also the first time we've had suicide bombers in France. The state of emergency was declared right away and has been prolonged for 3 months by a vote of the French parliament.

What the State of Emergency Means in France

While the state of emergency is in effect in France "perquisitions" (searches) can be performed with out a search warrant. Police can decide without the approval of a prosecutor when it is time to intervene. Searches can also happen any time of the day whereas outside of the state of emergency searches have to happen between 6 AM and 9 PM.

Public cameras and internet surveillance laws will be updated in response to these attacks. On the other hand curtailment of the freedom of the press, which was part of the state of emergency law in France as it was written many decades ago, has been removed from the state of emergency package in France.

It is very likely that the number of surveillance cameras in France will increase, not so much to prevent crime but rather to make it easier to have evidence to convict perpetrators.

Most French people are in agreement with these measures because they going to be in effect for a limited time.  French President François Hollande is also trying to modify the Constitution so that suspects can be assigned to residence easily even outside of the state of emergency and their internet access limited or at least scrutinized. Making decisions motivated by urgency (and possibly fear as well) is not generally a good idea and it is important to consider what happens when those decisions are applied to too many people. Also how do you decide who is worthy of extra scrutiny? How do you stop scrutinizing people if it was all a mistake?

A "fiche S" in France is kept about persons who are suspected of being a security risk and police is supposed to keep a close eye on them. There are 10,000 people on that list. Not all 10,000 will be detained in residence, which ones should and shouldn't? There will almost certainly also be people on whom there is a "fiche S" who should be locked up and weren't and commit terrible acts. It's impossible to prevent such problems at times.

Should You, Potential Visitor, Change Anything As a Result of these Attacks?

How will Patrick's life in Paris change as a result? Probably not at all. The people of Paris have a desire to change nothing. Parisians do not want to change their way of life and it is very likely that within a few days, things will get back to normal. What may force us to change things are possible changes in technology such as secure messaging, cryptography, backdoor access to software, etc. It may be difficult to convince French people that requiring back doors is a bad idea.

The Effects of Terror Attacks on Tourism

10% of bookings in Paris were cancelled and another 30% were rescheduled which was to be expected. If Annie had made a reservation to go to Paris this week she might have postponed it too because increased police presence and site closings are a hassle. The likelihood of being caught in a terror attack is so small, but the inconvenience is real. It is important to realize that the aim of these attacks is to frighten us and it is better to go on despite our natural fears.

What the Word "Laïcité" Means in French

In English you've heard of the term "lay clergy" which means a person who is not a trained theologian who still participates in religious life. In France "laïcité" has a very different meaning. It is the person who is without theology period. The person you can trust to not bow to the priest because of their fear of damnation. French culture has this ingrained idea that one must protect one's self against the power of church.  That fear has now morphed into a fear of Muslims rather than Catholicism, but it comes from the same place.

Patrick feels that it's very difficult for people who are not French to understand the complicated relationship that French people have with all religion. In the US any criticism of religion is a big problem. In France it is not like that generally speaking. French people have the attitude that everyone can do whatever they want as far as religion is concerned, but don't bother the rest of us with it. Most of the time things go very smoothly with that attitude.

The Issue of Wearing the Veil in France

Growing up in France in the 70s, Muslim girls did not cover their hair in school for instance. Annie feels that the law of 2004 made things worse because you see a lot more Muslim women covering up in France today than you ever did. And they cover more too!

Patrick feels like it's a big mistake to condemn Islam over these isolated events. These attacks stem from a small number of Muslims who practice a particular brand of Islam that is not common. But it would also be a mistake to ignore the fact that there are some Muslims in France that preach a very extreme and violent type of Islam in the heart of France. This particular brand of violent Islam is also very opposed to the whole idea of secularism that France is so attached to. Wearing a head scarf is not an issue, what we have a problem with is what we call "ostentatoire" signs of religions such as a full burka.

As French people should we be accepting of that in the name of religious tolerance or should we be against it because it changes our culture and way of life? If you are attached to the rights of women, you have to care about these questions. It got to the point in Paris (where they specifically hired bus drivers from immigrant families in the hopes to deflate tensions) a few dozen bus drivers refused to drive a bus that had been driven by a woman. There was also the case of a woman who delivered her baby early, the nurse midwife the couple had selected couldn't be there, so the male doctor at the small rural hospital took care of her. After the baby was born the woman's husband punched him in the face because he was not happy that another man had touched his wife. We should not overstate the prevalence of these incidents, but they happen in France.

How Much Religious Accommodation Is Too Much?

France is a very liberal country compared to the US, and the law of 2004 may have been a reaction to too much leeway being given to religious practices that we find strange and uncomfortable. It's easy for anyone to see that punching a doctor in the face is wrong, but this manifests in much subtler ways. For instance, should schools provide pork-free meals or is that giving in to religious dictates? What about separating boys and girls in school? What about unisex buses? Where should France draw the line?

Annie thinks schools must accommodate children's needs by offering a vegetarian meal which would satisfy Jews, Muslims and vegetarian too. This is particularly true because in France you can't send your kids to school with a lunch you made at home. What if the kid has a medical issue? Patrick objects that in the case of a medical issue the school needs to make an exception, but should it make an exception in the case of religion. Annie thinks they should, Patrick isn't sure. This has become an issue because we're OK with religion as long as you don't make a big deal out of it, and asking for religious exception is too much.

Religion and Patriotism Are Not What Unify French People, the Republic Is!

We don't trust religion in France because it bases your decisions on fundamentals that cannot be questioned. Everyone who lives in France is supposed to stand for the Republic and the ideals that go along with it. That works in principle, but in reality a lot of people are left out, especially those who happen to have typical Algerian names. France attracted a lot of immigrants from North Africa in the 50s and housed them in large complexes at the periphery of large cities. Those places have become ghettos that are almost 100% segregated. And now you have second and third generation children of those immigrants from the 50s who live in segregated housing and are disenfranchised.  They are less integrated into French life than their parents and grandparents.

Where Do You Draw the Line?

French people have the idea that when you come to France you must leave your religion and your culture at the door. Immigrants who accept that integrate well, but it's a lot to ask. On the other hand if you accept that immigrants come with their differences and you want to accommodate them, where do you draw the line? Do you have public pools only for women and children? Do you have days when only women and children can go to the library?

Liberal-minded people want to be accommodating, especially in the aftermath of an attack such as the one we just had, but how far do you take your desire for better integration and acceptance? How much is too much to ask for a host country?

 Law Against Conspicuous Religious Signs in Schools

On this matter Patrick and Annie don't remember exactly what the law said, Annie says it was a mistake to ask for removal of religious signs (it would have been better to ban face coverings on security grounds), Patrick says that people would have seen through that and that it was couched in terms of security also. Here's what the law actually says:

« Art. L. 141-5-1. - Dans les écoles, les collèges et les lycées publics, le port de signes ou tenues par lesquels les élèves manifestent ostensiblement une appartenance religieuse est interdit.
Le règlement intérieur rappelle que la mise en oeuvre d'une procédure disciplinaire est précédée d'un dialogue avec l'élève.

In Elementary Schools, Junior Schools, and public High Schools, the wearing of symbols or clothing by which students conspicuously indicate their religious belief is prohibited. According to the rules of procedure, disciplinary action will not be taken until a dialog has been established with the student.

French legislators went directly to the issue of religion because that's where French people think you draw the line. A person's religion should have no impact on others. And yet, we are seeing more Kosher Restaurants, grocery stores, same with Halal and it can rub some French people the wrong way. These manifestations of difference go against the idea that we are all children of the Republic.

Conclusion: Making Sense of Terror Attacks in France

Hopes and Guesses About the Future

On the tech side, Patrick fears that bad decisions will be made pertaining to cryptography and back-doors. Recently the US government has decided that requiring back-doors is not effective. It appears that the perpetrators of the terrorist attack in Paris used non-encrypted text messages.

Patrick hopes that France will send the message loud and clear that we're not going to take this from groups of extreme religious fanatics while at the same time sending the message that Islam is a part of France just like any other religion.  He also hopes that we'll be more accepting of people named Mohamed or Abdoul be just as French as we are. That some guys named Charles is dark-skinned, etc. But at the same time it has to be extremely clear that you cannot come to France and preach in a French Mosque that music is a tool of the devil and has to be disallowed.

We both hope that we'll be more accepting of the great majority of Muslims who don't want to hurt us while at the same time coming down like a ton of bricks on the few who do. French people should learn not to push their buttons and they should learn not to push ours. We know for sure that terrorists want to divide us and we need to make sure that we don't do that.

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Discussed in this Episode

  • Muslim veil in France
  • Terror Attacks in France
  • lack of multiculturism in France


Health & Safety

2 Replies to “Making Sense of Terror Attacks in France, Episode 92”

  1. Annie & Patrick,

    As I had coffee this morning I listened to your podcast on the crazy attack on Paris. I enjoyed it and fully respect your perspectives. I have one word of caution.

    As an American I watched as my nation thrashed around like a wounded beast after the attack on the World Trade Center. We reacted out of fear and anger(which is what the perpetrators wanted). We ended up with Abu Grave, Guantanimo, over 4,000 dead American soldiers, at least 250,000 dead Iraqis and Afgans, and the waste of billions of dollars that could have fed and clothed all the people we killed for life.

    Still one of the biggest mistakes we made was the Patriot Act. Similar to the “temporary” security measures you have in France now. In America this did not turn out to be so temporary. Supplying or civilian police departments with military equipment, recording EVERYTHING anyone might say or post, searching without warrants, extra judicial execution of American citizens, the arrest and holding of American citizens without legal representation or a hearing before a judge is what we have now. It looks like these things are here to stay. We were told at the time that all of these were to be temporary. Not so much.
    It is clear from your comments that you love your republic and freedom. I just want to caution you to be careful. Politicians only extend liberty when forced to do so. They will take as much freedom as we let them. Once they are gone they are very tough to get back.
    I loved the discussion on assimilation and diversity. With the music and food comes the cultural weirdness. In America we have always struggled with it. For us it has been the Irish, the Italians, the Chinese, the Japanese, and now we are struggling to accept Muslims. Sometimes we do well and other times not. In time I hope we can all work it out and live well with each other.

    Sorry I will stop now. I rant therefore I am.

    Happy Trails,

    1. Thank you for an insightful rant Randy! The caution you bring up is getting a bigger voice in France since we recorded the episode, and that is heartening. Happy Thanksgiving!

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