Unless a major event is unfolding, I don’t follow French news closely when I’m in Canada. I wasn’t there during the last few major current issues—the anti same-sex marriage protests, the terrorist attacks in Paris in 2015 and in 2016, the Bastille Day attack in Nice, the presidential campaign, the labour code reform protests, the temporary “state of emergency” measures about to become permanent—but I did try to form an opinion from abroad. It wasn’t easy. No media is completely bias-free. French newspaper can miss the big picture while Canadian and American media sometime blow up issues that are anecdotal in France or misread the culture—for instance, no matter what Fox News claims, there are no absolute “no-go zones” for non-Muslims and police in Paris.
So when I go to France, from my tiny neck of the woods, I try to see if anything changed. Are there more panhandlers? Do people look happy? Did prices go up? Do locals look stessed out, scared, confident, hopeful? What issues make headlines?
For instance, I was wondering how France and French people were dealing with the series of deadly terrorist attacks that started in 2015. Before each of our last three trips, I felt like I was visiting a friend recovering after a major surgical process. The attacks, perpetrated by French citizens in the name of ISIS, were so sudden, so random… how do you even recover from this? How do you get over the fact that a concert hall, a bar, a famous landmark can be turned into a war scene in a matter of seconds?
Much to my relief—and my surprise—, French don’t seem to be overly paranoid. Sights are still visited, bars are full, large gatherings—both formal and informal—are still commonplace despite a “state of emergency” proclaimed in 2015 and extended until November 2017, pending a possible new permanent counter-terrorism legislation.
Keep in mind that Western France hasn’t been directly targeted by any major attack so far—so my perspective may be wrong—but remember that France isn’t a huge country either, Paris is about 400 kilometres from Nantes.
After the Charlie Hebdo attacks, just over 10,000 soldiers were deployed to patrol or protect sensitive sites as part of the Opération sentinelle, a component of the state of emergency measures. I saw them in Nantes and around, in combat fatigue and carrying machine gun in 2015 and in 2016. However, I have yet to see a patrol this year, even though the operation is still ongoing.
There is a police presence in the streets but not noticeably more than before. I haven’t noted stricter access control policies in train stations, stores or attractions. Many businesses and public place display the red-and-black “plan Vigipirate” poster reminding security tips (i.e. “if you see something, say something”) and emergency phone numbers. Generally speaking, it’s an appeal to people’s sense of individual responsibility and “civic duty.”
I don’t feel particularly unsafe in France. Tragic news like the recent Barcelona terror attacks are commented, but the most commonly heard sentence is “what can we do?” Europe mourns, analyzes, and eventually pieces together all these random, cruel attacks but also feels powerless to stop them.
Indeed, it’s disconcertingly easy to kill, especially when the perpetrator doesn’t care who his victims are and whether he lives or dies. You don’t even need guns or explosives—a vehicle or a knife will do. And it’s virtually impossible to suspect everyone or carry on checks everywhere. I walked through Nantes’ train station very often—every passenger has bulky luggage and backpacks, some people are sweating and nervous, others look like they are talking to themselves. My point is, good luck reporting suspicious activity!
In the end, I kind of like the French philosophy, a mix of hedonism and fatalism. People are aware of terrorist threats but they carry on.
Terrorists want to spread hate and fear.
For the sake of being contrary, French won’t react with fear.