French Fears Call for Transatlantic Dialogue

Michael Drager, Loyola:

I arrived in France exactly one week after the Charlie Hebdo attack. In the days leading up to my journey, the American media led a firestorm surrounding the tragic events, with some news outlets likening Paris to a war zone. I constantly received updates from my French program directors, the U.S. embassy, and Loyola University, ensuring me that my safety was of the utmost importance. However no amount of assurance, good will, or empathy can prepare you for traveling to a place rocked by a major terror attack.

Security at Charles de Gaulle was impeccable, with groups of three soldiers spaced every few feet. Signs of “Je suis Charlie,” adorned the magazines, posters, and t-shirts throughout the airport. As I made my voyage down to the southern city of Montpellier, the security precautions seemed to mimic what I had seen from just a few hours in the airport, with groups of three French soldiers, quietly keeping the peace in train stations, public squares, and major attractions. Although I was told the South runs at a calmer pace than the Île de France, I soon saw how even the tranquil atmosphere in Montpellier, could be penetrated by major geopolitical events. Since arriving two weeks ago, I’ve seen three protests for Islamic inclusion, a mini “Je suis Charlie” rally, and of course the comfort of armed soldiers on my way to school every day.

During my orientation, our French program director, sat down the Anglophones in my group from America, Canada, and Australia, and discussed how the French have no conception of blasphemy, because as I was told, their freedom of expression is even more accessible than that of the U.S. They continued to say that France has never lived in such fear, and that it is an exciting time to be in the country, as it is unlike any other time in the nation’s history. However, being the cynical Political Science major that I am, the tiny patriot in me, couldn’t help but take a little offense to her comments. When I arrived, I vowed to myself to not be an ignorant American, and to really immerse myself in French culture. However, the little Stephen Colbert in my head, couldn’t help but say, “Well of course you, France, have never had to worry about terrorism, because the U.S. has been worrying about it for you.” While this extremely vulgar and crude manifestation of world events of course never reached my program director’s ears, this experience made me wonder about the completely different world Europe has been living in, and America’s absence from that particular reality.

When she said those words, all of the Americans rolled their eyes, as if to say, “We’ve been living in a state of fear since 9/11, and by the way-our attack killed 3,000 people.” I just can’t help but point out the utter differences in the American narrative and the French. For us, the constant surveillance, soldiers on the street, and extra police presence doesn’t make us blink an eye. But from an outsider’s perspective, the placid French are quite unnerved by this new security state. I’m not implying the French are underestimating the events that happened in Paris, in comparison to the events that happened in New York, Pennsylvania, and Washington, but simply pointing out that all of our attacks are just beads on the same blood covered rosary of Islamic extremism, and that no matter whose attack was grander, or killed more people, they nonetheless call for a stronger Euro-American dialogue. It was apparent that these directors and aides, who were academics and normal French citizens, had believed that somewhere along the way our foreign diplomacy had skipped over one of our closest allies.

My first few days here, have made me see that America and in particular France, need to do a better job of coordinating on events of this magnitude. France is one of America’s most cherished allies. I had my doubts before coming, but seeing the way they have treated us with respect, curiosity, and overall goodwill proves that their republic is a friend of ours. I was ashamed to be an American, when President Obama failed to travel to France to stand arm-in- arm with EU nations. It’s sad in a way, that for a country who has been begging for increased European action in the global fight on terrorism, the U.S. did not send an envoy to the protest, where it seemed Europe had finally gotten the message. I was ashamed when our government retroactively sent John Kerry to meet with President Hollande, the day I arrived, one week after the attacks. It disgusted me how we sent our version of a foreign minister and not our President to France, as an afterthought; as a response to global media criticism on the part of the Obama administration. But don’t worry, my fellow Americans, the French got the message that this was a failure on the part of the American administration, and not the American people.

France has a huge foreign policy agenda and is second in the number of global embassies behind only the U.S. France has a vibrant democracy that is different in many ways from our own, even if we do simply like to categorize our system as the best. Furthermore, Americans don’t forget France’s aide in our independence from the British, and the French don’t forget America’s aide in both World Wars. The Franco-American alliance is by far one of our strongest alliances, rivaling that of our Canadian or British alliances. When I saw Francois Delattre, the former French Ambassador to the U.S., speak at an event in Baltimore a year ago, it became apparent that at least on paper, and that at least rhetorically we have a strong alliance. Why then, have there been a gap and a failure in this alliance, to allow for a space of misunderstanding between our nations? Why did my program directors fail to empathize with America’s dark day, and why did the Americans in the room take offense to French caution and fear? These answers will not come easily, but I pose them simply as food for thought.

In closing, I additionally feel that America needs to take a greater role in the Anglophone world. These past few weeks, I have learned how France, maintains tight relations with other French speaking countries around the world in la Francophonie. Conversely, the Australians, the Canadians, and the British all maintain a cultural-linguistic bond that I can say America is simply absent from. I have grown especially fond of the Australians here. After a long day of speaking French, it is simply a gift from heaven to go out with friends and speak English. However, as close as we have gotten to the Australians and the Canadians in our program, I can’t help but feel jealous of the bonds in la Francophonie, as well as the former Commonwealth nations. The other principal Anglophone countries of the U.K., Ireland, New Zealand, Canada, and Australia, are the closest to us culturally, in physical appearance and diversity, and of course language. From my two weeks here, I feel America has simply not done enough to play its role in our Anglophone alliances. I am grateful for the respect the friends I have made from these other countries have shown me, but at the same time I am jealous of la Francophonie, and the bonds that language can create.

For those who read this, of course this is solely opinion. My thoughts come from living in France for two weeks, and seeing how events at the highest of international levels, have impacted a bunch of college students trying to find the cheapest baguette on the streets of Montpellier. If we claim to be the best country on the face of the earth, then we sure as hell need to start acting like it. This experience, believe me, has made me love my life in America more than anything. But it has also opened my eyes to the reality that America has been a real thorn of an ally. If we truly dream of living in a world free of terrorism and free of fear, then why couldn’t we have given even a little more of an effort in our response to the French attacks? A recent CNN article stated, “An administration official added: “As far as public signs of French solidarity from the U.S. — don’t forget several public statements from the President, his call to [French President Francois] Hollande and a condolence stop to the French embassy.” Yes, I’m sure it took so much effort to tell a White House secretary to push a button and talk for five minutes. I just hope that if we ever suffer such a mired day as 9/11 in the future, our allies will have the decency to send their leaders to our shores in solidarity. Just a closing side note, Turkey, who by the way locks horns almost daily with France over the issue of EU membership, sent President Erdoğan to Paris. If that doesn’t make U.S. policy circles nauseous, than we really will need a road map to find our way out of our own asshole.

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