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Solidarity and “Je suis Paris”

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This is a guest post by Melissa K. Byrnes, who is Associate Professor of History at Southwestern University. Her research focuses on issues of migration, French Muslims, empire, activism, and human rights. She is finishing a book on post-1945 community activism for North African rights and welfare in the suburbs of Paris and Lyon. This post was written before the Saint-Denis happenings of this morning and she will have a follow up post covering them tomorrow, hopefully.

The moment the news broke about the horrendous attacks in Paris last Friday, a wave of mourning washed over the globe. From world leaders’ pronouncements to the tricolor-ization of Facebook profiles, nearly everyone, it seemed, was moved to demonstrate their connections with Paris and their allegiance to its values and symbolism. “Je suis Paris” echoed from all corners. The city of Paris seems uniquely powerful in its ability to marshal solidarity.

Of course, the Paris attacks fell only a day after the Islamic State perpetrated a horrific attack on Beirut–the deadliest suicide bombing in that city in more than twenty-five years. Beirut, though, is not receiving the same attention as Paris, and there are precious few Lebanese flags lighting up social media or global monuments. This leads to questions about the value we place on the lives of those who are not “Western,” who are not white.

In this context, “Je suis Paris” can be deeply problematic, an emblem of racial difference, an invocation of the idea that certain lives, and certain cultures, are more precious than others. “Je suis Paris” might mean that I am not—nor do I wish to see—anything that does not derive directly from a narrowly-defined canon of Western civilization. “Je suis Paris” can say that “they” are not. Intended as a heartfelt statement of togetherness, “Je suis Paris” has the power to deny solidarity.

It is easy for “Paris” to mean whiteness and wealth, empire and privilege and power. But that is not—and has never been—the only face of the city. Real Paris is far more rich and colorful, but it has its dark neighborhoods—places of poverty, of exclusion, of frustration and loss. Paris has forgotten corners, rooms of solitude and misery, communities from whom the majority has turned away, individuals who daily face discrimination, racism, xenophobia, and all the ills that follow from these. If “Je suis Paris,” than I am also all of these.

Yet Paris’s history is also one of expanding solidarity. Its glory derives from its ability to welcome new peoples, new ideas, new dreams. Paris converts us. Parisians have long been trouble-makers, thorns in the side of authority, the lifeblood of revolutions and progress. The newly ubiquitous French flag derived from Paris itself. Red and blue were the colors of the rebellious city with whom the king sought to make peace in 1789 (while the royal Bourbon white remained in the flag, the monarchy itself did not survive). For centuries, Parisians have demanded rights for and solidarity with the down-trodden. Paris has been the destination of refugees, revolutionaries, and political exiles. Above all, it has called countless generations of migrants—from all across the world—who have each made their contributions and sacrifices to the city.

Paris also reaches into the suburbs on the margins of French society—suburbs like Bobigny, Nanterre, and Sarcelles that are home to large minority communities; suburbs like Saint-Denis that have, it turns out, much to teach us. My first research trip on the 13-Metro line out to Saint-Denis was in October 2005. I was immediately impressed by the close attention city officials had paid to predominantly Muslim North African migrants and the relationships they built. In the 1950s, for example, Saint-Denis’s mayor was outspoken in his support for Algerian nationalists fighting for independence and scathing in his critiques of the French imperial system that sought to subjugate and marginalize Algerians in North Africa and on the French mainland. He and his colleagues invoked a sense of solidarity, a workers’ brotherhood that did not recognize national divisions, a common struggle against oppression. The city offered a host of social programs for local North African migrants and attempted to bring migrants into the active political community to affect policies at the local, regional, and national levels.

In less than a month, I witnessed just how powerful these local traditions were. In November 2005, the suburbs of Paris and other major French cities were engulfed in riots, sparked by the deaths of two boys of African descent who had been chased by police. The worst of the violence—mostly the destruction of property and the very French tradition of burning cars—was in the surrounding region of Seine-Saint-Denis. And yet the city of Saint-Denis itself did not have a single incident The city’s habits of inclusion—developed to address the needs of nineteenth-century European migrants (Bretons, Italians, Spaniards) and readily adapted in the mid-twentieth century for North and Sub-Saharan Africans—had ensured its safety. While state officials—and many individuals—redoubled discriminatory rhetoric and policies, Saint-Denis’s city hall hosted open meetings and decried prejudice.

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Photo of Place de Republique, Sunday, November 15 used with permission of photographer

The Stade de France, one of the targets in Friday evening’s murderous attacks, is in Saint-Denis. Yet, even in the face of bloody, senseless brutality, the city’s commitment to solidarity and openness has held. The current mayor’s first statement on Friday evening called on the community not to “give way to fear.” On Sunday, he elaborated*

By attacking the northeast of Paris and the neighborhood around the Stade de France, the terrorists targeted sites of diversity, of social inclusion, youth, tolerance, and openness to others.

Now as ever, terrorism must be combatted in an implacable manner, relentlessly.

Now as ever, it is by coming together that we will be stronger than they are.

Let us reject the confusion and the hatred of others that encourage turning inwards, racism, the lure of radicalism, and violence. Let us stand in solidarity. Let us proclaim, loud and strong, our will to live together and our attachment to the democratic values of liberty, equality, fraternity.

Perhaps we should all be saying, “Je suis Saint-Denis.”

Solidarity is a powerful weapon and shield. France’s military response—to continue (even strengthen) its role in the Syrian airstrikes—is understandable and expected. This was, after all, the policy that the attackers in Paris purportedly sought to undo. Yet in the medium- to long-term, militarization is not the answer—especially not within France’s own borders. This weekend’s state of emergency must give way quickly to a resumption of openness, lest France tread too far down the path of an enhanced security state. France must also consider the connections between the underlying causes of the current refugee crisis and the agenda of those who launched the Paris attacks. Solidarity must cut across borders and social divisions.

The spirit of open doors swept across Paris on Friday evening; #porteouverte was used (in many languages) to invite people into private homes and other safe spaces, to wait out the chaos together. A logical extension—though a difficult one—would be to open doors to other victims of the Islamic State’s terror and brutality. As many have pointed out Syrian and other refugees have long been victims of such attacks. A significant number of the refugees streaming into Europe are fleeing the Islamic State and the Syrian Civil War. Though panic has led to demands that borders slam shut (even in parts of the US) welcoming refugees into Western Europe would be prudent as well as humane. Extremist groups like the Islamic State count on their violence to sow division. Far better to embrace Muslim residents (citizens and refugees alike), to stand with them in a show of strength and unity against extremism and violence.

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Solidarity also requires denouncing senseless violence against civilians across the world and mourning publicly with those they’ve left behind. Because if we are Paris, we must also be Beirut—and Damascus, and Baghdad and Baga We must pay attention to atrocities and suffering even when they don’t occur on our doorstep—Friday evening showed us just how quickly these can show up.

In 1789, Paris’s revolutionaries knew that true liberty and equality require fraternity in order to flourish. It’s time we remember what real solidarity means—and begin to act in its name.

*my translation

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