By now most of my friends know that during the Charlie Hebdo shootings I was inside the Picasso museum which, next to the Elysee Palace, must be one of the most secure spots in the city. The lineups to get into the newly- renovated museum had been fou through Christmas and New Year’s so we purchased our tickets on-line and hoped that by this week the crowds would have gone back to their classrooms and offices. There were still substantial lineups, and in some of the galleries, overcrowding, but by the time we came out – no one. Hmm, we thought, should have come later. Would have had Picasso to ourselves. At the same time, my friend Genevieve was out for the first day of les soldes, the Paris Winter sales. Wandering the world’s most wonderful department store, the BHV, she was astonished at its emptiness since on this day of the calendar, hepped-up Parisiennes vie for the orange-ticket items and run to the cash with uncharacteristic enthusiasm. Interestingly, Genevieve and I both learned of the grim truth from our far-flung children, texting us to reassure themselves about their mothers’ safety.
At dinner that night chez Genevieve, surrounded by her friends, fear, angst, and anger flowed along with the champagne. “I’m terrified,” said Francoise -the -beautiful -dentist. “These young men , many of them are French, Catholics even.” She envisaged an unstoppable fifth column of citizen terrorists destroying the French way of life. The other Francoise, a gravel-voiced banker’s wife, was imagining how the families of the dead were feeling, their friends too. “Just because they stand up to these….. Islamists!” She spat the word and looked around uneasily. I thought it unlikely that any of these extremely tasteful and soignee bourgeoises had been faithful Charlie Hebdo readers. But that night in Paris we were all Charlie.
Freedom of expression, of self determination, of religious affiliation (or none) are hard-won French values we Canadians inherit and hold dear. For us, adoption of these ideals has been comparatively easy. But for the French, centuries of turmoil were needed to effect their ascendance. And now the French are coping with a post-colonial legacy they cannot control and that threatens the humanist freedoms their ancestors died to establish. This legacy takes the shape of disaffected, potentially violent urban youth, often born in France, but with parents from former colonies, who are picked up by extreme movements offering them that sense of belonging the Fifth Republic cannot or does not provide. I mumbled something to my dinner companions about trying to identify the lonely, the misfits, trying to lend support to those working with youth in the banlieues. I was thinking of my daughter Charlotte’s experience in a Paris high school. She was stunned that Ismail, 18 years of age in a grade where everyone else was 14, a giant lad with the ebony skin and pleasing manners of the Senegalese, was simply waiting out the year in order to drop out and go on the dole.
“Well, what does he do every day?” I asked.
“Nothing,” she said. “He just sits at the back of the class.”
“Don’t the teachers yell at him?” It was a bit of a joke. The teachers were always yelling in a way we found shocking, until it became funny.
“No. They leave him alone.”
I was mystified. Perhaps you don’t yell at a young man who could so easily punch your lights out. Or maybe you don’t yell at him because you have no hope for him, less even than he has for himself. Maybe such a young man goes on to become the ideal target of “recruiters”; I cannot believe that it has to be so.