Wednesday, 8 November 2017

Pain and the night

There is a nasty undercurrent of frustration and violence in French society today. Everyday incidents of violence against people and property are often reported sparingly, if at all. It is only when some major outrage occurs that it captures the public imagination and media attention before sinking back into convenient oblivion.

The most recent to hit the media headlines was the trial that has just ended of a lone, home-grown terrorist, Mohamed Merah, who killed three French soldiers, all Muslims, and three Jewish children as well as the father of two of them, at a Jewish school in Toulouse in 2012. In fact it was not his trial at all, as he was shot dead by the police just days after his crime, but that of his family, particularly his elder brother, as well as a childhood friend. Both stood accused of complicity. They were defended by a leading Parisian lawyer and, given the cold-blooded nature of the killings and the police siege that ended the terrorist’s life, the media coverage was constant and comprehensive. The professional judges hearing the case concluded that the two defendants were not guilty of complicity in terrorist acts, for which they would have faced life imprisonment but only complicity in planning terrorist acts, for which the elder brother was sentenced to 20 years in prison and the friend, who provided the weapon of the crime, 14 years. The prosecution has appealed against the sentence on the grounds that it didn’t go far enough and the victims’ families were clearly distressed about what they considered to be the leniency of the verdict.

Over and above this brief outline of the case, what was striking throughout the trial was the evident hostility, if not downright hatred, of France and everything French on the part of the terrorist’s family. The verdict of complicity was clearly based on the fact that the young man himself, who had a record of petty crime but nothing worse at the time he went on his killing spree, had been radicalised and considered himself on a mission to kill infidels and Jews. Most of that radicalisation appears to have originated from within his family.

Of course it is only a very small minority of second and third generation youngsters from French Muslim families who are radicalised in this way, but the story of Mohamed Merah is surely not isolated either. Another report on the radio, that I heard only once, recalled that acts of anti-semitism have increased substantially in France in recent years. One out of every four attacks on people, it was reported, is carried out against Jews. Feeling increasingly threatened in their home country, more than 8,000 French Jews chose to emigrate to Israel last year, by far the highest number from any European country.

Even Halloween night, which has so far usually been synonymous with a good-natured outing for young kids in disguise, knocking on neighbours’ doors and calling out “trick or treat”, took on a more sinister turn this year, when it was reported, again very fleetingly, that dozens of cars had been torched in towns and cities all over France, and not just in blighted suburbs around Paris, Lyon and Marseille. This phenomenon has previously been a feature of New Year’s Eve only. Now it seems to have spread to Halloween.

These seemingly unconnected reports within two days would not have focused my attention so sharply had I not woken up on the morning of November 1st to find that a plastic chair had been taken from the next door garden and thrown over our sea wall, and that a gate at the end of a path that runs into the village had been broken from its hinges and was missing. Nothing more than misguided youthful spirits fuelled by a little too much alcohol, one might argue. I must admit that I’m not so sure. Without overstraining the link between terrorism, the gratuitous torching of cars and an attempt to destroy property in a quiet seaside village, is it not the case that natural youthful spirits and adolescent spleen, if not reined in and sanctioned by family or community or the authorities when it goes too far, can lead on to petty crime and sometimes worse? Add in the ingredients of the dreary life on council estates, failure at school and dim employment prospects and the mixture can become highly combustible, receptive to malevolent influences.

In France, a country that prides itself on striving to build an inclusive society, there are clearly too many young people, particularly from immigrant communities, who feel excluded and alienated. Turning these sentiments around will be a long and difficult task but it is surely better to start by facing them head on rather than sweeping them under the carpet.

The French popular singer, Renaud, best known for catchy tunes and sentimental love songs, tinged with mild social criticism, wrote and performed a song called “Deuxième Génération” (Second Generation) as long ago as 1986. It is certainly not one of his best-known songs and has never been given much airtime. Maybe it is simply too close to the bone for those who seek to influence our tastes and opinions. Judge for yourself by listening, particularly to the refrain, if you understand French. If not, you will have to make do with my own, inadequate, translation.

My name’s Sliman and I’m fifteen
I live with my folks in a run down flat
I’m already a graduate of crime
I’m no slouch, I’ve had more than one spat
But I’m the strongest in my gang,

A snakehead on my arm proves that.

(Refrain) I’ve nothing to gain, nothing to lose,

Not even life,
Only death lights up my dreary days,
I like only things that are shredded with a knife,
But what I like most is what gives you fright -
- Pain and the night.

And with the benefit of hindsight, what could be more prophetic than the last verse, in which Sliman identifies with fellow-sufferers in a distant land and wishes he could march off to fight with them?

To feel I belong somewhere
To a people and a land
I wrap around my hair
A keffieh in grey, white and black
And imagine us as brothers,
Stabbed together in the back.


  1. If I may: Three Jewish children, let's not forget them.

    1. Indeed. Sorry for the mistake, Joëlle, I have amended the text accordingly. Thanks for pointing it out.