Ville Kilpeläinen reflects on living in Paris and the mentality of the city after a series of tragic events
13 November 2015: I remember putting our then six-months-old daughter to bed and going to sleep after nine o’clock, putting our phones on silent. I remember sleeping well all through the night – being a new parent, even the tiniest sound your baby makes is enough to wake you up, but there is no other sound loud enough to wake you up when you’ve been sleep deprived for 6 months.
Cut forward eight hours. We wake up, feed/change/play, and everything is just like every morning. Then I check my phone. At 6am it’s kind of hard to process dozens of texts/Facebook/Whatsapp and push notifications on your home screen. First messages I see are “are you alright?”, “where are you?” and the like. I have no idea what’s happened, so I check the news: 130 dead, 368 injured in a terrorist attack. First we’re in shock. Then we read on and it REALLY hits us: it could’ve been us. We’ve been to almost all of these places, doing the things these people were doing. Since that day, Paris hasn’t really been the same.
We’ve been to almost all of these places, doing the things these people were doing. Since that day, Paris hasn’t really been the same.
State of emergency
We all know how it started: first the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January 2015. The whole country was in shock after that, but after a period of mourning and a cathartic ”Je suis Charlie” campaign and a peace march attended by several heads of states and millions of people in Paris and around the world, the mood changed back to familiar French morosity with a hedonistic tinge. Everything was relatively normal until the November attacks, after which the country has been in a state of emergency. Later in the spring when the Fifa Euro 2016 football tournament was starting the government also introduced an app to alert people of terrorist attacks. In the event of an attack, the app screen turns red and gives instructions on how to react. Eerily, the app makes no sounds so as not to expose people if they are hiding at the moment the alert is sent.
As if this was not enough, the spring brought with it “four horsemen of apocalypse” –esque plagues: Oil refinery strikes (blocked oil depots, nationwide fuel shortages), train strikes, the flooding of the Seine in Paris (the worst in over 30 years, forcing The Louvre and Musee d’Orsay to move their collections and shut their doors from public) and demonstrations against new labour laws (with violent clashes with the police).
Later in the spring when the Fifa Euro 2016 football tournament was starting the government also introduced an app to alert people of terrorist attacks. In the event of an attack, the app screen turns red and gives instructions on how to react.
After UEFA Euro 2016 and the Tour de France in June/July the government officials were high-fiving each other for a job well done. President François Hollande was ready to lift the state of emergency and the general mood shifted to positive again. Bastille Day was supposed to be a celebration of getting through the difficult spring and a kick off for les vacances (the holidays). And then a truck driven by Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel slams into the crowd at Nice’s Promenade des Anglais and the state of emergency seems to be the new normal.
During the state of emergency, the police can do warrantless searches, seize people without judicial oversight and ban public gatherings. The state of emergency has proven to be very divisive and ineffective: since November, 4,000 administrative searches have been made, of which only seven percent have led to court proceedings and it has been used against groups protesting various environmental and political issues (a protest against the new employment laws was cancelled just last month).
During the state of emergency, the police can do warrantless searches, seize people without judicial oversight and ban public gatherings.
Liberté, égalité, fatigué
The French are known to be a melancholic lot. Jean Cocteau described the French as ”Italians in a bad mood”. It was allegedly Albert Camus who nailed French existentialism with ”should I kill myself or have a cup of coffee?” French depression has always been of the cool kind: sitting in a café (preferably Le Deux Magots or Café de Flore on boulevard St Germain), staring into middle distance with a Gauloise hanging from your mouth, contemplating the futility of it all. It was always existential, philosophical and romantic. Now that melancholy has turned into a concrete, actual fear that is permeating the society.
At first glance nothing has really changed in Paris: the boulevards and terraces are still bustling with people and the metro is always packed like a can of confit de canard. Then you start noticing the soldiers and the police with machine guns roaming the streets. The heavy blockades in the entrances to any pedestrian promenades. The metal detectors and bag checks in the entrances of shopping malls. And this is in the affluent parts of the city and not the banlieue (the suburbs). On a side note, it seems only the flights out of Charles de Gaulle airport are safe; there is a pretty good chance that the luggage handlers are on strike and if they are not, the bomb would never make it to the plane anyway. If you’ve ever transferred flights at CDG you know what I mean (I’m glad I live in a country that appreciates dark humour).
The French are known to be a melancholic lot. Jean Cocteau described the French as ”Italians in a bad mood”. It was allegedly Albert Camus who nailed French existentialism with ”should I kill myself or have a cup of coffee?”
Partly due to these measures, France has seen its tourism dwindle and Paris has seen the biggest decline in “liveability” of any European city, according to The Economist. The recent burkini ban is not making the country any more appealing either.
Paris est une fête
In conversations with the locals the (threat of) attacks is rarely mentioned although people must be thinking about it. It seems like there is a big fat elephant standing knee deep in the Seine. On the one hand, there is nothing you can do, so why keep on talking about it? On the other hand it seems people have accepted the new state of affairs and adapted to it, like people living in large cities usually do. But individuals and families (especially ones that have children) in our immediate surroundings have been talking about moving out of Paris or even out of the country. Suddenly, job offers from one’s own country or any other country have been met with more interest in the expat community (which we are part of). We are thinking about it, too. It’s not that we are afraid of an attack – the likelihood to be hit by one is 27 times lower than the odds of dying in a car accident – but the effect they have on a society. Do we want to raise a child in a city where the children in a municipal crèche (kindergarten) can’t go to the park to play? Where school trips have been banned and parents are advised not to “linger” – or park their cars in front school buildings? How do we know these changes are not permanent?
Paris’s motto since 1358 has been Fluctuat nec mergitur (Tossed but not sunk), which describes the city and its inhabitants perfectly.
After all this one can’t be blamed for thinking that living in Paris would be awful but it’s not. Sure, there are less tourists than before but that’s not necessarily a negative thing. Us expats who are starting to feel like locals are not running away and neither are our friends. Hemingway said Paris est une fête (Paris is a party) and this has not changed. It’s not like some terrorists could stop the French from enjoying their apéro on the terrace comme d’habitude. Have you seen what happens when you try to limit the freedom of the French? Paris’s motto since 1358 has been Fluctuat nec mergitur (Tossed but not sunk), which describes the city and its inhabitants perfectly. The French are not ones to accept the status quo and do nothing. They will not go down without a fight. And if they end up beaten, they just dust themselves off, light a ciggie and somehow end up stealing your boy/girlfriend and give you the old gallic shrug: c’est la vie.