The other night ARTE, the German-French cultural channel, explained why it’s such a rare thing to see a French flag displayed anywhere but on a government building: In Europe, flag-waving is associated with nationalism, and Europeans now realize that nationalism – promoted by newspapers, schools, authors, even musicians including Claude Debussy – was largely responsible for the butchery and destruction of the Great War. Not so long ago, politician Ségolène Royal’s suggestion that French homes should display the flag to show their pride in their country the way American families do met with ridicule.
But now, walking through the town where I live and others like it, you see flags displayed in windows and on houses – sometimes a bit incompetently. Those who heeded François Hollande’s call to fly the flag realized they didn’t know where to go to buy one. For now, people print their own flag on their home printer and tack it up in a protective plastic sleeve or on an improvised flagstaff.
Or they put out sets of three candles – one blue, one white, and one red. And on cars you see decals that read Même pas peur (“Ya didn’t even scare me.”) – a reference to the attacks of Friday, November 13th. Europe is at war again, we’ve been told; but this time the enemy is something called “terrorism” or “Islamism”.
Also, on stop signs and road signs, on walls, you see stickers that read “Stop Islamicization!” We see one on the mailbox in front of a Muslim-owned grocery. For as long as I’ve lived in France – nearly 30 years -, most local convenience stores have been run by Frenchmen of North African descent, who took over long ago from owners who are not willing to stay open at night and on Sundays. The “identity” group behind the sticker is almost certainly linked to the Front National, which hopes, with its recently-applied veneer of respectability and photogenic female leader, to ride the fear generated by the influx of refugees and the recent terror attacks to victory in the regional elections in the coming weeks. The spectre of Daesh/ISIL is concretized in photos of “terrorist armies” waving their black flag.
The weekly Canard enchaîné carried a story about a Mass celebrated in honor of the victims of the terror attacks in the cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris attended by the Mayor, a cabinet minister, the presidents of the National Assembly and Senate, a former president, and two former prime ministers during which the French national anthem, the Marseillaise, was played on the Great Organ. The Canard pointed out that in 1918, Prime Minister Georges Clémenceau, a fierce opponent of anti-Semitism and nationalism, refused, in the name of the Republic’s sacred principle of secularity, to allow members of his government to attend a ceremony of thanksgiving at Notre-Dame to celebrate the Armistice. The same principle of secularity – separation of church and state – has been invoked recently to justify the banning of the Islamic veil in schools. No one would dare point out a time like this that such a measure has less to do with protecting the values of the Republic than with undermining the Front National. Meanwhile, Catholics write to the Right-tending daily Figaro to protest the inappropriateness of the anthem’s being played at Mass, pointing out that “the Republic has always been the enemy of religion”.
This mixture of politics, religion, and nationalism does remind one of the Great War: In Europe and in America, when it came to depicting the Other, the Enemy, as inhuman and barbaric, truth was indeed the first casualty of the war. The huge propaganda campaigns waged to convince Europeans that they owed the Republic not only a life of hard work, but their sons and to convince Americans to get involved have never really ended. TV and film and popular songs are still programming us to trust our leaders just as we trust the makers of the breakfast cereals and cleaning products we buy. A week after the Friday the 13th attacks, 12 Socialist legislators tried to resurrect a measure dating from 1955, during the unrest over Algeria, that would allow the government to take censorship measures against the press, radio, cinema, and theatrical performances. Such measures would surely be adopted now if the executive felt they were needed. But in fact the media’s self-censorship makes them unnecessary.
The real war, of course, is the same one we’ve all been passive participants in all our lives – the war to secure lucrative resources and keep sovereign peoples from using those resources for the good of the greatest number. Declaring war on “terror” or “Islamism”, like declaring war on the “Hun” in 1914, ensures that the great engine of militarism that drives that domination and the economies that serve it will continue to churn out death, turning human lives and precious resources into more gold for a small global elite – an elite to whom nationalism and religion are little more than a joke.
The people of France, of Europe, and of the world should not count on their politicians or their media to lead them out of their blindness to the economic and geopolitical motives behind the immigrant crisis, the proxy war in Syria and their own countries’ complicity therein, and the development of jihadism. Meanwhile, the war goes on.