Paris Attacks: Symbols and Choices

The Islamic State (ISIS or Daesh in Arabic) is either using a good public relations firm or has its own agents to chose telling symbols and timing for its actions. Within a short time period, the terrorist teams have destroyed a Russian plane with tourists returning from Egypt, badly damaged a Hezbollah center in Lebanon and attacked symbolic sites in Paris on a Friday 13, confirming all those who think that Friday 13s are an unlucky day.

Three symbolic sites in Paris were chosen by a well-coordinated team of some 12 active agents and an unknown number of “helpers”. Eight of the ISIS men had explosive belts and so were prepared to die in order to make their motives clear. The first attack was at the Stade de France, the main sports stadium on the edge of Paris. The President of France, Francois Hollande, and his guests were part of some 80,000 spectators to watch a football match (soccer) between the national teams of France and Germany. A half hour after the match started, three ISIS agents blew themselves up just outside the stadium. They killed themselves and one person who was passing by. Had they wanted to kill more people, they would have used their explosives an hour earlier when the street was full of people lined up to enter the stadium. But the symbolic meaning would have been lost in the reaction to the number of people killed. The symbolic strength of the action is that no one noticed the explosions and the football match went on normally. The French President has security agents with him who were informed of events, and he left at the half-time break. The symbol, however, is clear and goes back to the decline of the Roman Empire. As the Empire declines and will soon be replaced, the Emperors provide the people with bread and circuses to keep them happy. Thus, while the war is on, the French emperor watches a football match.

The second symbolic attack was in a heavily populated part of Paris. The French equivalent of a “Thank God it’s Friday” drink is a whole meal with friends or co-workers at a restaurant. This Friday 13th was particularly warm for the season, and a good number of people were eating outside at sidewalk tables. At least four ISIS agents in two rented black cars drove down a street with a good number of restaurants shooting from the car. People at an Asian and an Italian restaurant in particular were killed or wounded, but shots were fired at other restaurants and cafés along the street. Again the symbol is clear. “A war is on, people are hungry, and you are sitting around eating and drinking” − a sign of your decadence.” Since the French government began its air attacks on ISIS in Iraq, ISIS websites have been calling Paris “the capital of prostitution and obscenity.”

The third attack, all carried out at about the same time, was on a popular music concert hall, the Bataclan. For reasons I do not understand, as there is music in the Islamic world, including religious music, the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan and ISIS in Syria-Iraq consider that music is forbidden in Islam. The Bataclan is a large concert hall that specializes in Rock and Jazz. Friday 13th, the concert was “sold out” – thus some 1,500 persons had come to hear a California Rock group, named “Eagles of Death Metal.” Halfway through the concert, three ISIS agents moved into the music pit below the stage and started shooting, saying that the audience were “hostages”. There is a section of the French police trained to deal with hostage taking. They quickly got into phone contact with the ISIS argents. The police became convinced that negotiations were not possible and started to move in. Two of the ISIS group used their explosive belts killing themselves and others. The third ISIS person was shot by the police.

The French government’s reaction was swift. President Hollande had gone directly from the sports stadium to the Ministry of the Interior which is responsible for police and security forces. Hollande quickly made a televised statement saying that the attacks were “an act of war that was committed by a terrorist army, a jihadist army, Daesh.” A State of Emergency has been proclaimed, and police and the military have been placed on alert. Since the possibility of terrorism has been on the political agenda for some time, there was already an alert status. The State of Emergency is unlikely to change much, but it gives the police some additional powers to close off sensitive areas, to re-establish controls at the frontiers and to move the military from their home base toward Paris.

There are three longer-range challenges where choices must be made, choices made more complex by the attacks.

The first challenge concerns the climate conference to be held in Paris starting November 30th, Conference of the Parties 21 – popularly called COP 21. The French government host decided to hold the conference as planned. A good number of foreign government leaders were planning to attend. Most will probably do so, but security considerations are likely to play a large role in practice. In addition to foreign government leaders, a large number of NGO representatives were planning to be in Paris for parallel conferences. In addition there is a “Climate Pilgrimage” underway with a large number of people on foot or on bikes planning to come to Paris during COP21. Security considerations would have been important in any case, but now they are likely to be more visible.

Elections for regional parliaments in France are to be held December 6th and 13th, and the government said that they would be maintained while hoping that the election campaigns will not lessen the spirit of national unity manifested after the attacks. In France, most elections are in two segments: a first segment in which there are a good number of political parties present and a final round with only two or three parties who have obtained a set percentage of the vote. These December elections are particularly complex as the number of regions has been reduced and re-designed. Thus people will be voting for the first time in these new regions and many of the political figures running are new. In addition, the far Right, National Front Party, is gaining in strength, stressing unemployment and the increased danger from “foreigners” especially Muslims. The Paris attacks may increase the National Front vote.

The Paris attacks have increased public awareness of the conflicts in the wider Middle East and their possible impact on the domestic scene. The attacks build on an awareness due to massive refugee flows to Europe since July. The responses of the European governments have been very uneven and very divided. At the popular level all sorts of fears have been expressed. Non-governmental organizations dealing with refugees have not been able to cope with the large number of persons coming in a short time period. Obviously, there needs to be a reduction of armed violence, hopefully a cease-fire and good faith negotiations in the Syria-Iraq-ISIS-Kurds-Turkey conflict, in Yemen, in Libya, in Lebanon, and Israel-Palestine. The Paris attacks have the merit of highlighting in a cruel light the challenges faced by governments and those of us who are in non-governmental conflict resolution efforts.  

Rene Wadlow is President and a representative to the United Nations, Geneva, Association of World Citizens.