Having arrived in France a short time ago, I am in Paris’s Xth arrondissement when the events of Friday the 13th of November 2015 occur. The population is petrified, paralysed. These are not the first attacks it undergoes, but this time, it is the nation that feels under assault. There are knee jerk reactions of exacerbated patriotism… Something is going to change, people say, France will not be as before… There are fears of a right-wing radicalization of the population. While on a photographic mission in Beauvais, I get interested in the after effects of these attacks. I observe the reactions, I listen in on the conversations, I take pictures of what I see, often furtively.
Regularly coming back to Paris, I return to Place de la République and Bataclan, but I also wander elsewhere, to get the pulse of the city and its inhabitants. For instance, I go to the Christmas market at La Défense, a commercial fair that attracts crowds but that is still allowed, unlike popular demonstrations, which are now forbidden. On my way, in the subway, I come across a homeless young man and young woman; they tell me how policemen are taking advantage of the situation to harass them, without apparent reason. They are incredibly nice, I talk with them for quite a while, they tell me about their tough childhoods in Paris suburbs. I also go to Vincennes, at the army recruitment centre, which is receiving a massive influx of applications since the events. The territory is now under high surveillance, security is being reinforced, bags are searched, leather jackets have to be opened, identity cards are being checked, dissidence is repressed, strikes on Syria are intensified… France is afraid, afraid of the other who is hounding her, but just who is this other exactly? I am trying to understand where all this is coming from. Are we really afraid of realizing it is also coming from us?
The night is warm for November, yet Paris is empty. The pleasant breeze that swathes the city stands in strange contrast to the mood of bewilderment prevailing in it. Café terraces are empty, nobody dares to go out, there are many police roadblocks: it’s the state of emergency. It is hard to think of anything else, to speak of anything else. On the Boulevard Voltaire, people gather near the Bataclan. The Place de la République becomes a kind of agora where citizens talk and move around with placards. People are in shock, saddened, they put forward hypotheses, hazard explanations. What has happened appears to be recreating social ties that are cruelly lacking in our societies. These solidarity gatherings are also quickly invaded by the media, tourists and merchants.
The Monument à la République turns into a makeshift memorial. I take pictures of it every day. It is never quite the same: it is done and undone as fresh flowers and new testimonials are added. Photographs, drawings and small posters are put there daily. The rain alters them, deforming the pictures and blurring them, erasing the words, spreading the ink around or making it run down to the ground. In the process, it gives them a new appearance, often more poignant than the original, a kind of battered look.
As I seek to understand how people react to the attacks, I note a resort to republican imagery; but just who are the enemies of the Republic supposed to be? Terrorists born in France… When the police finally brings them under control, does that mean we are in control of everything that goes on backstage? Who is recuperating history and presenting a Manichean view of the world, the better to defend their political and economic interests? “It is too easy and too simple to divide the world up in two”, as Godard said in the documentary Ici et ailleurs (1974). In the XIXth century, France claimed the universalism of her principles by exporting through war; her history has been marked by this political violence. Terrorism is not a new fact in this nation; the term itself is rather ambiguous, shifting according to the vision of the ruling government. In a beautiful text published the day after the attacks (1), journalist Mohamed Lotfi wrote: “The same political leaders who are calling upon us to avoid lumping together Islam and Islamism, and rightly so, are drawing our attention away from the complicity between jihadism and imperialism”; he went on to remind us that, “as with every new horror, the powers that be in politics, the media, the military and security are fostering this diversion.” The ability to strike will create ever more victims, in one camp as in the other, and will mostly kill civilians. Who is benefitting from the cycle of violence? What are the inner workings of today’s wars and what are their real stakes? On March 4 2016, French president François Hollande will award the Legion of Honour to the crown prince of Saudi Arabia. At the Élysée palace, Mohammed ben Nayef Al Saud will be given the highest French distinction for his efforts in the struggle against extremism and terrorism… And yet, the Saudi kingdom is a murderous dictatorship.
History is repeating itself… I am thinking of Quatrevingt-treize (Ninety-Three), a dark novel by Victor Hugo set under the Terror, a period characterized by the authoritarianism of the government during the French Revolution. On September 17 1793, the Law of Suspects was voted, marking a clear weakening of respect for individual freedoms. Today, these needful severities are again being imposed… Anyone can be suspected and searched, and a frightened population accepts these measures more easily. How are we to react to terror then? Societies are frozen in fear, which fosters division and carries away reasoning; once a legitimate moment of dread has passed, we have to think together in order to go forward beyond it. “Beaujolais, sausage and Spinoza for everyone”, as one testimonial suggests. “Neither to laughing, nor to cry, but to understand”, as Spinoza wrote.
1) LOFTI, Mohamed, “L’obscurantisme à deux têtes”, ‘Vol de temps’ blog, Voir monthly, Montréal, November 14 2015.
This body of work comprises over a hundred medium format images. It was created in France, in Beauvais and Paris, during an artist residency at Diaphane, Pôle photographique en Picardie, in partnership with Les Rencontres de la photographie en Gaspésie.