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La Vie en Rose, with a hint of grey

La Vie en Rose, with a hint of grey France between terrorism, social movements, and football

On the evening of November 13th 2015, gunmen stormed into the Bataclan concert hall in Paris, killing 89 people. That very same night, shooters and suicide bombers slaughtered 40 more people in coordinated terrorist attacks in five other locations, in the centre of Paris and at Stade de France. France was at war, as President François Hollande superfluously claimed in the immediate aftermath. If inaccurate, it was a, at least, an adequate representation of how the French had started feeling, like living in a war-torn country, with Paris shaken that night by the strongest attack since World War II. The effect was compounded by having occurred just 10 months after the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack, which observers had termed, at the time, the worst terrorist attack in a generation. At the time, few could have imagined that it was just the beginning and the records would keep being shattered.

Now, on June 10, 2016, Euro 2016 kicked off on Stade de France, the exact place where several suicide bombers blew themselves up on the night of November 13. During the opening ceremony and the first game (between Romania and les bleus), the stadium became a place full of life, where standing ovations and songs of joy, faith, and victory were shouted by overly enthusiastic fans. In fact, France’s national motto these days might as well become Liberté, égalité, footbalité, given the special place football occupies in French public consciousness until the end of championship. After all, football, as fraternity, is also about working together, mutual aid and fair play. Yet the same place was witnessing, just seven months prior, the opposite in terms of emotions.

A few days after Euro 2016 started, the Parisian City Hall announced its plans to clear the famous statue from Place de la République of all the tokens and tributes brought there in memory of those who were killed in the terrorist attacks, as well as the other tags and offerings related to different social causes, such as the recent changes in the French labour law. Covered in flowers, candles and banners filled with messages of sorrow and hope, the statue of Marianne, a national symbol of the French Republic, represented for a long time a cathartic place where pain, hate, faith or courage surpassed the boundaries of the individual to become enmeshed in a united demonstration of revolt, encouragement and solidarity of feeling, a spot of collective grievance against social injustice and tragedy. However, according to the City Hall, the statue, as a part of Parisian heritage, needs to regain its original appearance. But will this act of cleaning also remove recent history from people’s hearts and minds? Is this a way of making the French society move on, or a sign that it already did?

<< Même pas peur! >>… and life went on.

It is widely acknowledged that, in terrorism, killing is not the final purpose. The violent act itself is merely a tactic to create terror and fear, to divide a society and shake it to the very core. We, the survivors, are the ultimate targets. It is our reaction to the violence we have witnessed that represents the end goal. The terror attacks from Paris shocked the international scene, with messages and tributes of solidarity coming in from all over the world. The attacks were reported, debated, interpreted and criticized at an international level, but probably not understood in the same way as those living in France did. Indeed, when you wanted to spend Friday evening in a cosy café and you hear gun shoots across the street while witnessing how people start falling one by one, you understand and experience terrorism differently than you do when you just see the disembodied simulacrum on the news. The closest thing is staying awake an entire night checking that all your friends and relatives are safe while hearing the sirens of the ambulances rushing to rescue those who could still be saved. You understand terrorism differently, because this time it is here, and it is real. In fact, you understand life differently. And so did the French people, who decided that, as long as they are alive, they would rather act than become overwhelmed by sadness and anger.

Covered in shock and tears, France did not give in. In the days following November 13, we have witnessed what was probably one of the most beautiful demonstrations of love, peace and understanding that ever occurred. Instead of hiding in their homes, people gathered on the streets to show their support to each other and to fight together for a less violent world. Under the state of emergency, public gatherings were forbidden, as they were creating opportunities for further violent acts, exposing people to additional risks, but the French seemed to care less about the risks and more about the desire to fight for the greater values. People of all ages, religions, and nationalities were out in the street, carrying flowers, candles, or banners with messages. One message said <<Même pas peur!>> (Not even scared!) and, while this originally represents a childish retort, it became the slogan that was very often heard in France after the terror attacks, almost as a mantra that was supposed to heal society’s grief and pain, giving it strength to carry on its life. And so it happened. Somewhere in between rage against terrorists and a strong desire for peace, the French people continued their lives, respectful, sober, and yet proudly defiant.

On the other end, at a political level, extraordinary measures were taken. From the military response in Syria, to a very strong increase in security, temporary border closure and an extended state of emergency that was prolonged, for a third time, until the end of July 2016, France declared war on terrorism and extremism, wanting to prove, at the same time, that it is a nation that knows how to defend itself. However, tougher security measures also gave rise to strong criticism, as they are associated with a violation of civil rights and constitutionally protected liberties. The bone of contention was the consecutive extension of the state of emergency, which gives exceptional powers to the authorities, paving the way for possible abuses. But, despite growing concerns that increased security comes at the expense of curtailed civil liberties, raised by numerous international organizations (including the United Nations), the majority of the French people seem to accept this trade-off, at least according to the results of a poll conducted at the end of last year. The critics targeted also the legislation passed by the French government immediately after Charlie Hebdo, which expanded the state’s surveillance powers by allowing it to monitor electronic communication without the authorization of a judge, and coerces Internet service providers to share metadata information with French intelligence.

Yet terrorism made France also pay other costs. And the most immediate one was related to tourism. While representing around 7% of its GDP, tourism is one of France’s largest and most important sectors. After all, France is considered the number one tourist destination in the world. But, in the wake of the terror attacks, hotel bookings were down by 30%, and a strong decrease in demand was also felt by other service providers. To this, we should add the costs of enhanced security measures. However, the first order and short-term effects faded away, without a strong impact on France’s GDP. Still, second order effects may instil long-term consequences that should worry us more, and which are not yet accurately formed or discerned. If terrorism becomes endemic rather than sporadic, the norm rather than the exception, not only tourism, but also foreign investment, will be strongly discouraged. Unfortunately, it is yet not completely clear if the worst is over, or if France is actually in the early stages of an even more prolonged terrorist turbulence, where its experiences so far count as just an explosive beginning.

Loi travail? Non, merci!

Recently, France had to face a new challenge, but this time an internal one. Terrorism ceased to be the hottest topic (although it remained an important one), while waves of protesters took to the streets of Paris and other major cities since the beginning of March 2016, in massive demonstrations against la loi El Khomri – a legislative proposal of the current French Minister of Labour, Myriam El Khomri, whose purpose is to modify the current 3,280-pages long Labour Code in an attempt to make the labour market more flexible. The proposed labour reforms are rather modest, and mostly seek to simplify the current labyrinthine regulatory framework, allowing employers to negotiate their own employment conditions directly with their employees, to hire and fire workers in an easier manner, to extend working hours beyond the 35 hours per week schedule that is now included in the French law, and also to reduce holidays and breaks. As an example, under current legislation, it can take years for an employer to fire an employee, sometimes having to compensate him through settlements worth many thousands of euro.

While workers understandably do not want to lose their benefits and advantageous working conditions by remaining passive in front of a legislative initiative that will shift the balance of power towards the employer, they might have taken their discontent a bit too far. In the last months, and especially in the last weeks, they covered France in enormous street protests that sometimes escalated in violent clashes with the police, and strikes that threaten to slow down or even block (the case until a few days ago) the world’s sixth biggest economy. At the end of May, a blockade of oil refineries left around 2,300 gas stations empty or forced them to ration sales at the pump, while motorists were queuing up to fill their tanks while they still could. However, thousands of people were still not able to drive to work. Rail transport did not seem to be a good option either, as public transport workers went on strikes that seriously disrupted rail traffic all over France, including between Paris and its Northern suburbs. After the fuel blockade, nuclear plants, which provide most of France’s electricity, also joined the strikes, with 16 out of 19 facilities operating at reduced power. On top of that, Europe’s largest food market in Rungis was blocked by protesters just one day before the beginning of Euro 2016. And everything happened in front of a backdrop of protests that descended into violence, roads that were blocked due to public riots, and demonstrations inflamed by gangs with stones and firebombs, as if France were taken hostage by its own citizens. Yet, polls show that, for 60% of French people, the movement against this piece of legislation is justified.

On the other side of the aisle, the government stood by its arguments. First, the cost of labour in France is considered by economists to be very high, as they blame the restrictive labour legislation for the weak economy. Second, Manuel Valls, France’s Prime Minister, believes that giving in and changing this proposed law will render the government unable to reform the country. In fact, compromises on labour market reform were previously made, for instance by Jacques Chirac, so new retreats will just diminish the momentum of reforms, undermining the government’s credibility. But the biggest stake in winning this dispute is for President Hollande, who promised to reduce the country’s almost permanent unemployment rate of 10% and raise the near-zero rate of growth, or otherwise he would not run in the 2017 presidential elections. It is quite likely that, once adopted, the reforms will help him with his objectives. Ultimately, if both Mr. Hollande and Mr. Valls really want to change France, this is their time to act.

Le Rendez-Vous avec les bleus

As if political games were not enough, Euro 2016, the major European sporting event, is hosted this year in France. On top of everything going on, the country has to accommodate around 1.5 million tourists arriving for the occasion, and make sure that 51 matches, gathering more than 2.5 million supporters on stadiums, unfold properly in 10 different locations. While France was hoping that the championship would give a helping hand to its economy, with estimated revenues from Euro 2016 of more than 1,200 million euros, out of which 800 million will be spent directly by those in stadiums and fan zones, and the rest of 400 million represents contracts awarded to French businessmen for organizing the event. To this, we may also add an increase in tourism, estimated at around 250,000 extra overnight stays, and the effects of positive PR. Yet, trade unions broke up the party by bringing in new strikes. After all, at the beginning of the championship, after months of fighting terrorism, weeks of dealing with protesters, and on top of recent floods that threatened Paris, France was looking rather winded, as if it had already run through an entire gauntlet. But the new strikes just made it even worse.

One day after the beginning of Euro 2016, Air France pilots went on strike for 5 days, grounding around 20% of flights. With fans coming in from all over Europe, the unions have spotted an opportunity to do what they do best when they want to pressure the state – cause chaos. This time, the opportunity was even better, since the championship meant that the stakes were even higher, so they persisted by announcing a new strike for June 24-27. But travelling to and from matches by train was not an easy solution either, as the national railway company was still on strike, at least in some days and for some destinations.

Leaving aside social unrest, and forgetting, for the moment, about the hooligans who brought chaos to the streets of Marseille and Lille, there is something greater going on in the background. Ultimately, the championship raises enormous security challenges, in a muted battle of egos between France and the terrorists. Euro 2016 also creates a good opportunity for terrorists to strike and hit France while it is in the spotlight. While the former is assessing opportunities to ruin the event, the latter is presumably doing everything to protect it. But the recent killing, on the evening of June 13th, of a police officer and his partner in an attack claimed by the Islamic State, raises doubts about whether presumptive terrorist plots can truly be foiled.

“The level of threats has never been so high as today”, claimed Jean-Charles Brisard, chairman of the Paris-based Centre for the Analysis of Terrorism, just one day before the beginning of Euro 2016. Yet France escalated measures to protect its citizens. From launching a smartphone app that alerts users of any attack according to their location, to buying drones for security surveillance, protecting the teams with special counter-terrorism units, deploying air forces on the Parisian skies to create a so-called “security bubble” and placing 90,000 extra military and police personnel on station around the stadiums, everything seemed to have been prepared with maximum care. Even more, organizers have already developed contingency plans in case of an attack, taking into account last minute rescheduling of the matches in other parts of the country. All in all, the tournament’s organizing committee computed that the overall bill for extra security measures raised the costs of the event by 15%.

Yet full precaution does not mean zero risks. When an anonymous senior counter-terrorism official acknowledges for Agence France-Presse that he is honestly worried and a terrorism expert asks himself rhetorically how are they going to protect so many people, one understands that the times are troubled. And, more than that, after Euro 2016, the Tour de France will be coming on, enhancing the geographic challenge of securing the event.

Qui vivra verra…

All in all, France is “clearly the most threatened country”, as declared recently Patrick Calvar, the aptly named director of France’s domestic intelligence agency. While he was obviously referring to terrorism, France may be, at the same time, threatened also by its outraged citizens and violent hooligans. With stadiums and streets full of supporters, cancelled trains and planes, and groups of extremists heading towards Europe, the agenda of the French political decision-makers is a challenging one. But somewhere in between terrorist threats, social unrest, and rambunctious sports fans, today’s France remains strong. Officials are not giving in and promising security at any price. The first talks in months between the government and labour unions failed, but the government soldiers on with a new round of talks, and, until then, President Hollande ultimately threatens to ban demonstrations at a time when police forces must focus on terrorism and football. And undisciplined hooligans are already starting to be expelled, or they go home anyway.

At the same time, bag controls and big signs with Plan Vigipirate (France’s anti-terrorism plan) at the entrance of every public institution and heavily armed military forces patrolling the streets of the main cities keep reminding those in France that they live in a country seriously threatened by terrorism. Indeed, metro rides may sometimes be a true adventure, buildings may sometimes be evacuated because someone left his bag unattended, participants in events may sometimes have to show up way in advance because the security checks for all attendees are extremely time consuming. But, ultimately, the French people choose to go on with their lives, defiantly asserting their joie de vivre, because, in the end, what is meant to happen will happen anyway.

In some ways, France is just the same, with people sipping wine on terraces and in small cafés, loudly singing together La Vie en Rose every time it plays. But it is also not the same at all. “Changed” may be too strong a word, yet something is definitely different. But different does not mean bad. In the end, it is the facts that challenge a society to its very core that make it stronger, wiser, better.



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