It is incredibly difficult to reconcile the sheer barbarity of this week's images of massacre with the placid reality of the setting in which they unfolded. The neighborhood where the infamous Charlie Hebdo attack took place, in the 11th Arrondissement, is just a short stroll north from the gorgeous Place des Vosges, the oldest planned square in Paris and the template for the kind of open residential spaces that came to typify urban landscapes around Europe as they transitioned out of the Middle Ages.
Paris, even at its grittiest, is nothing like New York, where the possibility of real violence is never totally unexpected—and where, because of that latent menace, an overly intrusive police presence has come to feel like just one more part of the city's configuration. Here, it's possible to go days at a stretch without so much as laying eyes on a cop, and without ever having to glance over your shoulder or pause to consider your bodily safety. Those are two of the reasons I don't miss Brooklyn.
In the absence of the kind of "broken windows" logic and spectacular military-grade weaponry that characterizes US law enforcement even in small towns, the Parisian police hardly come across as omnipotent (the officer who was executed in the street at the scene of the shooting approached the gunmen on a bicycle). Nor, for that matter, does the badge inspire in the public the kind of unthinking reverence Americans are supposed to have for their boys in blue. Here, you will see dismay over officers killed on duty but you won't see the deification-in-retrospect of fallen police, such as has just occurred in New York. The French, for better or worse, simply lack that kind of piety.
In general, perfunctory displays of obeisance to authority or hierarchy in any form struggle to take root here. Ride the Metro and you will see every type of Parisian down to pregnant ladies brazenly hopping the turnstiles, daring the lackadaisical station attendants to so much as look at them askance. Waiters routinely talk down to diners and taxi drivers thumb their noses at fares. Paris is the only global capital I know of where you will get eviscerated asking for a shoeshine. Which is to say, to an outsider it can feel like everyone here is out to deliberately offend everyone else.
Pharmacies, which sit on practically ever block, display large images of nude bodies in their windows (mothers and children included); prostitutes, johns, and pimps mingle with schoolchildren, families, and tourists on the sidewalks. Tokens of religious symbolism—namely, headscarves—are controversially forbidden in public schools. Quite literally, and not accidentally, nothing is sacred. What the French call laicité—secularism—is exponentially more integral to the national psychology than the comparatively flaccid American concept of the separation of church and state.
To an outsider it can feel like everyone here is out to deliberately offend everyone else.
And that is one huge part of the reason the slaughter of ten cartoonists at a well-known but not especially earth-shattering satirical paper cut this city and country to the core, prompting some 35,000 people to gather in the Place de la République in response: This was an assault on an entire way of life.
Wednesday night, as friends Instagrammed the crowds at République and Facebook filled with declarations of "Je Suis Charlie," the television stations looped footage of heavily armed and somehow American-looking police squads descending in teams on public housing units in Croix Rouge, a suburb of the nearby city of Reims, where several unspecified arrests were made. Reports were that the local youth jeered them.
By Friday morning, a manhunt had turned into a hostage situation, with the two brothers suspected of the killings, Said and Chérif Kouachi, holed up in an industrial complex, surrounded by police helicopters and armored cars, the nation's law enforcement hardware suddenly on display—and then, predictably, the brothers were dead.
Importantly, though this is being framed by many right-wingers as a battle between Islam and the West, the Kouachis were born here and were every bit as French as those kids in the housing projects who taunted the cops. Among the thinking people I've spoken to, there is widespread recognition that France does a miserable job of integrating even its native-born Arab, African, and Muslim populations—a long-known fact that has everybody freshly nervous in the wake of the attack.
The Kouachis were born here and were every bit as French as those kids in the housing projects who taunted the cops.
In so many ways, it is seems oddly congruent that yesterday also marked the highly anticipated publication of the country's most famous and important living writer Michel Houellebecq's sixth novel, Soumission (submission)—a dystopian narrative set in the near future in which Islam has literally conquered France.
Houellebecq (who has stopped promoting his novel in the wake of the attack, and is under police protection), has homed in on an unflattering but nonetheless authentically felt aspect of a culture that increasingly views itself (and intelligent people can disagree on the extent to which this view is sensible) as existentially plagued by a growing internal threat. That is why one thing everyone—white or brown, liberal or conservative—concedes is that Marine Le Pen, the darling of the xenophobic far right, is the only true beneficiary of this horrific loss of life. Her suddenly credible party, the National Front, is all but assured of building on its recent eyebrow-raising gains.
And so what is to be done? Liberté, égalité, and fraternité are famously the words of the land. But less frequently quoted is the subsequent modification that appended the conditional ou la mort (or death) to that expression. At the vigils for the victims of the attack, Parisians rallied for liberté, and most voices at least pay lip service to egalité. But we are all but certain not to have seen the last of the death part of the equation if somehow more of these alienated young men aren't made to feel some kind of fraternité.
Thomas Chatterton Williams is a writer living in Paris. Follow him on Twitter.