French President François Hollande said that France is “in shock” and must “unite.” So be it. This is what happens in the face of barbarism. Barbarism means killing the child on his or her way to school, shooting down the passerby of the “wrong religion,” breaking open the doors of a newsroom to kill journalists because one doesn’t like what they write or draw. This is why, faced with such barbarism, so many French people want their country to cling to its traditional discourse on questions of secularism, education, and freedom of thought and speech. And a great many of them will resolutely refuse to make any concessions in response to recent attacks on those progressive principles.
It is easy to unite against religious fanaticism and its obscurantism reminiscent of the Middle Ages. However, given the emotional shock following the horror of the attacks and perhaps the confusion sparked by the sight of political friends and foes marching together (opening the opportunity to exploit the situation), it is much more difficult to agree on an interpretation of these dramatic events. Especially on questions of causes, accountability, consequences, and solutions.
France was attacked… but which France?
The fact that this tragedy occurred in France is certainly not a coincidence. It is, after all, this same France which – albeit a long time ago – gave rise to a great revolution which wrought contemporary France’s fundamental principles: freedom of expression, secularism, and free public and mandatory education. This France is a country where racism has (had?) declined, above all in the poorest working class neighborhoods and suburbs, among the poorest families, in the most diverse, mixed, and antiracist areas – which are the worst treated by our leaders. It is a country where we always see (saw?) interactions between people of different cultures, colors and religions, with more interracial families than anywhere else in Europe. It is a country that knew (and still knows?) how to welcome generations of foreigners, all of them deemed “troublesome” in their own time, but finally “integrated” – and that can be proud of it. It is a country that has both the largest “Muslim community” and the largest “Jewish community” in the European Union. This France is a country where it is not entirely unimaginable that one day, mass struggles for domestic social progress and solidarity with the people of the South will thrive once again. Isn’t it also precisely what this same France may represent in the eyes of the world, that these religious fanatics attacked?
Freedom of speech… to say nothing?
But is it a coincidence that the blows dealt to this France, which is currently confronted with the challenge of reviving the values of progress (the values embodied in the program of the National Council of the Resistance) while creating a society of tolerance—that is, the France we desire, that has been committed to anti-slavery, anti-colonialist, anti-imperialist, and anti-fascist struggles—is it a coincidence that severe blows have also fallen on this France from neoliberal policies implemented by money-serving powers?
It has been nearly half a century since these policies and their ideologues began attacking the Enlightenment, slandering the legacy of the revolution (making Robespierre, who abolished feudal privileges and slavery, out to be the first “terrorist”!), abandoning schools to the forces of the market and to religious institutions, privatizing public services necessary for exercising citizenship, auctioning off national sovereignty, encouraging sectarianism and hatred, and criminalizing opposition as soon as it ceases to be pro-system and can no longer be manipulated.
This is finance capital’s course of action. This is also the dogma of the corporate media which it owns and uses to shape, or rather, manufacture, public opinion. What really is this freedom of speech, suddenly invoked by the spokespeople of financial oligopolies, the arms industry, and billionaire “philanthropists”? Does it consist simply of the televised nonsense where retrograde economic-political-sports correspondents each utter more provocative words than the last? Is this the depth of democratic debate one hoped for? Just enough length of leash for the raging watchdog that barks to please its master and earn its food?
Are we to defend the “freedom of speech” of a system that remains silent on the Ukranian army’s crimes in Donbass, just as it previously did during NATO’s dismantling of Yugoslavia? And silent about the screams of children blown to pieces in Gaza? Is the media that continually spouts propaganda against revolutionary progress in Latin America really free? Are the citizens who are told next to nothing about the innumerable casualties of the wars that have torn apart the Middle East since the Gulf War (or, actually, since the end of the USSR) freely informed? Not even when the victims, who are obviously Muslim and occasionally journalists, are executed by Salafi fundamentalists.
This power of finance capital that our mass media bows to has been pushing the United States government into a logic of permanent war for the last 25 years. And it is this power that French rulers, being pro-US of all stripes, have refused to fight.
It is the same power that, in order to maintain the violently unequal order it imposes on the world, needs to turn the workers of the global North against the peoples of the global South, as it simultaneously wages a social war against the working classes of the North. It is ultimately responsible for this barbarism of a thousand beasts.
These beasts-turned-demons are theirs: the Taliban born, protected, and trained by US services, then cast against Afghan communists backed by the Soviet Union; FIS (Islamic Salvation Front) fundamentalists slit throats in Algeria, but with offices in Washington; Aqmi (al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) spreads fear in Mali, after emerging in the midst of the chaos Sarkozy’s France brought to Libya in a move against Muammar Gaddafi, who was both an autocrat and a bastion against fundamentalism in Libya. And now, of course, there is Dae’ch (ISIS), a dangerous outgrowth of the US invasion of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq (who was also both an autocrat and an anti-fundamentalist); but simultaneously an outgrowth of the military assistance France provided under Hollande to the “moderate opposition to the Syrian regime” (including al-Nosra until December 2012?!), and of the support of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, two states that fund terrorism, yet are still allies of the US and France (and thus of Israel too). These beasts have served, and serve again, the common interests of imperialists. Not always and everywhere, of course, but much of the time and in many places. Why couldn’t they serve these interests again in the future, in other ways? For example by helping to win over the working classes in the global North to imperialism’s bellicose campaigns? Here lies the usefulness of the current Islamophobic declarations.
And so what will come next? A war against Iran, whereas its Pasdarans are, alongside the Kurdish Peshmergas (and, of course, the fighters of the PKK, considered terrorists by Turkey and by Brussels in suit) the most effective fighters against ISIS’ advance? In Syria, will we obstinately keep trying to bring down yet another anti-fundamentalist autocrat? Will there be an open war in Yemen, in Pakistan? And then what? A war in Russia? In China? Do we need more blood, more ruins, more misery? World War III? Will we allow the entire planet to be ransacked just so a few titans can continue to enslave us? How many more “mistakes” must be acknowledged after the fact, how many more corpses must be counted until we understand? Our ears are filled with the voices of irrationality. This is the road to chaos.
In “free”, “democratic”, “civilized” France (and in the entire global North) there is not a single television channel progressive or alternative enough – like Tele Sur in Latin America, for example – to broadcast a prolonged, well-argued, repeated call for peace. Nowhere in the global North does freedom of speech allow the broadcast of a simple message: say no to imperialist wars, say no to the capitalist injustices at the root of these wars, and say no to the racism they promote.
Rémy Herrera is an economist and researcher at the CNRS (National Centre of Scientific Research), Centre d’Economie de la Sorbonne, Paris.
This article originally appeared in the French journal Afrique Asie. It was translated by the team at the Potemkin Review.