Is Paris Burning?

What is it about the French capital that makes it such an inviting city, not just for lovers in the springtime, but for random shootings and suicide bombings? Is it the legacy of the Algerian revolt and the immigrants who have settled on the outskirts of the city? Is it that Paris, more than many other European countries, accommodates refugees from other conflicts and this has spawned an underclass of French-born terrorists? Or is the recent violence a mutant gene from France’s encouragement of “liberty, equality, fraternity,” such that suicide bombers and assassins find themselves ironically protected in a culture of tolerance?

Because I live on the French-Swiss border, I am frequently in France and often in Paris, which is several hours away by train. And because I sometimes work in the wine business, I find myself in many corners of the country and usually on a bike, which, along with local trains is how I prefer to move about.

Rental cars and planes would get me to more meetings, I suppose, but then I might never have discovered that Lorraine, a partement in the Northeast, has much in common with West Virginia (coal mining and poverty) or that the city of Bordeaux is one of Europe’s urban gems (food, wine, bike paths, cobblestones, and a huge bookstore).

Nor in a car or on foot could I have easily traveled the contours of Islamic Paris, which I did in recent days, just as French and Belgian police were arresting more suspects in the Paris attacks and bombs were exploding across Brussels.

* * *

I came to the French capital after a long ride through Burgundy just north of Mȃcon, a city of few charms and, oddly, even fewer places for lunch. The richness of the Côte Mȃconnaise lies in a series of rolling hills that, in various forms, stretch north to Dijon and into Champagne, and the elegance of the landscape, if not its local chardonnay (named for a nearby village), speaks to a France of timeless insularity where there are neither exploding bombs nor security lockdowns.

The same, however, cannot be said about Paris, several hours to the northwest, which I reached on an SNCF Intercités train (they are bike-friendly).

Climbing down from the carriage at Bercy (a mainline station), I looked directly into the muzzle of several automatic weapons as the police (padded out like gladiators) were on high alert and patrolling the incoming trains, especially those, like mine, that had collected passengers in the irredentist suburbs.

Watching television that evening, I better understood the high alert, as that evening the police in Brussels were hot on the trail of the fugitive suspects from the November 13 Bataclan attacks.

Evening news footage showed heavily armed police (both French and Belgian) dragging away bound suspects for whom the words “liberté, égalité, fraternité” seemed stretched to their territorial or moral limits.

I stayed with the story because, biking from Bercy to where I was staying, I had made it a point see where many of the recent shootings and bombings had taken place. Most of them were near the Place de la République, where now after each tragedy Parisians gather in solidarity to leave candles and flowers.

* * *

The office building that housed the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo is on a quiet street west of Boulevard Richard Lenoir, in what feels like a Parisian backwater, although the Bastille is nearby.

A school is across the street, but otherwise the neighborhood lacks the usual Paris panoply of cafés and small markets. Rue Nicolas-Appert is almost Nordic in its stark appearance—many buildings are drawn along modernistic lines—except that portraits of some of those killed inside the magazine’s offices now grace the exterior walls.

Unlike later Parisian violence, this shooting in January 2015 had specific targets, notably the editor, Stéphane Charbonnier, and his staff, who were already under police protection from earlier threats.

Charbonnier took pride in publishing blasphemous cartoons about Islam (he would say, in effect: “I’m an atheist, so they are not blasphemous to me”) and living with the threats (“I’d rather die standing than live on my knees.”).

The killers didn’t share Charb’s humor and found him sitting in his chair. In another era they might have been content to write a letter to the editor. In this case, their editorial comment was to spray the weekly meeting with the deadly bullets of AK-47s.

Eleven were killed in the attack and many others were wounded, both at the magazine and downstairs on the street, which now has the feel neither of a shrine nor of a neighborhood that is recovering. Instead it is a void, one of the few streets in central Paris that has the numbed silence of the River Styx.

Some police barricades are strung along the sidewalk in front of the building, which appears closed. Otherwise, number 10 is an urban Purgatory, where the unsettling questions of religious tolerance, political satire, the rights of man, and anarchism all feel as if they are illegally double-parked beside the police barriers and under the makeshift memorial portraits.

* * *

Almost around the corner from Charlie Hebdo is the Bataclan nightclub where in November 2015 eighty-nine people, most of them young, were killed inside while attending a rock concert.

What’s striking about the club, which remains closed and tragically forlorn, is that it is a replica of an Asian Pagoda—Moulmein (“somewhere east of Suez”) on Boulevard Voltaire.

Alongside the cramped concert hall is the alley where a number of concert goers were shown, on telephone videos, hanging from high windows to escape the gunfire inside.

Eventually police SWAT teams converged on the theater and killed the last assassin. (The other two blew themselves up inside the theater.) Other than crying that the attack was revenge “for Syria,” no articulate reason was ever given for the slaughter inside the concert house or elsewhere around Paris.

The Bataclan attacks took place ten months after the assassinations at Charlie Hebdo, but these attackers were divided into three teams and well-equipped, not just with AK-47s, but with bombs, suicide vests, and get-away cars. (These were not spontaneous recruits to a fanatic cause but urban soldiers trained and supplied, and sent on a mission.)

In the space of a half hour they attacked six venues across the city, to give the impression that the violent siege was everywhere.

The first Parisian attack took place at the Stade de France (just north of central Paris, in Saint-Denis), where eventually three suicide bombers blew themselves up outside the stadium. Security had luckily kept the human time-bombs from entering the stadium, although the killers still kept their rendezvous with eternity.

Five minutes later, another team of attackers shot up two small restaurants near Place de la République in central Paris. At the café Le Carillon and across the street at a Cambodian fast-food shop, Le Petit Cambodge, another fifteen Parisians were killed and others were seriously wounded.

I doubt any premedication dictated the location of these terror attacks, although I could well imagine that the assassins were headed toward the nearby Gare de l’Est and got tangled, as I did on my bike, in the jumble of one-way Parisian streets.

In the end the shooters stopped their car at a nondescript intersection with restaurants on opposite corners and opened fire at point-blank range. Death was their only inspiration, and they repeated the onslaught at other restaurants in the neighborhoods around République and Bastille.

Six months later, flowers, candles, and inscriptions recall the sidewalk horror at Le Carillon, but the mourning has become subdued, like those faded bouquets alongside interstate highways that mark the location of a fatal accident.

Some hand-printed signs have been tacked up or painted on the Le Carillon walls, and all speak of Paris as a city of optimism and love. One painting says: “La vie en rose Paris,” which are the lyrics from an Edith Piaf song:

When you press me to your heart

         I’m in a world apart

         A world where roses bloom

After the attacks took place, anyone with access to a TV microphone or a Twitter account was decrying, “We are all Parisians, again.” President Hollande led many memorials and moments of silence across Paris, and places as distant as the Sydney opera house were illuminated in the tricolors of the French flag.

Those public obsequies are now in the shadows. The Bataclan looks like a bankrupt nightclub down on its luck, and the Le Carillon is just another run-down bar on the Paris east side, with some candles scattered around the terrace.

* * *

To understand the alienation of Islamic Parisians and why some turn into suicide bombers, I thought I might get some insight from a bike ride through the so-called banlieues, the Arabic suburbs around the city that in 2005 exploded into the raging fires of burning tires and overturned cars. It is often said that the road to the Bataclan starts in the banlieues, many of which are northeast of Paris in Département 93.

The banlieues are synonymous with everything that has gone wrong with modern France and its treatment of certain underclasses. They are the refugee camps of the Algerian civil war, where fifty years later, a third and fourth generation of immigrants lives, with few hopes or opportunities.

The banlieues are also where those fleeing other civil conflicts in French West Africa and the Middle East have settled, in neighborhoods that feel more like La Côte d’Ivoire or Mali than metropolitan Paris.

In some parts of the banlieues unemployment rates among young people are said to exceed fifty percent, another reason, it is said, that Islamic State finds it so easy to recruit soldiers of fortune in places such as France or Molenbeek, Belgium (in effect, another banlieue of Paris).

To hear some describe these Parisian neighborhoods, the inhabitants might well be picking through the ruins of Aleppo instead of living forty-five minutes from the Champs-Élysées. I had no doubt that on the bike I would find misery and despair.

* * *

I planned my route from several books that I read about the 2005 violence in the suburbs, and marked on my map a semi-circle that would take me from Chelles (where he train left me off) to Montfermeil (which dates its experience with working-class suffering to Les Misérables), Clichy-sous-Bois (a poster child of the 2005 riots), Servan, Aulnay-sous-Bois (the trees are mostly gone), and, finally, Le Blanc-Mesnil (where in 2005 a commuter train was attacked during the violence).

The day I chose for my ride was cold and windy. Not even tourist Paris can look good on such an overcast spring day, a melange of sun, lowering clouds, and even a few snow flurries. Surprisingly, at least to me, I did not find the banlieues as desperate as forecast.

Chelles, where I start riding into the bitter wind, looked like many towns I have seen across France; it even has an office of tourism. The main street is lined with the usual national-brand shops, and around the town are clusters of apartment buildings and courts of suburban row houses, most of which are well-maintained.

Nor did Clichy-sous-Bois, further on and where in the 2005 police sent tear gas into its mosque on a night of Ramadan, fit into the stereotypes of urban desperation.

Yes, it has rundown apartment blocks, and many people on the sidewalks appeared to be of Turkish or Arabic descent. Many women were wearing the hajib. But I was not prepared to see so many new buildings or neighborhoods of middle-class row houses, or to find the town center under so much renovation.

Unreported in most newspaper articles or TV documentaries about the “world apart” of the banlieues is the extent to which the French government has poured money into the districts, presumably to keep them from erupting, yet again, into flames of a national disgrace.

Setting out, I had thought I would find decaying apartment towers, discarded tires, and the hulks of burned-out cars—all symbols of 2005. Instead I spent the day riding through what felt like a working-class neighborhood in Queens or Brooklyn.

Nowhere did I come across the neighborhoods that in press reports are usually described as “smoldering”. For example, the New Yorker wrote recently, “Inside the banlieues are the cités: colossal concrete housing projects built during the postwar decades, in the Brutalist style of Le Corbusier. Conceived as utopias for workers, they have become concentrations of poverty and social isolation.” I thought such projects would be everywhere, but I only came across a handful. (They are thick on the ground in press reports, however.)

Nor had I ever read about any government spending in the area. But since 2005 Montfermeil, for example, has gotten millions in urban renewal money, and for every dilapidated apartment complex there is new public housing, built in recent years to pacify the masses.

Has it worked to put plaster of Paris over the country’s ethnic divide?

To judge by the shootings and bombings around Paris in the last two years, clearly not. Although some of the Paris assassins came from Belgium, nearly all the killers (French or Belgian) had some family roots in the Paris banlieues, and many would have come of age there in the cauldron of 2005, which lasted almost a month and spread violence across France.

The problems in the banlieues, I came to believe, are more emotional than they are issues of urban planning. Subsequent French governments have done a good job upgrading the infrastructure in the suburbs (much the way Germany has integrated the East with franchises of Deutsche Bank and H&M stores). While not wealthy, Aulnay-sous-Bois looks more like working-class Yonkers than it does the old ruins of the South Bronx.

Local violence has been internalized, so to speak, and has moved from tire burning on the streets to planning terror attacks on places such as the Bataclan. That said, the Paris attacks, like those more recently in Brussels, were too sophisticated simply to be considered “home-grown.”

Frustrations about professional advancement or poverty alone do not explain why someone would strap on the vest of a suicide bomber. In my experience, cities such as Manchester, Berlin, Moscow, and Belgrade all have worse ghettos than does Paris, but few of those citizens are devouring their own.

* * *

Where France has failed its Islamic citizens is in not allowing them to “integrate” easily into French society. Immigrants who have integrated well into the local society are generally liked and respected. Those who remain outside the community, for whatever reasons, remain suspect.

Yes, the banlieues now have better housing and Intermarché supermarkets in their neighborhoods. But what the French of Arab descent want, more than cleaner streets or better parking, is an optimistic future. For many, however, the best universities, jobs, and careers are off limits. I would imagine that for many the banlieues could look like Park Avenue but still remain social prisons.

France dealt with the crisis of 2005 by sending in the civil engineers, not psychologists or sociologists. The tore down the post-war tenements, filled in the potholes, and towed away the burnt cars. They built smaller, more modest apartment complexes and new schools, and added new cars to the commuter trains, so the area would feel less like Soweto.

But they never answered the “why” question that the French cultural minister, André Malraux, asked in his 1930s novel, Man’s Fate: “You want to make a kind of religion of terrorism?”

* * *

In broad terms, France had two responses to the Charlie Hebdo shootings and the November 13 attacks. It declared the modern equivalent of marshal law and detained hundreds of suspects in a countless number of dawn raids, carried out by hooded policemen.

Abroad, it unleashed its bombers against the Syrian encampments of Islamic State, even to the point of allying France with Putin’s Russia in its attacks against the enemies of Syria’s President Assad.

Nevertheless, during my recent time in Paris (either in the banlieues or watching police roundups on television news), I never got the feeling that anyone in the government of President François Hollande understands the nature of the violence or the necessary response to the clear and present dangers.

Is France facing an enemy “within” or a threat from abroad? Are the killers kamikaze coming over the horizon on one-way missions or are they French residents as unhappy as those citizens who stormed the Bastille in 1789?

No one I met or listened to in France seemed to have an answer. One day I would hear that the source of the problems was in the desperation of the banlieues; other days the political GPS would point toward causes of war in Raqqa.

My personal sense of the crisis—having traveled in pre-war Syria, much of the Middle East, and now the banlieues—is that the violence associated with the neocolonial wars of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Egypt, Libya, Gaza, and Tunisia is being returned to its patrons—the United States and the European powers.

President Barack Obama, in particular, came into office preaching sermons mounted on an Arab spring, and he won a Nobel Peace Prize partly for his outreach to the Muslim world. But then, as if with the random rage of the suicide bombers, he declared more war on Afghanistan, allowed American-mandated Iraq to descend into a murderous anarchy, overthrew Gaddafi with no-fly zone bombers but replaced him with warlords, turned a blind eye to Israeli repression in Gaza, backed a military coup against an elected government in Egypt, and in Syria—after encouraging the opposition to revolt—went back to the golf course while Assad, the Russians, Islamic State, and al-Qaeda delivered on their death wishes to those fighting for a democratic future.

In all the neocolonial wars around the Middle East since Obama became president or France bombed Libya and Syria, the number of those killed or made homeless has now run into the millions. Should it now come as a shock and surprise that some, in Paris or Brussels, might in response want to shoot up an airport or café?

Already American drones (outside the war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan) have killed more people than were murdered on 9/11. But this means nothing to most Europeans and Americans. Who says, “We are all Yemenis, again” or sends out Twitter sympathies for Pakistani civilians killed by drones.

* * *

Before leaving Paris, I decided to find the town in the western suburbs where Ayatollah Khomeini had lived in exile from Iran and where, sitting on Persian carpets under a tree in his garden, had preached his revolutionary doctrines of hate. Maybe it would explain something about the uneasy relationship between Paris and the Islamic world?

Neauphle-le-Château is thirty minutes from Gare Montparnasse, and about twenty kilometers to the west of Versailles. I had thought about riding there on the bike, but there would have been a stiff headwind had I tried.

Instead I boarded a mid-morning commuter train, which left me just outside the town, where I began asking residents about the location of the imam’s rental. Only when I stopped a postman on a motorbike did I get the street address—23 route de Chevreuse—and directions (which were convoluted).

After riding up and down some steep hills—the château is on top of one of them—I found the ayatollah’s garden, which is now fenced off and apparently the sovereign property of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

The house in which he lived, across the street, was torn down some years ago, and a new suburban home stands in its place. The garden has the look of a tended, if vacant, lot. No plaque mentions the departed tenant. The other houses on route de Chevreuse have a prosperous air. Think of an American suburb, not revolutionary Tehran.

Unlike Clichy-sous-Bois or Servan, banlieues to the east of Paris, Neauphle-le-Château has few Arab or Iranian influences. Why the ayatollah’s handlers decided to settle him there is, to me, a mystery, although I have searched for the answer in many books. It sounds as though someone there simply had a house to rent, and the ayatollah’s estate agent took it. (“Does it have cable and can you tell me which bedroom faces in the direction of Mecca?”)

The only possible attraction for Khomeini could have been the town’s reputation for protecting the privacy of its celebrity residents—the reclusive actress Deanna Durbin turned out to be his next door neighbor. (She liked him.)

Otherwise, Neauphle-le-Château is as French as its name implies, and as implausible a home for the banished ayatollah as Orlando, Florida would have been for one of Lenin’s exiles.

According to his biographies, on most days in exile Khomeini attended to his papers and prayers, listened to the Persian broadcasts of the BBC, and received guests or addressed the world’s press while seated on carpets spread out at the base of a tree in his garden. Later a tent was erected.

Even in mid-winter, Khomeini would hold court en plein air. His manner was that of touring monarch, although the garden acquired the ambience of a traveling circus.

More than one history of the Iranian revolution has said the Shah’s biggest blunder was to chase Khomeini out of exile in Iraq (where he was preaching to the faithful in limited numbers) and put him on Parisian display before the world’s media, who on some days numbered 400 on the route de Chevreuse—all of whom hoped to score a soundbite about the treacherous shah in Iran.

Although when he came to power in February 1979 Khomeini thought nothing of summarily executing his enemies, as a neighbor in a French hillside town he was, by many accounts, gracious and well-mannered. Even the postman who gave me directions volunteered that his sister had lived next door to the imam and said that she had liked the holy man.

* * *

Khomeini only lasted 112 days in Neauphle-le-Château, after which the French government sent him to Iran on a chartered Air France jumbo jet. It was on that flight, in answer to a Peter Jennings question about how it felt to be going home after so many years in exile, that Khomeini said coldly, “I feel nothing,” which later became a strong clue that his form of government might be less than sentimental.

In sending the ayatollah home in business class, the French government probably hoped that it was leasing a place of honor in the new Islamic republic. Instead, France did what it has done best in Middle East diplomacy: alienate all sides and make lots of enemies.

In particular, once he was in power, the ayatollah resented France’s dispatch of troops to Lebanon’s civil war—a gesture of colonial overreach—while France became appalled to see the Islamic Republic devouring its own (although that should hardly have surprised anyone with knowledge of the French Revolution).

Fast forward almost forty years, and France still hasn’t figured out its relationship with much of the Middle East. Warrior-intellectual Bernard-Henri Lévy famously took President Nicolas Sarkozy, France, and the West to war against Gaddafi’s Libya, only for it to disintegrate into anarchy.

In Syria, when Islamic State ripped up the fence along the Iraqi border, its followers chanted that they had struck down the legacy of Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot (those French and English diplomats at the end of World War I who divided the Middle East along colonial lines, much to the horror of T. E. Lawrence, who had told the Arabs they were fighting alongside the Allies for their independence).

In positive moments, France would like to think it has a special relationship with the Islamic Republic of Iran; legacy influence as a Christian protector in its old mandates of Syria and Lebanon; historic ties with Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia, not to mention the Palestinians; a long history in Egypt dating to Napoleon; and bonds with Israel, because of its large Jewish population.

Instead, France has the distinction of being disliked in the Arab world as much as it is reviled in Israel, which is no small feat of diplomatic incompetence.

In his indictment of imperial French foreign policies, Betrayal: France, the Arabs and the Jews, David Pryce-Jones writes: “For the sake of influence or money, France has consequently sought out one Arab dictator after another with whom to establish a mutually beneficial relationship.” At the same time he also recounts France’s long associations with anti-Semitism, to add to its confusions of purpose.

No wonder Khomeini’s garden has the feel of a no-man’s land, neither the soil republican France nor a memorial those who died at the hands of Iranian repression, in its many forms.

* * *

On my last day in Paris, I thought about a ride to Saint-Denis and the Stade de France, where the November attacks had begun with suicide bombings. Instead, I decided on another revolutionary trail across Paris, this one among the figures of American independence who had established the bonds between France and the United States.

Beginning in Passy on the rue Benjamin Franklin (his statue overlooks the entrance), I rode a zigzag course across the city. In less than two hours I saw monuments celebrating the revolutionary achievements of Admiral de Grasse (who crossed the T on the English at Yorktown), General Rochambeau (another hero of Yorktown, which was won with French arms), Thomas Jefferson (the best American friend France ever had), George Washington (devoted to Lafayette), John Paul Jones (he died in a house on the Left Bank), and Thomas Paine (who wrote Rights of Man in Paris).

I had discovered this American trail online—an admirable boy scout leader put it together for his troop—and it was nice to come across revolutionaries who could best express themselves with words and elegant phrases.

Together Paine and Jefferson defined the American Revolution by writing Common Sense and the Declaration of Independence. And it was in Paris, at the Hotel de Salm, that Jefferson found his inspiration for Monticello, his home in Charlottesville, VA, where he turned a royalist palace into the American Parthenon.

By contrast, the Paris attackers and Charlie Hebdo killers could only speak with bullets fired randomly into meeting rooms, concert halls, and cafés, as if to confirm the words of Victor Hugo, who wrote: “Nihilism has no substance. There is no such thing as nothingness, and zero does not exist.”

Coming from the banlieues and the ayatollah’s Neauphle-le-Château, I found it comforting, in a foreign city, to be in the company of Franklin, Jefferson, and Paine, who managed to take down an empire without compromising their ideals or their values. That said, each believed that only through revolutionary violence and opposition could the United States find its independence.

What would Franklin, Jefferson, or Paine think about the modern world of terror attacks in Belgium, police sweeps in Paris, and American neocolonial wars across the Middle East?

My guess is that they would not recognize “their” America as a bullying imperial power across the Middle East, and they would recoil from the image of France as an armed policeman knocking down a suspect’s door. They would stand firmly with Charlie Hebdo, believing that freedom of the press is an inalienable right. (Franklin: “Whoever would overthrow the liberty of a nation must begin by subduing the freeness of speech.”) They would have a harder time defending religious zealots for whom faith is an act of war. They would not comprehend a world in which political leaders need speech writers, or a disenfranchised populace only able to express itself with suicide bombs. But they might find sympathy with those in opposition to hereditary orders. Most of all, they would stand in opposition to superstition, ignorance, obscurantism, and monarchism (in whatever form), and shake their heads in united disbelief that American politics had become a clown show or that “their” France had mortgaged its republican dreams for the temporary solace of a police lockdown.





Matthew Stevenson, a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine, is the author, most recently, of “Remembering the Twentieth Century Limited,” a collection of historical travel essays, and “Whistle-Stopping America.” His next book, Reading the Rails, will be published in 2016.

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, andThe Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent books are Biking with Bismarck and Our Man in Iran. Out now: Donald Trump’s Circus Maximus and Joe Biden’s Excellent Adventure, about the 2016 and 2020 elections.