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Bad manners and dirtiness: Paris's Gare du Nord (photo: David Iliff, license: CC-BY-SA 3.0)

Paris in April. I hadn’t been there since mid-January, just after the terrible attacks on Charlie Hebdo and the kosher supermarket, followed by the big march. I was struck, as ever, by the bad manners and the dirtiness, beginning with the Gare du Nord. (Do you remember the John Lewis managing director lashing out last October? He was right.) You never get used to it, especially if you live in clean, green and calm London.

What struck me even more was the contrast between the depression emanating from most Parisians, and the demonstration of pride, even tragic fortitude, that we experienced in the aftermath of the attacks. My friends, so proud of taking part in the march, were now focused on everyday matters and short-term projects. And there were the usual complaints everywhere about the economic malaise and our outrageously incompetent politicians, along with the usual inability of the latter to take any responsibility for the former. What had happened to the patriotism we could see and feel everywhere just two months before? Where was the will to fight anything and anyone who would dare to threaten us?

I am not saying that we French shouldn’t be allowed to be like everyone else in the world. I know, too, that this depressed mood has been our lot for quite a few years — we are back to normal, in a way. I just thought, rather naively, that the attacks would give us a sense of urgency, a new ability to distinguish the meaningful from the meaningless, and a strong will to defend our values. Instead, the recent local elections were a joke — the Right gaining momentum just because the Left is a failure, but of course taking credit for it.

Last month, the RATP (the Parisian equivalent of Transport for London) insisted on the removal of posters from the Paris Métro supporting “the Christians of the Orient”. What were they thinking? The priest singers whose concerts were being promoted wanted to share their profits with their poor co-religionists, victims of a genocide, but they were forgetting the sacro-sainte rule of laïcité — the separation of church and state. After a big row, the RATP back-pedalled a week later. Still, the damage was done. My only question is: have we French understood what we are supposed to stand for?

 
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