Skewed News — Now it’s France’s turn to become stupid.
Throughout and beyond America’s dark post-9/11 decade, while Bush and Wolfowitz and Cheney and Rumsfeld exploited the attacks on New York and Washington to launch the perpetual “global war on terror,” and Congress turned over billions to expand the NSA’s surveillance apparatus into the Orwellian police state we learned about from Edward Snowden, and the government opened torture-concentration camps and normalized torture, I repeatedly pointed to my mother’s home country of France as an example of how to behave properly.
It was nice while it lasted.
France wasn’t perfect before last week’s attacks on Paris. This past spring, the country’s parliament expanded government eavesdropping and computer-hacking against French civilians so broadly that the United Nations condemned the move, saying it “grants overly broad powers for very intrusive surveillance on the basis of vast and badly defined objectives.” France still doesn’t have birthright citizenship, which has created a vast underclass of impoverished and alienated second- and third-generation stateless people unauthorized to hold a job. Many of them are Muslims whose parents and grandparents came from former colonies in Africa — and police suppression of their enclaves in the Paris suburbs has led to sporadic rioting.
In other respects, however, France remained sane while America lost its collective mind. There is no French Guantánamo. No one in France suggests that torture is acceptable. America slept through the Snowden revelations; France called the U.S. ambassador on the carpet.
Most memorably, France refused to support Bush’s “coalition of the willing” when the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003. Years of francophobia followed: Congress renaming a food “freedom fries” and T-shirts calling the French “cheese-eating surrender monkeys” were two examples. My mom’s local bookstore removed Le Monde and Paris Match from its stock of foreign newspapers and magazines.
Unfortunately for those of us who like to look at some governments as admirable, ISIS’ attacks on Paris appear to be France’s 9/11: a benchmark event that transforms a society that valued individual freedoms and rights above the state into an authoritarian nightmare.
Well, they do have that Vichy thing to draw from.
“France is at war,” French President Francois Hollande declared, Bush-like.
French fighter jets bombed the Syrian city of Raqqa, the ISIS stronghold, prompting two questions: If they didn’t like ISIS before, why now, but for symbolic retaliation? And, though they say there weren’t many casualties, how is that possible, and how can they know? As Bush could tell Hollande, bombing might feel good, but it doesn’t win hearts or minds. To the contrary, this plays into ISIS’ narrative of the West as violently anti-Muslim.
In response to the discovery that one of the attackers probably came into the country with the recent refugee flow from Syria, France is moving to close its borders. France is one of two countries, along with Germany, that founded the border-free European Union. If this policy lasts, the EU’s main raison d’être may become passé.
By all accounts, xenophobia is on the rise, with right-wingers demanding that the country close its doors to immigrants and refugees, including — ironically — those fleeing ISIS.
“Our duty is to get on with our lives,” Hollande remarked. Though reminiscent of Bush’s post-9/11 advice to go shopping, Hollande is correct. The question for France — and, given France’s status as the place where equality as a political and human right was invented, the world — is whether getting on with their lives will include rolling back these dismaying, all too American-ish, moves to the far right.