Roger Cohen: Paris has never been more precious

Defiance and affection in the French capital. Picture: AP
Defiance and affection in the French capital. Picture: AP
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COURAGEOUS action and decisions are needed to save the city as we – and Bogart – knew it, writes Roger Cohen

Memories, the French poet Guillaume Apollinaire wrote, are like the sound of hunters’ horns fading in the wind. I have loved in Paris, had children, dreamed, wandered, got lost, found myself again. At every intersection there is an invitation, on every bridge a recollection. The carnage, in this city, feels like a personal matter.

The wound from the attack suppurates in the damp air. Anybody attuned to Paris feels it. The French have seen a lot, acquired a fierce realism that refuses to prettify life, and mastered the indifferent shrug. They will endure. Still, they are shaken. There is a void in streets too empty, a new suspicion in appraising glances, a wary numbness.

The Paris Metro reports a 10 per cent decline in passengers since the Islamic State slaughtered 129 people at random. Jumpy people run from phantom sounds. A friend, Anne Salazar Orvig, a professor of linguistics at the Sorbonne, tells me she tried to teach a freshman class but had to abandon it because “the students were simply not there.”

Paris is afflicted with absences — the dead, of course; visitors frightened away; minds frozen by fear; and tranquillity lost. The city feels vulnerable. Its luminous tolerance is intolerable to the jihadi fanatics. In this sense it is a symbol of a Western civilisation and an openness that now seem fragile. Terrorists are interested in potent symbolism. They passed on Brussels. Perhaps no metropolis carries as much symbolism as the French capital, home to the Enlightenment and the Declaration of the Rights of Man.

“Do they attack us for what we do or do they attack us for what we are?” Dominique Moisi, a political scientist, asked me, wondering if France was a target because of its far-flung military campaigns against armed Islamist zealots or because it is a free and democratic country that has banished God from the political sphere. I think France is attacked above all for what it is. That in turn is terrifying.

Any member of French society, or by extension, of our civilisation, becomes a target. Of course the threat is not new, but like a cancer metastasizing it suddenly feels ubiquitous. I don’t think Paris has ever felt so precious or precarious to me as it did over the past two weeks.

Insouciance is a Parisian pleasure. This is the city of aimless wandering and casual delight. But today, insouciance feels freighted with danger. There is too much of it in the West. The enemy has been underestimated. His maxim is maximum damage. He defies classification. He may be the middle-class, private-school-educated son of Moroccan immigrants in Belgium. Saving Paris from the Islamic State will take ruthlessness – but save it we must.

I went back this week to the area at the bottom of the Rue Mouffetard where I first lived in 1975. Aside from a Starbucks in place of the fruit and vegetable store where I once shopped, it looked familiar.

Paris has changed just enough to stay the same. Gone is the Gitane-Gauloise pall of the cafes, gone the mineral midmorning sauvignons blancs downed by red-eyed men, gone the horse butchers and the garlic whiff of the early morning Metro. Where artisans hammered and workers toiled in the ateliers of the 10th and 11th Arrondissements, restaurants now attract a young crowd – of the kind cut down by the jihadi fanatics.

Yet, despite its gentrification, Paris has resisted the brand-obsessed homogenisation of our age. If capitalism works less well here, it also works less cruelly. The city is still itself – with its parks of satisfying geometry, its strong Haussmannian arteries, its gilt and gravel, its islands pointing their prows toward the solemn bridges. It is a refuge of our hopes, a repository of our fantasies, a redoubt of a quaint old word – solidarity.

Paris has placed its chips on beauty, a gamble of course, because beauty invites destruction from those who would subjugate rather than uplift the human spirit. The barbarians multiply. Look at Palmyra in Syria, or what is left of it.

Halfway up the Rue Mouffetard I met Nicos Moraitis, a Greek immigrant who came to live in Paris 30 years ago. He owns a crepe restaurant called, predictably enough, Chez Nicos, and his crepe maker, less predictably, is an Indian called Nishan Singh. An Indian who makes French crepes for a Greek – that, too, I thought, is Paris. Moraitis told me business had been down about 40 per cent since the attack. People are staying home. “I’m 57, I’ve lived my life, I don’t worry about myself, if I die, well, goodbye, I don’t believe in God. But I do worry about the next generation and my grandchildren.”

What, Moraitis asked, do they want, these slaughterers? He came to France, adopted it, took a loan, started a business, and eventually bought a small apartment. His family benefited from free health care and education. France’s model worked for him, as it has for generations of immigrants.

Then, abruptly, the model buckled with the arrival of millions of North African immigrants, many hostile to their former colonial overlords, some living in St-Denis, just north of the city, where the police fought a pitched battle with a jihadi cell this past week. Europe’s border-banishing integration is more threatened than at any time since 1945. “We need tranquillity,” Moraitis told me. “This is a city where if you feel sad, going for a stroll can lift your mood. But one more attack and all bets are off.”

Only a fool would say another attack is impossible. I asked an old friend, Goran Tocilovac, a Serbian writer who long ago adopted Paris, what he thought of Moisi’s question about the motives for the attack. “It’s above all what we do in Mali or Syria,” he said. “But that is the result of what we are. We are accustomed to loving certain liberties and we will defend them.” That answer consoled me somewhat. Democracies are slow to anger but formidable when aroused. I’m not sure if – after Afghanistan, after Iraq – the greatest democracy of all, the United States, has the capacity to rouse itself to a convincing military response against the Islamic State. For Paris, as well as New York, it must.

“We’ll always have Paris” – Humphrey Bogart’s comment to Ingrid Bergman in “Casablanca” – is one of the most famous movie lines. Yet her desperate question that precedes it is sometimes forgotten: “But what about us?” Bogart is telling Bergman to leave him and be with her husband so that the Paris of their brief but eternal affair can be preserved. He is telling her that Paris – their Paris, the Paris of so many dreams – is a delicate and infinitely precious thing whose survival requires painful, courageous decisions such as his.