Marianne in mourning

Marianne pleureTears and other public displays of emotion are not characteristic of the French. But while they may not smile and laugh all the time that does not mean the French don’t feel things. Deeply.

Marianne is in mourning. For three days the nation will wear black, mourn its dead, weep for so many innocent lives lost in Paris on November 13, 2015. There will be anger, there will be sadness and regret. These feelings will erupt only occasionally into tears and shouting. Mostly, there will be small acts of kindness, like those of the strangers who took in blood-stained victims from the street and let them shower, who offered food and shelter for a few hours until the siege was over. Like the gesture of this spontaneous embrace captured when shots last rang out in Paris.

There is no accordion music playing in the streets of Paris — not today or any other day. Paris is not the romantic city of postcards, of Hollywood movies, although if you spend any time there you will experience moments of pure magic. Perhaps you will love its joie de vivre all the more for the fact that it takes place against a backdrop of restraint.

I am not a Parisian but a little piece of my heart will always be there. We lived in Paris for most of 1986 before getting married here. Our apartment was in the 7th arrondissement, just a few blocks from the Eiffel tower. It was a short time but one that left an indelible mark in my memory. Paris is indeed a moveable feast.

There was a wave of terror attacks in Paris that year. As a Canadian abroad, it was the first time I had encountered machine-gun toting police in the street. We lived with what became for me the constant fear of bombs in the metro, in the cinemas and the shops. I learned the French word for terrorist act – attentat – and became familiar with the identity checks and security measures of the plan ‘Vigipirate’.

Like many of my compatriots here in France, I have felt numb since waking to the news of Friday’s attacks. Perhaps it was to be expected. Since we reeled from the cold-blooded murders at Charlie Hebdo in January, there have been many reported terror attempts – fortunately failed. Lest we forget, France is still public enemy number one of Daesh.

And like many of my fellow countrymen, I wonder why. Why are we fighting a war that cannot be won, at least not with bombs? Why can’t we fix our own broken social system so that French-born Muslims provide less fertile ground for extremism? It’s complicated and I don’t have any answers, other than the obvious one: life is precious. Any life lost to evil, whether in Paris or Beirut, must be mourned.

Marianne is crying but it is not out of self pity. Let us shed a tear for Paris, and for her victims, but no more.

The world needs light and undying love and for this reason Paris will continue to shine.

Vive la France.

The kiss

Le baiserYou must remember this, a kiss is just a kiss…unless it happens to be a man on the street spontaneously embracing a member of the French national police.

It was a modern take on the famous photo by photographer Robert Doisneau, Le Baiser de l’Hôtel de Ville.

It felt more like a scene from New York than Paris – the French don’t often break ranks in public displays of feeling. But as France buried its victims last week, including three police officers, there was a lot of love for les forces de l’ordre.

The police are a fixture of life on the streets of Paris: they’re often seen escorting VIPs on motorcycles, directing traffic, controlling crowds during the frequent demonstrations. And they are often criticized for unfair fines, excessive violence, coming down too hard on minorities.

But this day was different. Off-duty police officers were marching in mourning for their own tragic losses: Clarissa, the young policewoman killed in Montrouge by Amedy Coulibaly, Franck, the officer who acted as a body guard for Charlie Hebdo editor-in-chief Charb, and Ahmed, a Muslim bicycle cop gunned down in cold blood by the Kouachi brothers as they fled.

During the historic Marche Républicaine last week, as 3.5 million people took to the streets all over France and 50 world leaders joined arms against terrorism in Paris, people weren’t looking at the police in fear, but to salute them. They applauded the snipers stationed on top of the buildings along the Avenue de la République.

One gentleman in the crowd was so overcome with goodwill towards the CRS – the riot control forces of the French national police – that he asked if it was okay to embrace one of its officers. The officer hesitated, then gave in as the crowd urged them on. It was captured by French TV crews and became one of the scenes from that day that stole the hearts of viewers across the country.

As I’ve posted before, I’m certainly no fan of men with guns. But I have to confess to feeling a certain admiration for les gardiens de la paix, as the French national police are known. They managed to take out all three terrorists and get the hostages out of that supermarket with no further loss of innocent life.

That’s deserving of a kiss.

Gun shy

Reserve_de_chasseIt’s that time of year again: ‘La Chasse’ as it’s called around here. Hunting season. Leash your pets and beware of stray bullets if you go off the beaten path for a walk in the woods in France.

This time last year I posted about the perils of living in a culture of guns (which generated quite the lively debate in the comments!). I still believe that hunting is a better use of weapons than war or holdups, but still – Je me sens toute petite – I feel completely powerless in the presence of men with guns. Because hunting is, at least in these parts, an almost exclusively male pursuit.

It’s hard to argue with a centuries-old tradition that still puts food on the table. Le gibier (game) is considered a delicacy by many French people, and enjoyed as part of the autumnal menu. But every year there are accidents, some tragic. In my husband’s family, an uncle was killed some years ago by (un)friendly fire from one of his own hunting party in Normandy.

So, if you see signs like this one, beware. A hunting they will go, quite possibly just steps from where you’re walking the dog.

I must admit that while I do eat meat I am not a huge fan of le gibier, which is rather strong tasting. What about you? Are you game for game?

Men with guns

Educ'alcool 01I was out for a run one crisp fall morning when a loud crack pierced the air. I felt the hair stand up on my arms and immediately picked up the pace. Hunting season.

Say what you like about Americans and their far-west approach to gun control: while in the U.S. I have never actually seen anybody sporting a gun in public. In France, on the other hand, I regularly meet men with guns.

Each year in early September, you’ll see them strolling casually through the fields, by the edge of the woods or even along the road, not far from the neighbouring houses. Rifle slung over shoulder, sporting an orange day-glo vest or traditional camouflage gear. Most times they’re accompanied by a trusty hound or two, which somehow restores my confidence. Surely if they’re hunting with a dog, they’ll be careful where they aim?

As a woman alone on a country road, to encounter a man with a firearm is to know what it is to feel fear. Assuming he is not a rapist or a serial killer disguised as a hunter, just the idea of being so close to someone with the visible means to kill you is terrifying. “Bonjour,” I’ll say, pretending to act normal while preparing to do the 100-yard dash.

Then there is the risk of ‘la balle perdue’ – the stray bullet. Every year in the news you will hear of an accidental death, usually among a hunting party that has lost one of its own. Such accidents are generally put down to the inexperience of a neophyte hunter, or to alcohol. They do not seem to alarm anyone but me.

Serious outdoorsmen will defend the hunter as a nature lover, one who is respectful of the laws and understands the importance of not combining alcohol with la chasse. Still, most every village in France has a watering hole called ‘Bar aux Chasseurs’. The men (and indeed, the clientele in such places is almost uniquely masculine) are in there on Sunday mornings with their verre de blanc while most of us are still having our first coffee.

La chasse is dear to the hearts of the French. It’s part of a longstanding tradition of being close to the land, hunting and eating le gibier (game) when the season opens from September to January.

Far be it from me to argue with that, though a-hunting I will not go. I just run a little faster in hunting season. Along with the pheasants and hares and other small and large game. Unlike them, I can stick to the main roads to stay out of harm’s way.

Oddly, another place you often see men with guns is on trains, especially in Switzerland*. Soldiers in full army regalia will pass through the cars looking for a seat, service rifle in plain sight. Sometimes they’re very young and holding a large can of beer. This also makes me want to scream and jump off. Usually I discreetly change cars.

*It’s ironic that the peace-loving Swiss have a proportionately bigger army for their population than any other country and recently voted to maintain conscription – obligatory military service for adult men. Read more about the vote here.