Saturday, August 20, 2016


August is usually a month of relative calm in France. It's vacation time, even for angry demonstrators and politicians. Political or union organizers may be plotting as they bask on a sunny beach, but their actions are aimed at September when they'll re-emerge with the usual sound and fury in support of or in opposition to one cause or another. Not surprising then that during this summer vacuum a seemingly minor matter became headline news and grew into a divisive subject involving politicians, philosophers and human rights activists.

Bikini vs. burkini

It all began when the mayor of Cannes, at the request of some of his constituents, banned the burkini, the full-body swimwear favored by some Muslim women, from his beaches. His example was soon followed by mayors of other Riviera resorts, and to date no less than fifteen French mayors have banned the burkini in their communities.

Burkini brawl in Sisco, Corsica
Initially, the burkini ban in Cannes was seen as a local incident in the wake of the Bastille Day massacre of 86 people by an Islamist terrorist in nearby Nice that had left the town's people jittery and sensitive to all things Muslim. At the sight of burkinis in their midst, a sense of Muslim invasion took hold of the vacationing beach crowd who called on their mayor for action, sparking the beginning of a quickly spreading burkini ban that soon reached Corsica. Here, in the small coastal town of Sisco, an encounter between a group of teenagers and three local Muslim families of Moroccan origin degenerated into fisticuffs when one of the teenagers photographed a Muslim woman whose husband objected. One of the teenagers called his parents and soon 200 villagers stormed the local North African neighborhood with cries of "This is our home!" Riot police were called in and the beach brawl ended with four people in hospital, five others arrested, and a burkini ban in Sisco.

Suddenly, the burkini was no longer a local issue and was even picked up by foreign newspapers. Voices began to be raised for and against the ban, with pro-ban arguments ranging from "the burkini is unhygienic" to "not in line with our French values" and "a form of suppression of Muslim women by their men".

Marseilles beach where burkini is not banned
One may well ask Why unhygienic? - but perhaps it's best not to. One may also question the French Values, especially in matters of beachwear: topless women? string bikinis? big-bellied men in tiny Speedos? Let's not go there.  And as for the burkini as a form of suppression of Muslim women's choice of dress, this matter of cultural difference was perhaps addressed most delicately by the mayor of Nice when he said that he had banned clothing that "overtly expresses adherence to a religion at a time when France and its places of worship are the target of terrorist attacks." The July 14th mass killing in his city and the subsequent murder of a Catholic priest as he was celebrating Mass in his French village church had left raw wounds that have not healed yet. France remains cautious and on edge.

Prime Minister Manuel Valls said he could understand the mayors' decisions and came out in support of the burkini ban, saying the garment reflects the "enslavement of women", while Laurence Rossignol, French Minister for families and women's rights rejected the burkini as "archaic" and "intended to conceal the body of women".

With these views the Socialist party joined those of the extreme-right National Front party whose leader Marine Le Pen supported the burkini ban, saying "The soul of France is in question here. France does not lock away a woman's body; cover up half its population."

So much for political positioning in anticipation of the 2017 presidential elections, as an increasingly crowded field of presidential candidates is gathering both on the left and the right. After the devastating string of terrorist attacks on their soil, nervous French voters are looking for reassurance from a strong leader who can inspire confidence and a feeling of safety that is lacking today.

On the other hand, many support the right of a devout Muslim woman to wear the full-body burkini for bathing in public, even if it sets her apart from other bathers. Prohibiting the burkini would effectively exclude these Muslim women from access to the sea. The League of human rights (LDH) and the Collective against Islamophobia in France (CCIF) have filed an appeal with the Nice administrative tribunal to overrule the burkini ban because it goes counter the right to free speech, freedom of religion and choice of dress, and is disproportionate to the perceived threat it may pose. The tribunal is to rule before the end of the month.

Marks & Spencer ad
France is a secular country where all religions are allowed, but where since 2004 the wearing of "ostentatious signs of religion" is forbidden in public schools.  Another law, voted in 2010, forbids face coverings by full burqa or niqab, or by ski masks, in all public spaces, and this for obvious security reasons. Neither one of these laws would prohibit the wearing of a burkini on a public beach, nor did these laws encounter strong opposition from the large French Muslim population at the time they were passed.

Zanetti, inventor of the burkini

It is interesting to note that France's apparent distaste for the burkini in the name of its sacrosanct secularity contrasts sharply with the United Kingdom where popular department store Marks & Spencer has launched its own line of burkinis this year and rival store House of Fraser's has just responded with a competing line. In response to the French controversy, Aheda Zanetti, the Lebanese-born Australian inventor of the burkini says women buy her suit for different reasons (skin cancer, sun sensitvity, greater comfort than a wet suit) and that 45 percent of her clients are not Muslim. The burkini is all about choice, she says. Or as one of her clients put it: "It's just a swimsuit, for heaven's sake!" 

Considering where we stand today in France  an unpopular president who is perceived as weak; an extended state of emergency after repeated terrorist attacks; proven inefficiency and lack of cooperation among French security services it is easy to see why the relatively inoffensive burkini has become such a big issue this summer. It represents a facet of Islam, a subject that rightly or wrongly has created a certain nervousness among the French; it is a political plum, opportunely arriving just in time for use or abuse by the candidates in the pre-election activities beginning this fall; and it was the "only game in town" this summer. 

Tuesday, July 19, 2016



Yes, again!  For the third time in 18 months, France was cruelly hit by terrorist violence. This time it happened in Nice, following its famous Bastille Day fireworks that draws thousands of people to the beautiful beachfront Promenade des Anglais on this most festive day of the year, July 14th. As the crowds were leaving the beach that night and walking down the wide traffic-free Promenade des Anglais, a truck suddenly barreled through a flimsy road barrier and bore down on them, swerving onto the sidewalks in a deliberate attempt to mow down as many people as possible. It left 84 dead in its wake, including ten children, and 202 wounded. Today, 121 injured are still hospitalized and 26 of them remain on life support. Sixteen of the dead have yet to be identified.

The driver, in a 19-ton rented truck, managed to continue his murderous assault for more than a mile before police finally brought him to a stop and shot him dead in an exchange of gunfire. He was identified as 31-year old Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, a Tunisian national living in Nice and father of three young children. Fired by the same blind hatred as the Islamist extremists who attacked the Charlie Hebdo offices, and the Bataclan concert hall and cafe terraces in Paris last year, Bouhlel appeared at first to be an angry loner driven to mass murder for sick, personal reasons rather than out of religious fanaticism.

Mohamed L. Bouhlel
According to Walid Hamou, his wife's cousin, Bouhlel did not attend his neighborhood mosque, drank alcohol, ate pork, was a notorious womanizer and did not observe Ramadan. He even smoked cannabis, Hamou said. Neighbors in his apartment building reported that he had a violent nature and was living apart from his Franco-Tunisian wife whom he was said to beat. Known to police for petty crimes and violence, he was given a six-month suspended sentence in March as well as a €1000 fine for road rage and hitting a driver with a wooden pallet, but he was not listed as a security risk because he was not radicalized. His father in Tunisia confirmed the violent behavior and said that his son had also been treated for depression.

Initially, the attack was not vindicated by any terrorist organization, but 36 hours after the incident ISIS suddenly claimed that Bouhlel was one of its soldiers who had heeded its call to kill as many infidels as possible by any means available. Given the late date of this claim, police suspected opportunistic propaganda but continued to investigate any possible link Bouhlel may have had with the Islamic State. They questioned his ex-wife and four other people with links to Bouhlel, some of whom said to have noticed a recent change in Bouhlel and thought he may have been radicalized very recently. Police have since released the ex-wife but are still holding six individuals, including the man who sold Bouhlel the gun he used in the attack when he shot at the police who tried to stop him.

As soon as the news broke and shocking eyewitness footage of the attack appeared, memorials of flowers, candles and teddy bears began to spring up in all major cities, with cries of condemnation or heartbreaking messages of shared grief. This one, left in front of City Hall in Aix-en-Provence, touched me deeply: 

May the tears we shed over Nice
cause fields of flowers to grow
and may their perfume soften the hearts of men
who lost their humanity.


President Hollande declared three days of national mourning, to end on Monday at noon with a minute of silence. As he and Prime Minister Manuel Valls arrived for the brief ceremony on the Promenade des Anglais that day they were booed by some of the 30,000 people who had gathered for this homage to the victims, and boos and whistles rang out again as they and their entourage left. Manuel Valls called the gesture "undignified" at this sad moment of reflection, but it was an undeniable sign of the distress felt by many at the apparent inability of this government to protect its people.

Promenade des Anglais, Nice
While all possible motives remain open, a picture of the assailant is slowly emerging of someone who is angry, depressed, alienated and violent. Experts say that heeding a call from ISIS may incite such a person to wipe his slate clean and become "someone" by slaying infidels in the service of the Islamic State's cause. Today we know that Bouhlel reserved the refrigerated truck ten days before the attack ("to deliver ice cream"), picked it up a week later and made several trial runs with it on the Promenade. The day before the attack he sold his car and emptied his bank account, knowing he was not coming back from the path he had chosen.

Whether Bouhlel was a deranged hothead or a recent IS convert, people are looking to their government for reassurance and solutions. With the memory of last year's terrorist attacks still fresh in their minds, as well as the solace and strength found in the extraordinary show of unity after the Charlie Hebdo attack in January 2015, such unity is totally lacking this time. Politicians of the opposition were quick to blame President Hollande for security gaps and inefficiency. With an eye on the upcoming presidential elections in 2017, and before the three-day period of mourning had even begun, political opportunists fouled the air with accusations against the president of incompetence, wrongheadedness and worse. In a measured but rather ineffectual response Hollande ordered another three-to-six-month extension of the current state of emergency that was to expire on July 26th, and announced the call-up of 12000 operational reservists to shore up the police and gendarmes.

Georges Fenech, president of a parliamentary commission of inquiry into the terrorist attacks of last year, responded angrily that the commission's report had revealed a "global failure" of the government's security system and contained 39 urgent measures to be taken, including the immediate creation of a single US-style counter-terrorism agency regrouping all French intelligence services. Another key proposal was the improvement of the judicial and prison systems where many French jihadists have been radicalized in the past. Fenech criticized Hollande's extension of the state of emergency as ineffective, solving nothing and serving only to reassure.

Monday commemoration in Nice
After the brief memorial service in Nice on Monday, French Attorney General François Molins held a press conference that afternoon to announce that the ongoing investigation has found no evidence that Bouhlel was connected to ISIS or to any individual member of an islamic extremist organization, and that he was "self-radicalized" by means of ISIS propaganda sites on the internet. Analysis of his computer revealed that since the first of July he had been making almost daily searches of passages from the Koran and of jihadi islamist sites, including gruesome photos of torture and beheadings. He had consulted reports on the recent killings in Orlando and Dallas and had started growing a beard just a week ago which, according to someone who knew him, was a sign of religion.  

Bernard Cazeneuve, Minister of the Interior, stressed the difficulty of foiling a "lone wolf" attack and declared that no amount of added police or increased security could have prevented the tragedy in Nice. He also reminded us that the month-long Euro football championship had finished just days ago without major incident despite a threat of terrorism, and praised the security forces for their extraordinary performance during the state of emergency of the past eight months, during which time they prevented a number of terrorist attacks. They continue to be heavily solicited during the Tour de France which will end in Paris on 24 July, and the crowded summer festivals of Avignon, Aix-en-Provence and elsewhere, none of which have been canceled except in and around Nice.

France is a prime target for terrorism given its role in the coalition that is fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria, its continued presence in sub-Saharan Africa where its troops managed to drive Al Qaeda jihadists out of Mali in 2013, but also because of the poor integration of its North African immigrants who live mostly in suburban ghettos with high rates of unemployment and crime. This is fertile ground for islamist extremists who seek to recruit disenchanted, unemployed, youths for the IS training camps in Syria from where they return with a jihad mission to commit terrorist acts. Successive French governments have done little or nothing to promote better integration of this population, thereby weakening the cohesion of the French society and giving rise to xenophobic political parties.

The government needs to implement reforms, which at the best of times is a difficult task. As the Nice tragedy has again demonstrated, one of the most important and urgent of such reforms is the overhaul of the complicated, multi-layered system of the French bureaucracy which leads to excessive paperwork, duplication of effort, preservation of personal territory, missed signals between different services, and unacceptable delays in times of national emergency. Poor communication between national and international intelligence services has played a role in the terrorist attacks in Belgium and France. Have the lessons of past attacks been absorbed?

Clearly, drastic action is required immediately but the hardest thing to break is an old habit. Will France be able to respond quickly and act on the recommendations of its own parliamentary findings? Continued debate on this issue seems obscene under the circumstances. Perhaps a look at the mourners' messages may move the politicians to action if only out of shame.

A shocked and angry nation is expecting no less.

Our hearts go out to Nice

Wednesday, June 22, 2016


June 2016 was a memorable month in France, and not for the best of reasons.


Zouave at Pont de l'Alma
It started with severe floods that caused great hardship and extensive material damage to numerous départements after weeks of incessant rain. Four lives were lost and 24 people were injured. In Paris the Seine rose to a high of 6.10 meters, second highest ever measured, overflowing its banks, closing many roads and underground garages, as well as the Louvre and Quai d'Orsay museums which hurriedly moved their treasures from lower floors. The famous Zouave, the statue flanking the Pont de l'Alma by which Parisians measure the crest of the Seine, was immersed nearly up to his waist. The Chateau de Chambord became an island, inaccessible to visitors, and many small towns and villages were cut off by floods, forcing the evacuation of all inhabitants.

EURO 2016

On June 10th, before all floodwaters had receded, the month-long Euro 2016 football championship opened at the Stade de France north of Paris (with a four-day strike of Air France/KLM pilots starting on opening day) amid heavy security and a terrorism threat. French security forces (police, gendarmes and military), on red alert throughout the continuing state of emergency, are being assisted by a contingent of German riot police as well as private security guards at some of the match venues in ten different host cities.

"Fans" in Marseilles

It was not enough to prevent bloody clashes between English and Russian football fans in Marseilles, when Russian hooligans took on their drunken English counterparts in the Old Port area where things quickly turned violent and riot police had to use dogs, tear gas and water cannons to break up the fights. Bottles, rocks, and chairs were used as projectiles and opponents were viciously beaten when caught. In all, 35 people were injured, and three English fans remain hospitalized in serious condition, one with brain damage. The violence boiled over into the match (score 1-1), where Russian fans threw flares and charged into the English section, sending the English fleeing. Witnesses have reported that the Russians were very well organized and clearly came to fight, easily overwhelming the English who had been drinking all day prior to the evening match. Police detained 63 people, three Russians were given jail sentences for violence against English fans and 20 were expelled from France. Police were given the power to ban alcohol at and near future high-risk matches.

Following these disturbances the UEFA has handed Russia a suspended disqualification from the Euro 2016 and a €150,000 fine for "the offences of crowd disturbance, use of fireworks and racist behavior inside the Velodrome stadium in Marseilles" on June 11. Any further incidents of crowd disturbance inside the grounds at future Russian matches will see the suspension lifted with immediate effect of the disqualification.

It is a sad day when a popular sports contest is completely overshadowed by violent incidents that cause serious bodily harm and leave a trail of destruction, while extensive media coverage of this violence displaces the reportage of the actual matches. Moreover, an overworked and thinly stretched police force could have been put to better use than battling overheated crowds of fans in Marseilles for three days in a row, especially during the state of emergency. 


President pinning Légion d'Honneur to caskets
Aside from the frequent charge of police brutality at instances of crowd control, the police corps has been badly affected by a recent murder in their midst. On June 13, Jean-Baptiste Salvaing (42), a young police commander in the Yvelines area near Paris, was stabbed to death in front of his own house by an Islamist extremist. The attacker then entered the house and killed the officer's partner, Jessica Schneider (36), an administrative officer, by cutting her throat, leaving their 3-year-old son unharmed. Before being shot to death by police several hours later, the terrorist, 25-year-old Larossi Abballa, posted a message on Facebook saying he had killed the infidel police couple by knife during Ramadan, as instructed by ISIS to whom he had pledged allegiance. Abballa was known to police and had been radicalized in jail, but he appeared to pose no immediate threat according to the national-security police who had him under surveillance.
Jean-Baptiste Salvaing and Jessica Schneider

A deeply shaken but ramrod contingent of police officers attended the homage to the victims at the Préfecture in Versailles where President Hollande awarded them a posthumous Légion d'Honneur, calling them everyday heroes who sought no glory and simply did their duty in dangerous times. A number of red-eyed colleagues of the popular couple were overcome by emotion and had to be led away. President Hollande, aware that some 500 officers have been injured in the confrontations of the past months and recognizing the vulnerability of police in the face of today's extremists, declared that henceforth police officers will be allowed to keep their weapon when off-duty and that new rules will guarantee anonimity to those carrying out arrests.


This tragedy did not stop the CGT union from holding another demonstration in Paris on June 14th against the new labor law that is currently winding its way through the Senate for a final vote on July 25th. After costly actions such as blocking oil refineries and nuclear-energy centers in May, the CGT, joined by six other labor unions, claims that one million people participated this time, while local authorities put the number closer to 80,000. As always, outside rioters infiltrated this march which degenerated quickly into violent attacks against government buildings, banks, restaurants and anything with large windows at street level, including the Necker Children's Hospital where 15 bay windows were shattered and extensive damage was done to the ground floor. This time, a red line had been crossed and the hospital filed suit.

Casseurs at work
Even though most violent acts are committed by hooligan-type rioters ("casseurs") who mingle with protest marchers for the sole purpose of destroying property and provoking the police, it is near impossible to charge them with specific acts since they are careful to cover their heads with hoods or balaclavas. Following the hospital incident the government blamed the march organizers for allowing hooligans to join, while the organizers blame the government whose job it is to police these events. In the June 14 CGT march, 29 police officers and 11 demonstrators were injured, while 18 rioters, including two Germans, were arrested and all but two of them sentenced.

Martinez (L) and El Khomri
Given the increasing violence and the hostility of the demonstrators toward the police, the government then threatened to ban any future demonstrations if public safety cannot be guaranteed. The announcement was met with outrage from the extreme left at this denial of democracy, while the right responded mostly in favor. A private meeting at the Elysée Palace between Labor Minister Myriam El Khomri and CGT leader Philippe Martinez failed to bring the parties any closer, and Martinez immediately called for two more days of demonstrations on June 23 and June 28. In response, Minister of the Interior Bernard Cazeneuve proposed a "static" demonstration at the large Place de la Nation which is easier to control, but the CGT considers that an interference with their rights and counter-proposed two somewhat shortened marches through Paris.

[FLASH:  The government just announced that the permit for tomorrow's march has been withdrawn and the demonstration prohibited for lack of police.  6/22 at 11:00 A.M.]

Driven by their sense of entitlement and their perceived power over a weak government, the strikers want what they consider their due, regardless of a difficult context. No state of emergency, no Euro 2016, no threat of terrorism or an extenuated police force will deter them.
This is no negotiation, it is a temper tantrum. 

As the upcoming Tour de France looms (July 2-24) with its attendant security challenges, the Air France/KLM pilots have just announced another four-day strike for June 24-27.  Sigh...