Dreaming about Paris

Johannes Lenhard
November 22, 2015

It starts  with a view from Montmartre, the mountain in the North of the city, a  view onto a sea of beige beauty. In between two of the old, green  streetlights with their antique glass shades you see it all spread out  in front of you. Images change quickly: the bright red blades of the  Moulin Rouge, the Arc de Triomphe and the Champs-Élysées lined with rows  of perfectly green trees and the blue-white-red of dozens of  Tricolores. Elderly gentlemen playing the most French of all games – Boules; the  intricate backside of the most famous church in the world, Notre Dame,  and then one thing over and over again, shot from every imaginable  angle: the triangular, sky-reaching iron skeleton of the Eiffel Tower.  This is how Woody Allen paints Paris in the opening scene of his 2011 Midnight in Paris,  a historico-fantastic celebration of every thing civilized which ever  happened in the French capital. Hemingway meets Dalí meets Scott  Fitzgerald meets Gertrude Stein meets Man Ray meets royal antiques,  dreamy hotels, real castles and a lot of culture. Paris: the capital of Western civilization.


At 10pm on Friday I received a text message from a friend warning me  of attacks close to Place de la République. I had an immediate urge to  walk out of the restaurant I was in, about 10 minutes south-east of  République, to call her and ask her for more information. But I didn’t  even make it outside. People were storming into the restaurant with  expressions of shock and fear. I heard screaming and was pushed  backwards immediately. With about 250 other people my girlfriend and I  spent an hour huddled under tables and chairs and hiding behind columns  and corners. Nobody had reception.

News about what was happening came slowly: Automatic weapons,  hostages, bombs; Le Petit Cambodge, Stade de France, a club in the 11th  arrondisement. When the police let us out in small groups, we didn’t  know that we were just 200m north of the Bataclan where people were  still being executed. The police we saw were heavily armed but seemed  shocked themselves. What had happened? It took us another hour of  searching for a cab, calling friends, jumping on bikes, all while trying  to avoid supposed locations of the attacks before we finally opened my  front door.

We couldn’t sleep. We had been too close to all of this. Too close  not only today: my girlfriend and I had our first dinner in the Petit  Cambodge. I took friends there regularly. Opposite at ‘Le Carrillon’, we  loved to stroke the owners’ cat every now and then. We made sure that  our loved ones knew we were safe, followed the news on live streams and  Facebook feeds.

I must have fallen asleep at around 2am and the tone had already  started to shift online: ‘this has happened too – but nobody has posted  anything about it, nobody has proclaimed their deep sympathy with the  victims of the Beirut attacks.’ I felt disturbed: can we give Paris a  minute to mourn perhaps? On the other hand, you might be right. Nobody  HAS been talking about Beirut. Why does Beirut rightly feel forgotten?


Lengthy analyses  have already been made in prominent outlets over the last few days  blaming both the media and us as ‘consumers’ for the imbalance in  solidarity. The attacks in Beirut were not such a shock as Lebanon saw a  violent war approximately 25 years ago. Its government is still not stable. Similarly for Kenya where 147 people died in April in an attack on a school. It has a porous border with Somalia, one of the world’s most fragile states.  More than 600 people have died, mostly through the hands of Al-Shabab  and its sympathizers, in retaliation for Kenya’s military involvement in  Somalia. People in the West are also not surprised by yet another  suicide bomber in Iraq or Afghanistan; an attack might be registered  silently with a thoughtful ‘It’s just horrible’ but people are less  shocked by an incident in a state which is known (or stereotypically  perceived) to be on the verge of terror and insecurity.

On the other hand, France is – for the same people – a symbol of  Western civilization and achievement. How many of you have been to  Paris? How many of you have seen pictures of it, can create an image in  front of your inner eye of its old buildings, of the Seine, of the  pictures in the Louvre? Like New York – and particularly the World Trade  Center – Paris stands for history, power, and a world of liberté, égalité, fraternité.  While what happened in 2001 might be seen as an attack on Capital and  Capitalism symbolized by the World Trade Center, last Friday was about  an ‘enlightened’ state of mind, a French culture deeply linked to laïcité. The concept of laïcité (secularism  as written into the constitution) is indeed deeply French, but its  ideal really becomes tangible in more comprehensive values such as the  freedom of speech (and blasphemy), free schooling, free medical  services, the right to your (reproductive) body. The catalogue is  extensive and it is these values and cultural tenets that both the  attacks on the satiric magazine Charlie Hebdo earlier this year and on the restaurants and bars and clubs last week shook.

Dreaming away

The attacks reveal just how unreal the idea of an untouchable Paris, and with it, Western Civilization (which  for many other people is just as much a symbol of imperial supremacy,  racial segregation and inequality) really is. The Paris of Hollywood’s  grandeur, of Woody Allen, of Paris, Je t’aime or 2 Days in Paris, of fashion and its bombastic display of splendor and glamour, of Haute Cuisine and the reinvention of modern literature, is  a fragile dream. In fact, this dream has often been severely shaken  from within. Paris is far from being equal and free for everyone and it  is surely not non-violent:  think about the 2005 riots in the Parisian banlieues for instance and  the conflicts along class and race lines which have since then regularly  erupted in the suburbs; police have also recently clashed with migrants in Paris and Calais. It was also a long fight to reach a gay-marriage act in the face of heavy protests trying to defend the secular France against non-natural marriage. Racism exists not only towards Roma,  but against people from its former colonies, such as Algeria or Mali,  who have lived in France for generations. This sentiment now spread even  further by Front National paroles has already dug deep lines  into French society over years. But because France and the West have  been collectively dreaming along, living under delusions, at least  partly ignoring fault lines and trenches, the attacks from last week are  such a shock.

We are not all part of this

Now in the aftermath of the attacks, a second, partly related dream  comes to the fore: We are all part of this – we are all Paris. With  Facebook filters and sympathetic rants  of all-encompassing solidarity, the West evokes a dream of equality  which, this time, is on an international scale including our targets of  violence such as Beirut or Nigeria. We are all one civilization. Our  mourning – suddenly – becomes all-encompassing. We are all in this  together.

But we are not at the moment. There are deep barriers of inequality  and difference along class and racial lines for instance. Our worldview  is hypocritical and usually denies the right for liberté, égalité and fraternité  to most countries and people – perhaps even big parts of France – and  instead accepts segregation and inequality to be the norm. We are  shocked about Paris because of our idealized, dream-like vision of what  it stands for and can often easily brush aside similar events happening  in Beirut and Nigeria and Kenya and Syria and Afghanistan because we  expect them to happen there. The majority of people were only screaming  that we need to think beyond our own little islands of comfort after the  dream was hit in Paris. When we felt threatened deep inside our secure,  comfortable, homely, fluffy center, right there at the symbol of all  the good in the world, we started to think about others too.


In Japan, the awakening from the ‘Paris dream’ – when tourists arrive  in the capital of love full of expectations and find it more or less  disappointing – is called the Paris syndrome – Pari-shoukougun. I believe we have reached a collective moment of shoukougun – of West-shoukougun. We need to wake up now.

We, the privileged West in particular, should wake up and adjust our  dreams. We need to stretch the boundaries of what we dream about – and  our feelings of solidarity will follow. One concrete way of doing this  is right in front of us: we can start by welcoming refugees. Germany has surprised me as a country in this respect by leading the way. Sweden  is even more concerned and willing to welcome people – unlike its  Scandinavian counter-parts in Denmark and Norway. What about the US and the UK?  Things need to become more concrete now and we shouldn’t only talk  about the states and politicians and their abstract decisions alone, but  its citizens. What about solidarity with your new neighbor from Syria?  Couldn’t she and her family be part of a sentiment of unity, of a dream;  couldn’t we accept that they are in many ways just like us? We would be  killing two birds with one stone: while widening our dream-circle, we  would also take the battle ground of oppression away for the hatred  leading to exactly the kind of attacks we saw in Paris. Perhaps we can  collectively dream less about Paris as the ideal, the absolute core of  Western Civilization and dream more (and more concretely) about how to  help the people of other, less privileged races, classes and nations.


1. A Long Piece Full Of Testimonials Put Together By Alexandra Schwartz For The New Yorker Who  Spoke To A Survivor Of The Attack On The Restaurant, The Co-founder Of  Médecins Sans Frontières Who Helped During The Night And A French Muslim  Filmmaker And Novelist. The Article Links The Attacks Back To Charlie Hebdo And  Is A Meditation On France, Its Values And How People Are Dealing With  The Current Inter-racial And Inter-religious Conflicts In The Country.

2. Npr’s Greg Myre Asks How Did France Become A Leading Target For Extremists And Looks Into Its Colonial Past, Disaffected Muslims At Home And The French Idea Of Laicité Or Secularism.

3. Going Back To The Reactions To 9/11, Pankaj Mishhra Writes In N+1 Against The Recent ‘reality-concealing’  Analyses Searching For The Problems Abroad (Or In Jeremy Corbyn) Rather  Than Criticizing Our Self-congratulatory Westernism. Mirroring Susan  Sontags 13 Year Old Idea, He Asks: How Can We Avoid Growing Stupid  Together When Grieving Together?

4. Renowned French Philosopher Jean-francois Bayart Searches For The Reasons For The Attacks At Home In His Piece In Libération. French And European Foreign Policy  In Palestine, Turkey And With The Oil-monarchies Has Heavily Provoked  The Kind Of Reaction We Are Currently Seeing According To His Argument.  (In French)

5. Mirroring The Kr Piece, Bérengère Parmentier Criticizes The Idea Of The Always Joyful And Drinking Paris In His Liberation Piece.  The French Are Not Always Outside Drinking; In Fact Even French People  Have To Think A Little Bit Harder About Integration And Living Together.  (In French)

6. In A Witty And Polemical Reply To Isis And Its Attacks, Oscar Laureate Michel Hazanavicius Describes France`S Response: More Sex, More Champagne, More Life. The Attacks Won’t Change France, He Argues. (In French)

7. Frankie Boyle Criticizes In The Guardian How Now In The Aftermaths Of The Attack, The State Is Grabbing More And More Authoritative Powers  While Responding With More Violence And Bombs. He Forces Us To Remember  Our Very Own Mistakes From The Past And Inability To Battle Extremism  At Its Roots: Unemployment, Poverty, The Security State.

8. Oliver Roy, A Sociologist Specialised In The Understanding Of Islam, Writes In Le Monde About What Isis Is  And What The Kind Of Djhadist ‘war’ The West Is Currently Part Of. A  Special Focus Is On Isis (Or Daech As It Is Called In The Francophone  World) Link To France. (In French)

9. Adam Shatz Argues In The Lrb That Isis Has Confronted Us With The Harsh Side Of Globalization: That We Live In A Connected But Unequal World  In Which Europe’s Problematic Relation To Its Own Muslim Inhabitants Is  No Longer Separable From Sectarian Proxy Wars And Failed States In The  Middle East.

All by
Johannes Lenhard