Strange things are happening in Paris. The other morning, as I passed my local café, a barman waved at me from across the street. Then he smiled! This is unprecedented. Paris isn’t normally very friendly. The city suffers from cabin fever: 12 million people packed too closely together in cramped apartments. To quote Paris’s very own Jean-Paul Sartre: “Hell is other people.” Moreover, most Parisian households consist of one person. Many people here say in surveys that their closest companion is their pet. When the Kouachi brothers, fresh from slaughtering Charlie Hebdo’s staff, hijacked a man’s Renault Clio, he insisted on first taking his dog out of the back seat. The Kouachis let him.

Yet, for now, this atomised, grumpy city is marching in unison. It took terrorist attacks to remind us that we have a common project, that our fellow Parisians aren’t just irritants but the reason why we live here. Now Paris — like every metropolis — has to answer the question posed by Rodney King, the black man whose beating by police sparked the Los Angeles riots in 1992:

“Can we all get along?”

Like any great western city, Paris is doomed to multiculturalism. Thankfully it won’t lock up or deport its 1.5 million innocent nominal Muslims, the way the US interned Japanese-Americans after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941. So we need to get along.

Most of us do. Buttes-Chaumont, in Paris’s 19th arrondissement, is now the name of a terrorist cell. It’s also a pretty functional mixed neighbourhood, notes local resident Mathieu Lefevre, executive director of the New Cities Foundation. The Buttes-Chaumont park is a mélange of flirting Jewish teens, Muslim families, Brooklynesque hipsters and French-Chinese people posing for wedding photographs by the waterfalls.

Loud voices worldwide are now saying that millions of French Muslims want a war of civilisations, and that we should give it to them (echoes of the brilliantly conceived Iraq war here). This theory misunderstands human nature. Few people of any religion have the energy for civilisational war. The average Parisian’s experience is better captured by the French rhyme: métro, boulot, dodo — metro, job, sleep.

Illustration by Luis Grañena of Paris

True, a few thousand French Muslims have found radical jihad. This small group is the danger. France probably produces more jihadists than its neighbours, a European Union official told me, because so many French Muslims are excluded — not merely jobless, but disconnected from the republic. France must tackle discrimination. But it must tackle it because discrimination is bad, not because tackling it would end terrorism. So many intangible factors go into making a terrorist, says Valérie Amiraux, an expert on French Muslims at the University of Montreal. For instance, I’m guessing it may be relevant that the Kouachi brothers were orphaned in childhood. Hayat Boumeddiene, fugitive widow of the other terrorist, Amedy Coulibaly, lost her mother aged about six. To say this isn’t to excuse these people. It’s to try to analyse them.

Even if France became an economic paradise, it would still produce some terrorists. As Amiraux says, we will never achieve perfect security. We also mustn’t exaggerate the relative danger. Road accidents kill more than 500 Europeans every week — more than jihadis have killed in Europe in total since 2001.

Just before Sunday’s march, I appeared on a French radio programme. A fellow guest, an official representative of French Jews, said the Jews were under attack and afraid. Another guest, from the CFCM, France’s Muslim Council, replied: “My Jewish friend is right.” He expressed horror at last week’s attacks, as countless French Muslims have done in official statements, in advertisements and on social media. And he added: “Muslims are afraid too.” Since the Charlie Hebdo slaughter many French Muslims and mosques have been attacked, albeit not fatally.

 . . . 

Jews and Muslims are suffering. But they are more than simply “Jews” and “Muslims”. Amartya Sen, the philosopher and Nobel-winning economist, says that people have multiple identities. It’s inaccurate to say, for instance: “I am French but you are Muslim.” Rather, one person can be a Frenchwoman, Muslim, Parisian, shop assistant, ethnic Moroccan, Beyoncé fan and mother. One of your identities probably intersects with mine. Fanatics such as the Kouachis insist they have a single identity: Muslim only. Most people are more complicated.

Two contrary trends shape today’s world, says Carlo Ratti, urbanist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The good news: deaths from war and homicide have declined, largely because humans have become more altruistic, as outlined by the thinkers Peter Singer and Steven Pinker. The bad news: technology enables a handful of killers to rampage more visibly than ever before. It’s altruism versus the Kouachis.

One recent morning I had coffee with a good man, a writer I admire, a fellow Parisian, cosmopolitan and dad. He’s a Muslim. He was upset. But he said that several white “Gallic” friends had phoned him after the attacks to tell him: “You’re not alone. I’m here for you.” That message would allow us Parisians, Londoners and New Yorkers to continue to get along.; Twitter @KuperSimon

Illustration by Luis Grañena


Letter in response to this article:

A message more compelling than endless empty promises / From Toby Hamblin

Get alerts on FT Magazine when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article