Paris Massacres, 13th November 2015

Some years ago a French actor of North African descent said: 'Never trust,' or perhaps he said, be suspicious about 'a country that feels the need to write its values on buildings'. He was referring to the French Republican motto - Liberté, égalité, fraternité - found all over France, carved in stone on government buildings.  

On Friday night, by chance I connected my phone to the Internet to learn that dozens of Parisians had been gunned down in the neighbouring district to mine; shot in restaurants that I knew, murdered in a music venue I had visited only weeks before. 

As many have said before me, it's difficult to find words for this violence. It remains 'unspeakable'. And it is perhaps for this reason so many French people now are reaching for something that comforts them most, a desire to understand intellectually what happened, within a cultural framework that makes sense to them. 

In the last few days I have read articles, framing the violence in a French cultural context, referring to Voltaire while likening the conflict to a 'war of ideas'. Journalist, Agnes Poirier, writing in the Guardian soon after the event, commented: 'The viciousness those terrorists reserve for France is notable. For obvious reasons: France and Paris are the cradle of the Enlightenment, the birthplace of secularism and the separation between the State and the Church, a beacon of freedom of thought, scepticism and powerful satire.'

Then, as an after-thought, Poirier referred to the broader international context: '(France) is also an active player in fighting Islamists in the world, for example in Mali.' The statement released by Islamic State/Daesh claiming responsibility for the massacres did not refer to French values, but instead characterised Paris as  'the capital of abomination and perversion, the one who lifts the banner of the cross in Europe.' 

More significant I believe, was the document's final reference to France's military interventions in the Middle East, in particular its leading role in air-strikes against Daesh targets (what they described as the 'hitting of Muslims with planes' in the so-called Caliphate). According to survivors from the Bataclan, the killers referred to France's involvement in the Syrian war and Iraq before shooting into the crowd. 

I can understand the French impulse to try and make sense of this terrible violence in a way that offers some comfort to those who are still alive - with this talk of the terrorists attacking France because of its cultural 'values' - but there is a danger in it. 

Even though French people pride themselves on their free speech and ability to debate,  what often strikes me here is a kind of deafness to others, especially if their way of thinking, or way of expressing themselves differs from what is valued by the dominant group. This refusal to engage in a deep level with people different to the norm - informs much social interaction here, which is characterised by distance and self-protection; sometimes it is described as a kind of 'shyness' (adult French people often refer to themselves as shy), a fear of being judged by others, or a fear of difference.  

Yet, when faced by violence of this sort it is necessary to try and imagine how and why five Frenchmen could end up murdering more than one hundred Parisians enjoying a Friday night out with friends. 

And to do this requires an ability to see 'France' from the point of view of a victim; from the point of view of someone who feels locked out of the country's opportunities, because of the 'apartheid' in the poor neighbourhoods, ringing the major cities (to use the phrase of the Prime Minister Manuel Valls). Not only that, it needs an acknowledgement of a broader, shared consciousness of victimhood linked to a largely unacknowledged and unexamined colonial past and post-colonial present.    

A close friend from Mali, Fouss D., for instance, says how he hates the 'French system' - despises the fact that former French colonies remain under-developed economically compared to countries such as Nigeria, hates the fact that countries in West Africa remain dependent on France - but also recognises the fact that the 2013-2014 French military intervention in his country stopped the onward movement of the Islamists. 

He is a practising Muslim. For him, those who committed the atrocities on Friday are not Muslims, but criminals; what they did had nothing to do with Islam. 

But when he speaks about France, there is a negative emotion close to the surface. He says he understands how someone who had grown up in France, felt despised on a daily level, might turn to violence. That said, he insists these men are not Algerian, they are French and the origins of their 'hate' begin here.