I am currently five months into my year abroad in Paris and despite the vicious attacks that have rocked the city, my student life at Paris-Sorbonne University has mostly returned to normal. At the same time the attacks have caused all sorts of changes across the city in terms of heightened security, tourism levels and the introduction of new policies implemented by the for better security. Policies that may not always lead to the kind of change that advantages students or those hoping to maintain vocal freedom.
On Friday November 13 I was babysitting for a French family when the messages began, ‘Are you okay April?’, ‘there’s been a shooting’, ‘ten people killed’, ‘hostages taken’, ‘over 50 dead’. The messages continued and the death toll climbed as France suffered the worst attack on French soil since World War II. I was safe, just outside of Paris in Boulogne-Billancourt when the attacks happened. Sadly 129 innocent people were made victims to a horrible, mindless campaign.
The day after the attacks I spent the day skyping fellow students in Paris as we tried to come to terms with what had happened and how this would change our year abroad in France. Days later my home university, Warwick University was able to assure us that no Warwick students were harmed in the attacks. Unfortunately the same could not be said for the Sorbonne as they lost some of their students to the attack at the Bataclan theatre.
In 2015 Paris was ranked by QS as the best student city for the fourth year running. The results were compiled before the attacks happened and I can not help but wonder if Paris will take first place again in 2016. Higher education data experts at QS assigned scores based on diversity of the student body, quality of life, opportunities for graduate employment, affordability and the quality of the universities. Security and safety does not come into the criteria and yet I have already heard several students reconsider plans to travel to Paris based on what happened.
When I returned to England for the Christmas holidays I found myself somewhat bombarded by family and friends asking me how I felt being in Paris during the attacks. They wanted to know whether I still felt scared and safe living in Paris now, questions that I felt I could answer with a tentative no to a first and yes to the second. One thing I am sure about is that Paris remains the beautiful and culturally rich vibrant city it was before the attacks. I hope that cautious students and travellers will soon regain their courage to travel because it is that kind of fear the terrorists hope to instil. As many have pointed out since the attacks, it is by fighting that fear that we rebel and triumph over terrorism.
On the other hand I do agree with historian Patrick Boucheron who reminds us in his article “The courage to have fear” in French magazine Philosophie, that not all fear is bad. He suggests that fear enables us to have greater vigilance against interior and exterior threats, that threaten our liberty. This can be seen in the heightened security measures in Paris. While the increased bag and ID checks serve as a constant reminder of the attacks they are in place for our safety and it is for reasons such as these that I am able to feel less afraid and continue attending university and social events freely.
I still go to the same bars with my friends in the Bastille area and yet I’m startlingly aware of the difficulty of answering such a question when I have only been in Paris for five months. For most Parisiens, as one of my French friends explained to me, it is difficult to say whether Paris has changed because the battle against acts of terror is ongoing. It began way back in 2015 on January 7 when two members of ISIS forced their way into the offices of Charlie Hedbo and ruthlessly murdered 11 people and continues as the country fights against backlash and decides on the best political methods for preventing further attacks.
My French friend tells me that things have changed, her friends are still unwilling to go out in the evenings and it is quiet on the streets at night in the outskirts of the city where she lives. I realise that deciding whether Paris has changed or not does not mean we forget what has happened. The reminder is still there at the beautiful memorial at Place de Republique. Perhaps a better question is how can we as students, citizens or as a people change in light of the attacks? How can we overcome our fear to continue living our lives of freedom?
I believe that it is crucial that we do not let our anger towards the attackers lead to further acts of violence or backlash against the Muslim community. The French have shown amazing courage in the light of what has happened, demonstrating the true power of ‘solidarité’. On Monday 16 November I stood with fellow students in the Sorbonne for one minutes silence. Even though I did not know the words to the Marseillaise, the feeling of compassion and unity at hearing the French students sing the song was overwhelming.
On the other hand there are those who condoned President Francois Hollande’s decision to bomb Syria directly after the attacks. According to survey by Le Parisien, in November after the attacks, they found in general that the French approved the Hollande’s measures and favoured anger over fear. Four days after the attacks, a majority of 57 percent felt angry and 13 percent still felt afraid. Such anger is understandable and yet I stand with the remainder 40 percent who disagreed with Hollande’s measures. While something must be done against this most despicable type of terrorism, I hope for the right kind of change. Change that does not result in burned cities and families being bombed, but one that results in more long term political plans for curbing the ISIS regime and the renewal of courage for people to once again travel and walk the streets of Paris without fear.
According to the Times Higher Education (THE), due to the ISIS attacks in Paris, UK universities have become subject to the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 which requires academics to monitor students for signs of radicalisation. Another move which I fear will lead to the wrong kind of change. By 22 January, English universities must submit a self-assessment of their level of preparedness to comply with their new duties to the Higher Education Funding Council for England. The problems arise with the use of vague language in the report with the mention of “non-violent extremism”, extremism being defined as, “vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values”. THE rightly points out the difficulty of concluding exactly what ‘british values’ encompasses. This means that in implementing such an act universities are given more power to decide exactly what they consider radical acts of campus ‘extremism’.
Adolf Hitler speaking in Konigsberg before he achieved power said, “The great strength of the totalitarian state is that it will force those who fear it to imitate it.” While this may seem an extreme example I think it is important to recognise the potential danger of how such acts while seeming to try and improve our freedom may actually contributing to restricting our freedom even further. After the Charlie Hedbo attacks the world came together to stand for freedom of speech and I believe it is ideals such as these we need to continue to pursue instead of implementing political acts that restrict freedom of speech.
I have always been proud of my University as a place for free expression where students are quick to voice their anger and opinions on various political topics. I believe that as a student it is even more important to keep pursuing the education that lends itself to political questioning, political activism, and engagement with global topics. Because as students and young adults these issues concern us just the same, and it is us that could one day be responsible for implementing global change and political policies.
April Roach is an English Literature and Creative Writing student at Warwick University. She is currently doing a year abroad at Paris-Sorbonne University where she gives equal time to her studies and gorging on French food. She is also an aspiring journalist who enjoys reading, writing creatively and poetry.