“France Mourns” – As I sit at my desk to write, I am aware of a helicopter hovering noisily somewhere in the sky overhead. Normally, the noise of helicopters, or the sirens of the Emergency Services would come and go unnoticed by everyone here. Such noise is part-and-parcel of daily life in Paris, as in every city in the world. But that all changed on Wednesday last. As Parisians flowed out of their offices and workplaces for lunch, news began to break of a horrific terrorist attack at the offices of the magazine Charlie Hebdo in central Paris.
Who could have predicted that this would mark the beginning of a three-day onslaught of violence that would leave 17 people dead people and plunge the nation into shock and disbelief? It is true to say that there was, and still is, a palpable sense of sadness and grief here in Paris. Many of the dead were well known names in the French Press. While the satirical style of Charlie Hebdo is controversial and provokes much difference of opinion in France, the right to freedom of speech is a value that the French passionately uphold. In the past few days as I have chatted with French friends about the recent events, all of them have expressed how sad they are at such a tragic and senseless loss of life. But coupled with that sadness is a deep anger too. Anger at what they see as an attack on freedom and an intolerance on the part of some to accept and respect the right of others to hold views and profess a faith that is different to theirs. Many feel very angry that every Jewish school in France has now had to be placed under police protection.
This sad reality is far from the values of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity that underpin the French Republic. So while the French Tricolour is adorned with black ribbon and flies at half mast all over the city these days, France is indeed mourning those who have lost their lives. And while Parisians have shown amazing resilience and courage at returning to life as normal this week, a troubling question at the back of all our minds is when will our freedom be attacked again and what needs to happen for those who are so uncomfortable with that freedom to realise that violence is never the answer.