Le quartorze juillet, 14 July, Bastille Day in France celebrates the storming of the Bastille, then a prison and fortress in Paris, two days after the French Revolution began in 1789. It is the equivalent of The 4th of July in the U.S.
For 14 years, I have been coming to France regularly. I am writing from the village in rural France that we frequent. Last night, my wife and I were with French friends for a local fête, where sausage, aligot (a regional potato, cheese and garlic dish), and country wine was served in abundance. At 23:00 hours, over the local river, the annual Feu d’artifice (fireworks) would go off delighting adults and children alike.
No one was checking their portable phones for news. No one was aware until later that the port city of Nice had been attacked at their local celebration and fireworks. A large truck, reportedly filled with guns and grenades, delivered carnage and human grief to families, a community and a nation. The news also reports that a 31-year-man of Tunisian origin was the driver, who allegedly doused his front lights to add to the element of surprise and chaos. He was killed in a hail of bullets by the gendarmes, but not before killing at least 84 women, children and men, and injuring scores more ― many critically. So far it is unknown if he acted alone or if any group has taken some profoundly ideologically distorted “responsibility” for what is considered by the French to be an act of terrorism.
France has a long history of troubles with its Muslim population, many of whom live in banlieus, suburbs or areas outside large cities, which are more like impoverished ghettos where large numbers of the country’s Muslim population live. Racial tensions are common, not unlike what we are seeing in the U.S. between whites and blacks, and citizens and police. There is also perhaps an even greater cultural and community gap between French Muslims and their Catholic, Christian and Jewish fellow countrymen and women.
The country economy has not enjoyed the lift that we see in the U.S., even though so many are left behind. Unemployment in France is high and the government has been ineffective in stimulating growth and creating jobs. Labor tensions are high, giving rise to strikes (être en grève) because of concerns that worker protections against management will be reduced ― to be like most of the rest of the world. We witness business struggles in our local villages and towns; long-standing shops are shuttered. There are fewer travelers and tourists. We have friends working two or three jobs to make ends meet.
And amongst the greatest troubles are the damages, physical, psychic and financial, created by the terrorists attacks already waged against the Republic. In December 2014, presaging last night’s events, were two deadly acts, one the day after the other, in which drivers calling out “Allahu Akbar” ran over 21 pedestrians. January 2015 brought the Charlie Hebdo massacre and its related killings in a kosher market. Other isolated incidents followed, anti-Semitic in particular, until the heretofore unimaginable but yet now imaginable attacks on the Paris music venue, sports stadium and a number of bars and restaurants, killing 130 people; ISIS took “responsibility” for these brutal killings.
And now Nice.
The path out of violence cannot be soon enough, but it will not be soon – in France, the U.S. and throughout this vast world. The angers, the anomie, the distrust, and the lack of opportunities that spawn discontent and are fertile ground for radicalization and mayhem are too great and too enduring.
But violence as a response only begets more violence, so that is not the way, radical right ideologues notwithstanding. Tolerance of one another is a necessary element in transforming cultures and quieting animosities. But it is inclusion of all, opportunities for education and work, for a life worth living, that have made immigrants among the most productive and loyal of citizens in so many countries.
Messages from the U.S. last night asked about our wellbeing. We were sharing the lighthearted mood of 14 juillet, and while we were never near danger, this attack on what is so precious is an awful irony. We feel the nation’s sorrow. For now, look at your loved ones and give them an embrace. Our lives are so transitory and subject to misfortune we need to see these moments as time to renew our attachments and commitments to one another.
The opinions expressed herein are solely my own as a psychiatrist and public health advocate. I receive no support from any pharmaceutical or device company.