A spectre is haunting Europe

Richard Birch reflects on what the new year may hold for Paris

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As Paris relaxes after its New Year’s celebrations, thousands upon thousands of obliging tourists still teem in the freezing cold. Queues snake out of Notre Dame, out of Sacred Heart, out of the Louvre. The paved path rising up to Montmartre Butte is flooded with people, the restaurants are full to burst and the roads are impassable. In short, nothing out of the ordinary for Paris in late December. And yet, something feels amiss. Standing by these significant attractions, heavily armed soldiers and police are never far away. Armoured vans are never far from sight and submachine guns dangle from officers’ shoulders. The familiar beret peeps out over the crowds, overseeing the safety of this extremely busy tourist season.

It is only sensible that Paris is on high alert – France and Belgium have seemed to be primary targets for terrorist attacks in the past few years. Still reeling from both Nice and the Bataclan attacks, this military presence in the Sacred Heart of the country is only a rational response, motivated by the haunting spectre of terrorism which lingers faintly, a sense of fear in crowds across the city. Police vans could be seen every 20m or so along the streets surrounding the Champs Elysees on New Year’s Eve itself as thousands descended to see the light show and fireworks from the Arc de Triomphe. It is this gloom and pessimism which brought in the New Year.

While these police populate the streets, so do numerous refugee families. Upon arriving into the city from Charles De Gaulle airport, such families waited at traffic lights and junctions, begging for any help to get them somewhere else to go. Bearing signs, young children and all their worldly possessions upon their backs—these families seem in the midst of a fruitless search.

As the Western world lurches from the liberalism that defined its ethos to the protectionism espoused by Trump and Brexiteers, one can only look on cautiously at the posters of Marine Le Pen which are plastered on every column of the road tunnels. The same (and quite legitimate) fear lying behind the soldiers on the streets may well soon bring her to power, and then the hope for these desperate families will, almost certainly, vanish. There can be no doubt that not enough is being done to help these people—driven from their homes by a dictator who wages war unabated, coming to countries which don’t want to acknowledge their existence.

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And so at the time when society most needs unity and strength in the face of legitimate threats, division and enmity characterise political discourse in a way that hasn’t been seen for many years. The demonisation of the Other allows the necessary precautions against terrorism to turn into something far uglier—a rhetoric which instead of being based on hope is based on fear. As Pope Francis said in relation to Trump, the language used is that of ‘building walls, not bridges’. Division is rapidly becoming the norm.

The question that remains as the world moves onward is which will be the more damaging spectre to the fabric of our society—the threats of terrorism, or the threats of those who curb liberty, equality and tolerance in the aim of combating it.