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'Fears of French lurch to right are exaggerated'

A former LTTE child soldier, who became an award-winning author and actor after France gave him asylum, writes about the difficult choices facing his adopted home following the Paris attacks

I was in Lithuania when terrorists attacked Paris on November 13. The Stade de France, outside which three suicide bombers blew themselves up, is in the Saint Denis neighbourhood where I live. It is also the area that houses the highest number of migrants and refugees.

When I left from the French embassy in the Lithuanian capital the next morning, I saw that the people of Vilnius had placed white floral tributes outside the building. When I landed at the Charles de Gaulle airport in the afternoon, it was swarming with armed security personnel. Checks were doubled on those entering the country.

A young girl lights a candle opposite the main entrance of Bataclan concert hall on November 16, in Paris. PIC/Getty Images
A young girl lights a candle opposite the main entrance of Bataclan concert hall on November 16, in Paris. PIC/Getty Images

A three-day state mourning was announced, but the French president had already declared war on the IS. Offices and shops remained shut. The shadow of fear was quite evident. It was as if France wanted to bottle that fear in the bombs that were being loaded on to the French warplanes that were heading towards Syria.

It was always true that the government policy, by default, is mostly anti-migrants. Now, they are killing people in Syria. When I had come to this country 22 years ago, I had faced some difficulties. But what is important to understand is that the people are clearer in their heads than the politicians. The French people are more accommodating, and most refugees are welcomed into the country.

Palpable among migrants — especially Muslims — was the fear that the state may turn its oppressive anger against immigrants and refugees, including those who were just about to enter the country. The Muslim community, especially, is expected to come out and condemn Islamic extremism every time there is an act of terror. This happened this time, too. Islamic preachers were on TV declaring that there is no other country as safe and accommodative of Muslims as France. One Muslim youngster went a step ahead and stood in the middle of Paris Square, telling passing Parisians, ‘I am not a terrorist, come embrace me.'

It is undeniable that the West has bred and propped several extremist organisations like the IS. The Russian president says IS gets funding from 40 countries! It is also largely true that the citizens of the West turn a blind eye to the covert political conspiracies and overt invasions of their imperialist governments. Even though smaller political outfits take on the might of these Underground Colonialists, they are mostly powerless. Forget the invasions abroad, a majority of the citizens of the West do not even challenge the atrocities these states perpetrate on their populations. But even the horrible act of setting off bombs in the midst of innocent people is not enough to dispel this lack of political awareness.

What stood out, though, was the fact that despite all fears, the press and the public did not turn against Muslims or refugees, showing admirable restraint. In fact, when a small group in a condolence gathering started raising slogans against Muslims, the majority of those gathered drove the group away. This showed that the people on the street do know the difference between armed Islamic extremists and the Muslims civil society.

Even the news about attempts to target immigrants in a border town were drowned out by the majority refrain that ‘France is for everyone.’ Paris firmly believes that these killings were not due to a religion, but are due to the acts of a few deranged fanatics who do not understand that religion. And immigrants and refugees too have been registering their condemnations of the attacks in all possible ways.

Not that anyone would say that there is no racism or colour discrimination in France. The response of the extreme right Front Nationale party is worth noticing. It is not very powerful, but a handful of people from the party do spread Islamophobia. The Front Nationale has been spreading anti-Muslim sentiments for the last 20 years, but it has had no major effect. While politicians may mislead, the French people have a great traditional of being inclusive.

Like after 26/11, did everyone turn against Muslims? Like in India, where the BJP and the Sangh Parivar may be doing their best to get people to turn against Islam, people themselves want to live in peace. It is the same here.

People are also bringing up the headscarves issue from last year to say there will be more such clampdowns. But such comparisons are wrong. In France, there are about 50 lakh Muslims, and only 2,000 of those wear the veil. Even back them, I supported the government’s move. Why should secular institutions like schools allow religious symbols? All said, I believe the French majority is — and will remain — tolerant and democratic.

Shobasakthi, born Anthony Jesuthasan, joined the LTTE aged 15 before getting disillusioned and fleeing his motherland. He is the author of Gorilla, which he calls auto-fiction, and several other critically acclaimed books. He starred in this year’s Palm D’Or winner Dheepan, which he says is partly autobiographical. This piece was translated from Tamil.

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