Peace is too meek for its own good

This most recent flare-up of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has echoed loudly through the streets of Paris these past few weeks. Among the French media and politicians, there is much hand-wringing over l’importation du conflit — the risk of “importing” the conflict into France. It’s a turn of phrase that intrigues me for a couple reasons:

  1. The notion that a conflict can be “imported” suggests that it exists in its entirety outside our borders; that the French foreign minister isn’t actively involved in diplomacy, and that it doesn’t affect a diverse city full of immigrants such as Paris.

  2. This language frames violent conflict in much the same way as, say, protecting against invasive species. The subtext is clear: we need to beef up security and surveillance to prevent these foreign elements from contaminating our society. The conflict becomes a spectre.

Of course, this frame of mind is like candy for journalists. Coverage (exhibits one, two, three) of the recent demonstrations in Barbès and Sarcelles included breathless commentary about rogue, religion-crazed bands of provocateurs, bent on derailing an otherwise peaceful protest.

Over the next few days, the spectre would get larger and more menacing. Reports of arrests and charges, complete with voyeuristic accounts of who “those people” are. Official statements from the President and Prime Minister, who condemn the violence and want to forbid further demonstrations. All this is happening in the margins, next to the daily front-page photos of absolute hell on earth. Nobody wants to import that conflict.

When tensions are high, peace becomes a footnote. Indeed, the Libération article linked above concludes with a dry, single-sentence paragraph that seems almost as if it was thrown in at the last second to meet the word count:

Samedi, en province, des manifestations propalestiniennes se sont tenues sans heurts, notamment à Lyon, Bordeaux et Montpellier.

Saturday, elsewhere in the country, pro-palestinian demonstrations were held without incident, notably in Lyon, Bordeaux, and Montpellier.

As a pacifist, it pains me to see people resort to violence to make a point. It’s important to call out that behaviour and condemn it. But we have gone past that; we’re fetishising it. The successful, peaceful demonstrations in Lyon, Bordeaux, and Montpellier deserved in-depth analysis and follow-up articles. They deserved to be more than a token silver lining on the cloud of fear that has settled over this country.

* * *

This past Sunday, I learned that a pro-peace rally was to be held that afternoon at the Place du Louvre. I went to lend my voice and see what it was all about. In response to the violence, hate speech, and polarizing climate of the previous weeks, the organisers sought to push a simple message of coexistence. They went to great lengths to cooperate with the authorities, including changing the location at the last minute.

To prevent any potential flare-ups, Palestinian and Israeli flags were banned from the gathering — only the French flag was permitted. Pre-authorised signs were distributed among the crowd, bearing one-word messages: “Peace”, “Fraternity”, “Equality”, “Coexistence”. We sang the Marseillaise to kick things off, patted each others’ backs for not being bigots, and finished the hour-long ceremony with All You Need is Love. It was perfectly peaceful, staid, and forgettable. It’s as if all the passion had been squeezed out by bureaucracy.

Near the end of the ceremony, one of the organisers challenged the crowd: “Extremists will always be vocal. We, the silent majority, must continue to give peace a voice.” Now that’s what I’m talking about. I was waiting to hear about next steps. Maybe these rallies would become a weekly thing? Should we attend the next tense political march as a contingent for peace? How can we build momentum?

No next steps materialised. The microphone cut out, the crowd dissipated, and I was left wanting. I asked an organiser when the next rally would be. “Oh, maybe in September when school’s back in session,” she replied.

* * *

If I’m painting a bleak picture of the movement for peace, know that this rally did get picked up by the media — AFP and France Inter were there with cameras and microphones. Libération published a story about it in Monday’s newspaper. So it wasn’t fruitless. But there certainly won’t be any follow-up articles.

Sadly, I think that we’ve been telling ghost stories for so long that we’ve forgotten how to imagine a happy ending. But if we can keep promoting peace, especially on the ground at future demonstrations, we just might be able to scare away the spectre.

I’d love to make a dent in this importation du conflit boogeyman. And who knows — in the process, we might end up with something worth exporting.

Sam Nabi Sam Nabi