France's Critical Crossroads

A woman holds a French flag colored placard with French translating as "we are Paris" whilst attending a vigil for victims of the deadly Paris attacks, in Trafalgar Square, London, Saturday, Nov. 14, 2015. French President Francois Hollande said more than 120 people died Friday night in shootings at Paris cafes, suicide bombings near France's national stadium and a hostage-taking slaughter inside a concert hall. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)/LMD124/263092334897/1511141544
A woman holds a French flag colored placard with French translating as "we are Paris" whilst attending a vigil for victims of the deadly Paris attacks, in Trafalgar Square, London, Saturday, Nov. 14, 2015. French President Francois Hollande said more than 120 people died Friday night in shootings at Paris cafes, suicide bombings near France's national stadium and a hostage-taking slaughter inside a concert hall. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)/LMD124/263092334897/1511141544

First of all, thank you to all those who have expressed concern about our friends and acquaintances in Paris following this week's attacks. As far as we know, they are all OK, although obviously somewhat shaken.

Calamities like the terrorist attacks on Friday unfortunately bring out the best and worst in us. Many will seize it as an opportunity to mount their favorite soapbox, even when there is no apparent connection to the current events. Or even more insidious, many will launch headlong into generalizations that lump all Muslims into the same lot of radical terrorists as those responsible for Friday's carnage.

Personally, I am as shocked, saddened, and dismayed at the attacks as anyone; but I am not surprised.

For decades now, France has had a growing Muslim population, now at almost 10% of the total population, equaled only in Western Europe by that of Germany. Many of these, whose parents immigrated to France from the former North African French colonies, have grown up fully integrated into mainstream French society. Many others, however, are more recent arrivals and have remained marginalized and often discriminated against. They are often relegated to the "HLM," the large government-subsidized housing behemoths in the suburbs of France's large cities. These disenfranchised populations are ripe for the harvest of radical organizations looking for recruits.

So the decisions President Hollande and his cohorts are facing are extremely complex, and anyone who says there are simple solutions is fooling themselves. France prides itself on the concept of laïcité, or secularism, whereby all religions have the freedom to practice their beliefs, but NOT the freedom to impose their beliefs on others. Government is theoretically staunchly secular, although, especially at times like this, there is widespread ambivalence on this subject. Today's memorial service for the victims was not held at a government building or a civic gathering place, but at the hallowed Notre Dame de Paris cathedral. The human heart in times like this clearly cries for something more than government consolation or even resolve to track down the perpetrators.

Should -- and could -- the government suspend free speech and monitor sermons in the thousands of mosques in France to root out clerics preaching jihad, as some suggest?

Should France close its borders to ALL migrants seeking asylum just in case a small number of them are planning attacks?

I am in no position to offer solutions, but I do have a wish list for France:

  • Find ways to better integrate Muslims into the fabric of French society, reducing their vulnerability to radical predators
  • Remain united -- and moderate -- in the face of disagreements over the right course of action
  • With a renewed commitment to love their neighbor, the French return to normalcy as soon as possible
  • Travelers not be deterred from visiting the City of Lights, taking normal precautions but not giving into fear

For now, Paris is mourning. And we will sit and we will mourn with her.

Nous sommes tous Paris.