Driving along the main road, I’m happy there are only 11 kilometres to home. I slow down to pass through a village of older cream stone grey-slated houses, interspersed with Roman tile roofed single-storey homes. Halfway through, I reach the open area to the side, not even a proper village square. A blue-uniformed armed figure steps into the road. He holds up one hand; his other grips a service rifle.
I have to stop.
No, I’m not writing as my heroine Carina, and this is not a Roma Novan custos, possibly an ex-colleague of Carina’s. This is France today.
Faced with a mass slaughter of journalists from satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, a siege with hostages in a small town where fugitive terrorist killers armed with Kalashnikovs are determined to die as martyrs, and another armed siege at a kosher supermarket in a densely inhabited eastern part of Paris, French forces of law and order mobilise throughout the country. Regular police, the military style gendarmes, special forces, the CRS, police judiciare, fire brigades, ambulances and the military swarm in large numbers. At the crisis sites, they encircle, they clear, they evacuate civilians. Defending free and open speech, they allow journalists in, but never at operational risk. Their determination and focus are Praetorian, their manner direct, robust, often brusk.
Today, I watch on the television as they take control and ‘neutralise’ both incidents.The operations are efficiently led and executed. The perpetrators are dead. And then as the hostages are released from the supermarket siege in the east of Paris, something very strange happens. Applause breaks out. Not from the traumatised ex-hostages – they are out of it – but from bystanders. This is weird because the police are not particularly loved, particularly in areas with largely ethnic populations.
When the Kouachi brothers slaughtered 12 people in their attack at the offices of Charlie Hebdo, French people saw this not only as the brutal deaths of human beings, but as an assault on the freedom of expression – la liberté d’expression. As inheritors of Voltaire as well as children of the Revolution, they cherish this freedom above many others. And they are showing solidarity with Charlie Hebdo in their hundreds of thousands in fine French tradition of street demonstration. They wave signs, ‘Je suis Charlie’, and shout Liberté! And it will continue over the weekend.
And my roadside stop today? The gendarme bent down, looked through my window, then waved me on. I didn’t look like a security threat, then. To some, these armed officers of the state, solemn in their dark blue, may seem intimidating, but I feel safer for their presence and was glad to be stopped.
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