Vive la France; vive la liberte

THE horrific events in Paris focused our attention not only on that beautiful city and its vast cosmopolitan population with its intractable social problems, and on the basic and enduring principles of freedom, equality and brotherhood, but also on the impossibility of a liberal society NOT playing into the hands of the fanatics.

The only response to watching the massed rally of some 1.6 million people (all those world leaders marching together – not only Hollande, Merkel and Cameron but also Israel’s Netanyahu and Palestine’s Mahmud Abbas, and the bizarre absence of the USA), was to be deeply moved at the demonstration of solidarity by ordinary French people, Christian, atheist, Jew and Muslim, and to hold some of the images in one’s mind, the Muslim family handing out white flowers to passers-by, the messages of support, the courage of the victims’ families, the brandishing of giant pens and pencils.

Freedom of speech. That’s what we all want it to be about. Our right to pick up Private Eye or Charlie Hebdo and laugh at the cruel cartoons of self-important politicians, vain celebrities, Aunt Sallies of every creed and colour. We want to enjoy the acerbic genius of Gerald Scarfe, Ronald Searle, Cabu, Wolinski, the Telegraph’s unfailingly brilliant Matt Pritchett, the Guardian’s similarly acute Steve Bell. They may be very rude about people or institutions that we admire or love – but so often they skewer a truth, uncomfortably perhaps, about the attitudes of their subjects, or even more presciently, our attitudes to these people.

We cherish our freedoms, even as they are constantly and insidiously eroded. Many of us are dismayed at the degree of surveillance to which we are all now subjected in the course of our daily lives, shopping, driving along the A303 or M3, or moving around our major cities. The combination of CCTV, Oyster and credit cards, car number-recognition systems, tracking devices and mobile phone records means that anyone equipped with the usual accessories of life in the 21st century can be followed and their path and encounters recorded on an average day out in London.

A friend often comments that the enduring legacy of Osama bin Laden has been to make air travel longer, more unpleasant, stressful and exhausting. Who looks forward to a flight these days?

But with the advent of the super tech-savvy fanatics of what David Cameron calls “this death cult of Islamist extremist violence”, our freedoms are under greater threat than ever.

And at the forefront of all of this is the unpalatable fact that whatever we do, they are delighted. In a society that values free speech, we cannot NOT report their actions. We are bound by the very things that we value – a free press, democracy, an open society that challenges the power of institutions – to give them what they want, an ever higher profile to attract more alienated, isolated, easily manipulated, angry, disenfranchised people to their cause.

Even their look is glamorous – all that black. (If you have seen the great Coen brothers film No Country For Old Men, you may know that cult status has been accorded by fans to the charismatic black-clad figure of Chigurh, the sardonic, merciless killer played by Javier Bardem.)

Our only sane response, our only possible response, to the horrors of Paris, the murder of Lee Rigby in Greenwich and the certainty that such things, different, perhaps worse, will happen again, is to get on with our lives.

But not complacently and not blindly.

We need to value what we have and the things that really matter, to show we care about our families and friends and communities, our way of life. We need to be aware of the threats that face us, from our own understandable reactions to shocking events such as this. We need not to let the extremists of any faction win – whether it is IS or PEGIDA, the National Front here or in France, or the anarchists of Class War .

Sometimes the hardest thing is to be a decent ordinary person. But last Sunday, we saw millions of them, on the streets.

It’s not so much a case of Je suis Charlie or Je suis Ahmed or Je suis Juif as Je suis vous et vous etes moi.

Fanny Charles