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Blue, White, and Red: Symbols of Statecraft and Legalised Terror in Post November 13th France

When a wave of terror tore through the streets of Paris last November, there was one image that came to symbolise it all: the Tricolour. It seemed for weeks one’s eyes could not avoid the dazzling displays of blue, white, and red as it was valiantly waved around France, overlaid upon Facebook profile pictures and projected upon iconic landmarks around the globe to illuminate these times of darkness. Like the motif ‘Je suis Charlie’, the mantra of resistance for the previous attacks in the French capital, displaying the tricolour was seen as an act of solidarity, a stance of defiance against terror committed in the name of radical ideology. And perhaps for many, the Tricolour was supposed to be an expression of peace, but a national flag is particularly potent symbol and should never be viewed as a neutral signifier.

As is normally the case in times of terror, the French State quickly seized upon this moment of panic in order to further their own geopolitical and policing agenda, and because wars are increasingly fought in the visual realm, the Tricolour came to play a significant role in this process. Similar to the mantra ‘Je suis Charlie,’ displaying the flag as a stance of solidarity outlines narrow categories of belonging: either you are with us or against us: you are Charlie, or you are a terrorist, you support the nation of France, or you are a terrorist sympathiser, which works to oversimplify a highly complex debate that requires a more nuanced and sensitive response. The state and media continue to frame the War on Terror – although not explicitly – in terms of a ‘Clash of Civilizations’ (Huntington, 1996), which helps to perpetuate the idea that this conflict is natural, inevitable, and thus overlooks the role that Western foreign and domestic policy has played in the rise of ISIS in the Middle East, as well as the problem of radicalistion in Europe.

Such a view also fuels xenophobic discourses and right wing populism, which are worryingly gaining greater currency around Europe at the moment. These ideas not only pose a serious threat to European citizens with dual citizenship, but also raise serious questions about how refugees, who are fleeing terror themselves, will be welcomed into the continent.

Through an exploration of the potency of such symbols of statecraft, as well as the polymorphous effects of colour, I wish to investigate the role the Tricolour played in helping to facilitate a very special kind of terror that has emerged since the events of November 13th, that of a permanent state of emergency. Initially implemented for three months, these emergency powers have resulted in the targeting of Muslim communities with violent policing tactics without juridical oversight, and consequently many innocent citizens have been attacked, humiliated or placed under house arrest. Now that the French government wishes to write the state of emergency into the constitution, it normalises these discriminatory measures, and I would argue, poses just as much a threat, if not more, to the liberal values of Europe than The Islamic State.

In my previous article on terror ‘James Foley VS Jihadi John,’ I outlined how, in our era of globalisation, a nation state must negotiate between competing discourses of enclosure and circulation in order to remain both politically relevant and economically productive. Discourses of enclosure present the nation as an autonomous, coherent body contained within territorial borders and is crucial for creating a sense of national identity and granting sovereignty to the State. Under this model, a populace can become united under common symbols and categories of belonging, such as the national language and flag, while tight territorial borders are drawn to contain this population, marking clear distinctions between insiders and outsiders. However, in our era of increased transnational trade and migration, this homogenizing model for the nation is becoming increasingly untenable, and in order to participate within the global economy the nation must also be viewed as one node within a transnational network, with porous boundaries and linked to other nations through circulations of capital, people and ideas.

A consequence of this shifting paradigm is that power is no longer concentrated around a single sovereign body; the sovereignty of the State becomes undermined as it must also answer to the demands of supranational organisations, while citizens with multiple nationalities may have diffuse allegiances. Although the network model is highly beneficial for the nation is terms of trade etc., it is also its weakness as it can be accessed and infiltrated at any point. Consequently, the nature of war has been transformed too, rarely being waged in the traditional Clausewitzian sense of the term- fought between the armies of two opposing nation states at a specific front line. What we see instead today is what Beck (2005) terms a ‘post national war’, which are deterritorialised and shifting conflicts, where the categories between soldier and civilian, enemy and ally, terrorist and hostage can be interchangeable, and the front lines could be drawn anywhere.

As a result, through the eyes of the State, the War on Terror is predominantly seen as an issue of circulation, as weapons, ideologies and people travel back and forth around global networks, inspiring and incensing the other. However, because these networks are so crucial for the economic survival of the nation, they cannot ever be completely closed. Therefore, the main task for the State is security; they have to constantly anticipate risks, by monitoring and regulating these circuits of movement, as well as profiling and pre-emptively detaining individuals. But in this time of hybridity and heterogeneity, when categories have imploded, how does one determine who or what should pass through these channels? This is where the use of certain potent symbols and images comes into the picture, like the figure of Jihadi John or the Tricolour, as they help establish in the eyes of those conducting these tasks, who exactly should be filtered through security mechanisms, as well as simplifying a highly complex situation and clawing back power for the State in order to conduct such sovereign violence.

So, with this in mind, let us now return to France, the supposed land of ‘Libertie, Egalitie and Fraternite’ and examine how the Tricolour allowed the French state to successfully negotiate these competing discourses in order to gain international support to fight ISIS in Syria, as well being used to dazzle the masses while a permanent state of emergency was ushered into the constitution.

On that fateful night in November, when a group of individuals working in the name of ISIS, conducted their carefully co-ordinated attacks against the Parisian ‘party of perversity’, the victims were a heterogeneous mix of individuals from many nations, including Venezuela, Bulgaria, and Morocco, while many of the French nationals also held dual citizenship. France is clearly not the sole target of ISIS, but rather Paris is a city symbolic of the liberal values which subscribers of radical Islamic ideology find so offensive. Therefore the event should not be viewed as purely an attack upon the French nation, as France can really lay no claim upon the victims, and yet the Tricolour quickly became the unifying symbol of the event, thus tethering it to a particular territory and nation. The message issued from Francois Hollande was quite clear: ‘France is at war’, and immediately after the attack it was claimed France had effectively closed its borders, perpetuating the myth that the nation can still be regarded as an enclosed, autonomous body.

However, as France is part of the Schengen System, it cannot really close its borders, nor can it deal with this deterritorialised threat alone. So at the same time as declaring the borders to be closed, Hollande also called upon other EU states for assistance, invoking a particularly treaty which calls for ‘an obligation of aid and assistance by all the means in their power to any member that is the victim of armed aggression,’ while the spotlight was also turned to Belgium, where the attackers had apparently resided before heading to Paris. In the days that followed, the whole of Europe went into lock down, in a twitching state of panic, with terror levels being raised to severe. The event captured the hearts and minds of other nations precisely because (like the terror threat) our categories of belonging transcend national borders, and because in the War on Terror, it seems that any one could potentially be a victim. This idea was perpetuated by the display of the Tricolour on Facebook profiles, acting as a constant reminder that terror could strike anywhere, at any moment. So in this period, as vigils were held across the continent, the Tricolour came to symbolise something greater than the nation of France: a unified stance against terror across Europe.

In such times of panic and terror, citizens look towards the state for protection, and yet the State, upon closer examination, is an intangible and diffuse presence, a constellation of individuals and institutions who’s main task is to monitor and regulate citizens. It is only when it feels threatened that the State becomes an animated and coherent presence, springing out of the darkness to reveal its face and exert its full force upon those who dare to attack. Potent symbols such as the national flag, as well as dramatised, sombre rituals like national memorials help to grant the state it’s form, and this reification of the state is a topic well explored in the work of the anthropologist Michael Taussig (1980, 1993, 1999). Both of these symbols of Statecraft are highly participative, and help to bring together the imagined community of the nation under unifying symbols to which citizens pledge allegiance and devolve power (Anderson, 1991). In the aftermath of the attacks in Paris, it was reported that sales of the Tricolour soared, while on the day of the official memorial, Hollande called upon the people if France to participate in the events by ‘showing their colours,’ thus granting the State an inescapable, visible presence on the streets of France and around the globe.

It is particularly interesting that Hollande asked France to show their colours during the memorial ceremony, because conventionally, black is the colour of mourning. Have ISIS perhaps indefinitely appropriated these colours for themselves? Another answer may be (and again we must thank Taussig for the explanation) due to the fact that colours can have a strange effect upon human emotions. In the nineteenth century Goethe remarked that those in the West would opt to adorn themselves in the bland monochrome of black and white, as these were the shades of truth, of rationality, of the so called ‘civilized world.’ Colours, on the other hand, were viewed as something uncontainable, animated, evoking emotional responses from all those who behold them, reserved – according to Goethe- for man in ‘a state of nature.’ Bright colours are also particularly useful when waging wars, as this uncontrollable nature adopts a spirit like character: their vivid hues can both possess and captivate, and viewing them becomes a ‘total bodily activity’. However, these capacities of colour have long been forgotten by modern memory, as what was once so sacred has become divorced from their natural sources, now mass produced and commoditised. (Taussig, 2006: 28 -30)

Therefore, this quick spirited character of colour not only helped to exacerbate the emotional and frantic sentiment which gripped the nation, but also allowed the blue, white, and red to leap from their confines of the national flag. Allowing people around France to participate in the memorial by painting their faces with colour, as well making creative displays from bras, towels, shoes, and other household objects. However, it was not only the people of France who were dazzled by the blue, white and red of the Tricolour. In their spirit like character, the colours could not be tethered to their territorial grounding and made appearances around the world, acting as a constant reminder to all that in this post national war, any one is potentially in danger, we are all at risk. As people lay flowers on the ground for those fallen in Paris, parliaments quickly planned their collective military response, and blue, white, and red ties hung around the necks of politicians when debating whether to drop bombs upon the civilians of Raqqa.

The red of the tricolour was originally adopted because it was once the colour of the French oriflamme, which was the King’s battle standard flown during particularly blood thirsty moments of war when no prisoners were taken. Although such practices of medieval barbarism should be long behind us, sadly this bloodthirsty sentiment lives on. Inherent in these nationalistic flag waving practices is the exclusionary process of Othering, and promoting allegiance to the state over other categories of belonging can prove to be highly problematic, especially in such a multicultural and panic stricken environment. This is particularly true in France, a country well known for its aggressive policies of assimilation and laïcité. It becomes increasingly difficult for people with dual citizenship to negotiate aspects of their identity, as they must forsake or downplay elements of their culture that do not confer with what are considered to be French values. In this highly charged political landscape, the main targets who have come to be excluded from the community are French Muslims, and we can see that in the weeks that followed the attacks, the full force of the French state came crashing down upon them. It has been reported that since the introduction of the State of Emergency, over 3200 homes have been raided without a warrant, and almost 400 individuals have been placed under house arrest.

Without the need for juridical oversight, these policing practices have been conducted merely based upon suspicion, and in fact only five of these individuals have actually been charged with terrorist activity. There have also been discussions of a particularly controversial plan to revoke the French citizenship of individuals under suspicion of terrorist activity who have a dual nationality. (Human Rights Watch, 2016)

And so we begin to see the significance of the use of the tricolour as a symbol of memorial for the Paris attacks: unable to actively prevent terror, the only way for a security state to counter the threat of further domestic attacks (other than the blindingly obvious but not so easy method of stopping imperialistic practices overseas, and trying to reduce radicalisation at home) is to extend their policing powers, and widen the net of those who can be filtered through the security apparatus. The flag has helped to establish (amongst narrow minds) who exactly belongs to the nation, and therefore whom exactly lies at the mercy of the security state, with markers of difference coming to be seen as markers of danger. While the people were dazzled by the blue, white, and red, awashed in its colours, it was all too easy to usher in this discriminatory State of emergency, and send more bombs to Raqqa.

Three months on, and the French state wishes to write these emergency powers into the constitution. It is only now, when the blue, white, and red have faded from view that more people are beginning to speak out against it. Should we not, rather than perpetuating these divisive discourses, embrace all the colours of Europe and those who wish to seek refuge within? For surely, a state which openly discriminates against its own citizens based upon their religion, or appearance, is adopting the same tactics of terror which it is supposed to be fighting. The security state uses terror to fight terror, and this, in the end, is going to only perpetuate the problem.

So what can be done as a swift counter manoeuvre to this frantic nationalistic flag waving? Perhaps in these sensitive times, the best course of action is not to start burning the Tricolour, as tempting though it may be. For, as the ever wise Taussig points out, it is in this act of defacement that the symbols of statecraft become their most animated, their most powerful. So if we can’t do away with the damned thing, we will have to re-frame it, and imbue it with a meaning of our own.

A little investigation into the history of the Tricolour reveals that the red and the blue represent their respective saints: St. Denis and St. Martin. St. Denis was the Parisian martyr, who, after his execution, is claimed to have walked six miles from Montmartre, carrying his own bloody head whilst screaming a sermon of repentance. We can already see this sentiment in the hearts and minds of warmongering politicians, and the angered civilians turning upon their own. But what of St. Martin? It is said that St Martin, the keeper of the poor, acted as a spiritual bridge across Europe, and is best known for a humble act of generosity: slashing his cloak in half to share it with a homeless man. Of course, there is a certain level of irony by evoking Christian Saints in order to undermine the clash of civilizations thesis. But I believe there are still important lessons to be learnt about the human condition within these ancient archetypes, and in this great state sponsored war against Islam, it is critical to be able to look beyond the rigid the meaning of these texts, to see they are not fixed, but rather fluid, and therefore can be re-articulated.

So let us instead, in these dark times, summon the spirit of St. Martin, and extend our hands to those who flee terror, to those who encounter it on a daily basis. For surely, they are the people who can teach us the most of what it is to live in permanent a state of terror, and how we should best fight it.

Image courtesy: Facebook / The image Facebook prompted users to add as a profile filter after the Paris attacks.