Fear in France: how to avoid mass hysteria


I was really hesitating about writing this post. This blog is more about art, travel and pretty photos, but today I really felt that I needed to write about what’s been happening in Paris. No, I won’t be making any conspiracy theories or talking about my political views because, well, that’s just not my thing.

Instead, I wanted to share something that I’ve been unconsciously observing for the last few days and only finally made sense of this evening. As you probably have heard (because it seems to have been talked about in every country), there was a shooting in a satirical newspaper called Charlie Hebdo (hence the slogan “I am Charlie”) on Wednesday as well as a shooting the next day of a police officer. These two incidences were linked and following an overnight manhunt, the shooters took hostages in separated locations until the police “neutralized” them at around 5pm this evening.

The whole city was put on high alert, with a heavily armed police presence in the main train/metro stations and public areas (Louvre, Eiffel Tower, etc….not such a great time to be a tourist). While this did wreak havoc on the metro system, there wasn’t any real sense of mass hysteria. The metro was filled with the same dreary-eyed, bored commuters and cafés were full of chattering friends.

French people (I think especially Parisians) are known to have a rather calm, dare I say, blazé attitude, which can be confusing and sometimes irritating for foreigners. Personally, the lower level of enthusiasm and excitement is hard for me handle sometimes (because I am exactly the opposite). In this case, however, it’s that kind of attitude that managed to keep an entire city calm as a terror alert was underway. It’s also what kept a crowd of 35,000 at the vigil in Place de la Republique from degenerating into a riot under such tense circumstances. The gathering remained peaceful and even very quiet.

One of the biggest differences was seen in the media – while they still tend to try to spice up a news story, it’s still relatively calm and factual. Then you go to the CNN homepage which has the word LOCKDOWN plastered across the entire screen (similar to the 2005 reporting of the riots in the suburbs of Paris that made it look like the entire city was a towering inferno). It seemed as though the picture painted abroad was much more grim than here, which led to a lot of worried messages. It’s alright everyone! I’m fine!

There was tension here of course, but everyone stayed calm and even joked to lighten the mood. One coworker was working from home a few blocks from one of the sites and had to worry about picking up her daughter from a daycare nearby, yet she still remained calm, even sarcastic.

While Paris is a beautiful city full of amazing food and culture, it’s also often the target for these kinds of attacks. Maybe people here are just used to it, or maybe it’s a general attitude of staying rational, rather than emotional that keeps everyone chugging along as if nothing happened. As someone who tends to overreact very quickly, this kind of general sang froid has been very reassuring. The last few days have been a tragedy and instead of panicking, people seem to be mourning, learning and waiting for the city to go back to normal.

***Image taken from Le Figaro newspaper

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