This article is available in audio form read by the authors & available in French here
Every city has its villains. The ‘other.’ The ‘enemy.’ The ‘rival.’ The ‘greatest threat to society.’.. It seems today that we’re all under attack in one form or another, at least judging by social media.
When it comes to ideological differences, violence has always proved to be a universal language. But when it comes to putting a stop to violence, there is never one answer. From nationalist military action to anti-government political activism to community building and skill-sharing, the fight for justice looks differently depending on who you ask. The different ways in which we strive for change made us ask what we might still have in common. If we want so desperately to have peace, we first have to ask why we fight.
While France has officially been at peace since the end of WWII, the French army is still at war. The country boasts the most powerful military in Europe with 3,750 soldiers present in Senegal, Gabon, Djibouti, the Ivory Coast, and the United Arab Emirates. In recent years, an additional 5,700 soldiers have been deployed in anti-jihadist extremism operations, including Operation Barkhane (Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Chad, Mauritania) and Operation Chammal (Syria, Iraq). « France has never abandoned the vision of its own greatness, » explains Bruno L., retired army colonel. “[It] intends to defend its interests in the world… The world is dangerous and the military allows us to be just about everywhere. [France] is one of the few countries that will never abandon its nationals.«
These days, many French nationals feel quite differently about their military’s great mission. This is notably due to the 13,000 French soldiers actively deployed on French soil. After the 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, the French government began sending droves of army troops into the City of Lights, among others, in the hopes of deterring violence and terrorism. This stark increase in military presence has proved controversial, to say the least. The tension came to a boiling point when soldiers were sent to battle protesters in activist demonstrations, including during the Yellow Jackets movement (“Gilets Jaunes”). When the army stands opposite the civilians they vow to fight for, those same civilians start asking questions about who it is they truly protect.
The issue is that the army, like the police, possesses the exceptional right to kill. « The correct term is the right to use legitimate violence,” says Bruno. “[And] that violence is justified and proportionate, of course.” According to Bruno, that justification stems directly from the “bad guys”, the enemies of Europe and the Western world at large: jihadists, the Séléka, the Taliban.
France’s history with terrorism dates back well before 2015. For example, terrorist attacks were a common tactic used on both sides during the Algerian War (1954-1962). Throughout Africa and the Middle East, wounds inflicted by wars, colonization, and the tricky process of decolonization have given way to the development of organized extremist networks: Bruno’s “bad guys.” On September 11, 2001, it was the Twin Towers. In 2015, it was the Paris offices of French publication Charlie Hebdo. That very same year, on November, 13, it was Parisians in cafes, city streets, and a sports stadium who became victims of the very first suicide attacks in the country. While terrorism has become a common enemy worldwide, in France, it has also become justification for increased military presence both domestically and abroad.
Terrorist organizations are known to prey on the most vulnerable. Those who suffer the most from social and economic inequality are easy targets for their promises of ultimate glory and salvation. However, as opposed to investing in resources to attack the structural issues at the heart of expanding underground terrorist networks — poverty and education — France has preferred to take its soldiers to war.
War has never been exclusive to national armies. The rise of Marxism following WWII highlighted the battle between ‘exploiters’ and the ‘exploited’ on an international scale. Mar S., 66 years old, is a Spanish activist who still fights capitalism today as a city councilor. In November 1984, she left her country to join the revolution in Nicaragua. A young nurse at the time, Mar was one of many Europeans who wanted to help the Nicaraguan people overthrow the Somoza dictatorship. A dedicated internationalista and marxista, she made it her mission to find funding abroad to support the people’s revolution.
The FSLNs (Sandinista National Liberation Front) were fighting Somoza’s dictatorship in order to seize the wealth and power of the elites to give back to the working class. They dreamed of a communist system in which the poor would no longer be subjugated to the rich, no longer sacrificed in the name of capitalism. Forty-thousand lives were lost by the end of this extremely bloody conflict. Nevertheless, for Mar, the most difficult part of the war was the movement’s ultimate failure. Although they had successfully overthrown Somoza’s regime, the economic embargo imposed by the United States was a fatal blow, despite all their sacrifices during those years of war.
So if violence begets violence, how do we fight back for what we believe in? How can we put an end to such a vicious cycle? Mat F., 26, and Paula* L., 27, working in Berlin and Paris respectively, have turned to their own communities in order to find a better solution.
Mat, sex worker (SW) and activist since 2015, organizes workshops for fellow SWs in Berlin. Covering topics as diverse as relationships with « civilians » (non-SWs), tax forms, theater/performance classes for work, legal rights, cybersecurity, and sexual health, Mat aims to create a platform of solidarity by and for the SW community that is internationally accessible. Their project, funded by the German government, fights first and foremost the stigmatization and alienation of sex workers. “Sex workers are the demographic that gets murdered the most, » explains Mat. “Violence, beatings, rape, children being taken away, and eviction are all too common in the community… People project a lot onto the idea of a prostitute. They wish we weren’t here. With every other joke or swear-word being whore-phobic, and sex education in our society being so rudimentary, almost everything related to sex encourages hate towards sex workers.” Mat notes that the conditions for SWs have only worsened with the global pandemic. Meanwhile, ignorance and misinformation have all but stagnated.
For Paula*, fighting the good fight means democratizing education. She provides photography classes to those living in underserved neighborhoods in Paris through a local arts organization. Her goal is to share skills and audiovisual equipment that would otherwise be inaccessible to such communities. “But it’s not about bringing them something that’s somehow missing.” Paula explains that handing students the camera means providing the community with the means of production to create and take ownership of their own image. According to her, it is first and foremost a process by which to reveal the inherent beauty within those communities. “Images have enormous power, » explains Paula. “Giving people the power to represent themselves also allows them to reflect on their own qualities and differences, which in turn creates more tolerance. That sense of awareness is something we need to fight for.”
Fighting to protect something or someone came to be a recurring theme in these interviews: the army and the protection of territory, the Marxist struggle and the protection of freedoms, community building and the protection of its most vulnerable members. On the one hand, there are those who fight violence with violence, and on the other, those who seek to deter violence by supporting and educating one another.
Government funding was a much more surprising common denominator linking these four very different fights. While the military is traditionally associated with state power, multiple European governments simultaneously subsidize more radical artistic methods of improving citizens’ lives and deterring community violence. If what we seek is a more stable and sustainable future, shouldn’t we turn to non-violent alternatives that build solidarity, rather than further alienate those who need community most?
The state finances both the military and social programs through taxes, of course. However, it’s easy to feel powerless if one’s not in the business of politics. We can still make investments to improve our own lives, as well as those in our community through radical support and solidarity. If what we seek is peace and justice, we have to first develop firsthand awareness of the cracks in our society’s foundation. The fight to redistribute resources is not only a path to create a better quality of life for the most underprivileged, but a path to creating the tolerance and understanding we need in order to lay down our weapons.
This article has been written in collaboration with Sam Gabbert, Emma Loiret & Mickaël Gayen.