|Webdiary - Independent, Ethical, Accountable and Transparent|
Paratrooper deaths- reactions in France
Dylan Kissane is a doctoral candidate in the
The deaths of 10 French soldiers in Afghanistan in an ambush around 50km from Kabul represent the largest single day loss of life by French forces in a combat zone in 25 years. In the quarter century since terrorists from Islamic Jihad (or Hezbollah, depending on who you read) in Lebanon took the lives of 58 French servicemen in a bombing in Beirut the French forces, while often deployed, have not suffered the losses that they have today. Richard asked for a piece on the reaction to the deaths in France and, while it is difficult to sum up the reaction of the people and the press in a few words, the feeling seems to be a mixture of shock and anger.
i-Tele, the most popular local cable news station, has been running ‘Urgent’ scrolling updates for the last couple of hours and it seems that every second or third story is an update as more information about the deaths comes to hand. Reporters are live at the Ministry of Defence, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and various deputes (the equivalent of Australian Federal MPs) are chiming in with their thoughts for the killed and their families. The news that the President will be in Afghanistan tonight to speak to commanders and troops is being greeted as the right thing to do only a few months after France deployed a further 700 troops to aid in defeating the Taliban and their terrorist allies. The multi-language France24 news channel is taking a similar line, though its reporters on the ground in Afghanistan are making sure to explain that such attacks on NATO troops are a daily occurrence. One report (in French) reminded viewers that while 10 soldiers were killed and around 20 injured, these are neither the first to be killed while in Afghanistan nor will they likely be the last. Considering that the government is assuring the country that they will continue their deployment as part of the wider counter-terrorism strategy of France, one can only assume, sadly, that the reporter is correct. BFM, another cable news channel, has a reporter on the ground in Kabul who is being interviewed every 15 minutes by phone against a background of file footage of what, one has to admit, looks to be a rather less dangerous road than the one that upon which the French soldiers were killed. BFM has nothing that anyone else isn’t already reporting and I imagine that nothing else will be ‘real news’ until the names of the killed are released or the President touches down in Kabul.
The press will run with this tomorrow; it’s sure to be the front page of all the major papers. For the moment the online editions of the newspapers are running the story on their own ‘front pages’, though most of the information seems to me to be wire copy. L’Express, a weekly newsmagazine similar to Time or Newsweek, quotes a Taliban spokesman who claims that the ambush of French soldiers was in response to air strikes that killed 5 Taliban fighters and 15 civilians. It also notes that 176 NATO soldiers have lost their lives so far this year in Afghanistan. 20minutes, a free, weekday newspaper, is the first I’ve seen that identifies the precise units of the dead. One is from the department of Oise in Picardie, north of Paris and the other is from Tarn in the Midi-Pyranees, close to the Spanish border. We have a friend who serves as a doctor in the Army down that way but a quick call to my wife confirms what I had hoped: he is not currently deployed to Afghanistan. 20minutes also makes a point of noting that – before today – only 14 French soldiers had been killed in Afghanistan. Today’s toll now seems even more devastating. Le Figaro, a centre-right daily and the journal we normally buy, has nothing that anyone else isn’t reporting, save a reminder of the day in 2004 that France lost 9 soldiers in Ivory Coast. The newspapers Le Monde and Le Parisien and the newsmagazine Le Point all seem to be relying on AFP copy. This will change by tomorrow morning.
President Sarkozy will be in Kabul tonight and his statements so far – all of which stress the French commitment to anti-terrorism and the mission in Afghanistan – present a position of strength. He has assured the soldiers and the country that their compatriots inside ‘The Hexagon’ are standing by them. There will be no ‘cutting and running’ by Sarko over this despite the loss of life. French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner was caught a little on the back foot by the news. He has been busy the last few days flying backwards and forwards to Georgia and the east of Europe trying to broker a peace deal there. Today he was in Brussels but is returning to Paris as I type this (2pm Paris time). Journalists tried to get a comment as he was leaving Brussels but he gave them nothing of substance. He’ll most likely be all over the news tonight with Sarkozy out of the country and will add to the condolences he has offered to the families of the dead. The Socialist Party, the major non-government party, hasn’t managed to get anyone onto the TV with a response as yet. The last update on the news section of their website is from more than a week ago and is an obituary for a former Socialist Party leader. Segolene Royal, the face of the Socialists in France, will more than likely be on the news tonight, though I wouldn’t think she’ll do much more than agree with Sarkozy’s position (more on why I think this below).
So if that’s how it is being reported and that is the response so far by the politicians, what’s left? The response by the people, obviously. Being the middle of the day and at least a few hours before I’ll be heading to the bar for a glass or sitting down to dinner I don’t really have much of a way of gauging how people think outside of the rather unscientific method of asking my wife over the phone and chatting with the guy next door when he came home for lunch.
The guy next door was shocked but not surprised. Shocked at the number killed but not surprised that it happened. As he shrugged to me, “You spend enough time in a dangerous place like Afghanistan and these things are bound to happen”. He’s right, of course, but it doesn’t make it any less shocking.
My wife reacted a little differently. I was the first to let her know what had happened – the benefits of working with cable news in the background, I guess – and in her wonderful French-Australian accent she told me the best thing for France to do was to go in and “kick their arse”. She was happy Sarkozy had flown out for Afghanistan and reckons that the French won’t lose heart for the mission nor have anyone seriously calling for withdrawal.
My feeling is that she is right. The French people were vehemently against the Iraq War and most I meet remain that way. There is a strong anti-Bush feeling even among those of the political right and an underlying anti-Americanism that manifests itself from time-to-time in the form of protests or newspaper op-eds. Yet at the same time the French have made the differentiation between the Iraq War (which most think is a ‘bad’ war) and the conflict in Afghanistan (which most see as a just war). There is no real debate about whether the French should be in Afghanistan and – save for the fringe left and fringe right – there is no serious political party or group calling for withdrawal. While all would recognise, like my neighbour, that more deaths are not only possible but probable, I doubt this will dissuade them from their support for the mission. If anything the deaths today and those to come will harden the resolve of the French to bring peace to Afghanistan.
Prayers will be said in the churches, synagogues and mosques of France tonight for the fallen and then, in the morning, this country will again take up its arms in the international effort in Afghanistan. If the Taliban thought that they could scare France into retreat they have sorely underestimated their opponent.