Boy, am I glad I’m not a Frenchman. Last week’s dramatic incident on board a Paris-bound train, in which a terrorist atrocity was narrowly averted by a group of heroic passengers, is a stain on French manhood to rival the Battle of Agincourt.
I’m not referring to the incompetence of the French security services, who seem unable to stop terrorists roaming the country, shooting people at will. I’m talking about the response of the French men on the train when they became aware that a crazy-looking Middle Eastern man was stalking the carriages, armed with an assault rifle. The vast majority hid under their seats. Almost the only French nationals to react at all were employees of the Thalys railway company, who, according to one witness (whose account is denied by Thalys), ran from the gunman as fast as they could and locked themselves in an office at the other end of the train.
Contrast this with the reaction of three American men and a 62-year-old British grandfather, all of whom were sitting in the first carriage the terrorist entered. It’s worth pointing out that by the time they decided to act, they’d seen Ayoub El-Khazzani shoot another man in the neck — and, to be fair, this other man, Mark Moogalian, was a French passport-holder and the first to tackle the monster. But it’s quite hard for any self-respecting Frenchman to salvage much national pride from his actions, because Moogalian was also an American, with dual citizenship.
Twenty-three-year-old Spencer Stone, an off-duty US soldier, didn’t hide under his seat or run to the other end of the train. Instead, he ran towards El-Khazzani, fully aware that he was in mortal danger. Miraculously, the terrorist’s gun jammed and Stone managed to reach him before he got off another shot. His friend Alek Skarlatos, a 22-year-old National Guardsman, arrived seconds later and wrenched the AK-47 from El-Khazzani’s hands. The terrorist then produced a Stanley knife and slashed Spencer a couple of times, nearly severing his thumb, but at this point a third American — Anthony Sadler, 23, a childhood friend of the first two — joined the melee, accompanied by Chris Norman, a British IT consultant, and they managed to subdue the gunman and probably saved dozens, possibly hundreds, of lives.
I was in a French motorway service station on Saturday morning, having breakfast with my wife and children, when I heard about it. I googled the story on my phone and was so thrilled to learn that a terrorist attack had been thwarted that I started reading out loud accounts of what had happened before realising just how poorly the French emerged from the episode. When I got to the bit about the train employees locking themselves in their office, I stopped mid-sentence because I was so embarrassed on their behalf. I looked around guiltily, worried that the people on the neighbouring tables had caught some of it. By now, of course, my children were wrapped up in the story and insisted I carry on. So I did, but in a whisper, hoping no one could overhear.
As the details sank in, I half-expected the attitude of the French towards my family and me — and a more conspicuously British bunch it would be hard to imagine — to be transformed. Instead of our feeble attempts to speak the language being met with barely concealed contempt by surly waiters and hotel receptionists, we would be greeted as national saviours, like Allied troops in Paris after the liberation. But no. The turkey-cocking arrogance of the typical French male, the absolute conviction that he sits at the top of the human food chain, was completely unaffected by what had happened on the train. There seemed to be no shame, no sense of national humiliation. Just the standard Gallic shoulder shrug. I suppose I should know by now that the vanity of the French is unassailable.
We were driving past Paris on Monday when François Hollande awarded the Legion d’Honneur to the four men, and I was tempted to come off the autoroute and join the throng of adoring French citizens waiting outside the Elysée Palace to throw garlands of roses at the heroes who’d saved their countrymen. But, of course, there was no throng. Parisians went about their business as usual, blissfully indifferent to their reliance on British and American men to protect them from murderous fascists. Plus ça change.