When Patrice Evra and the French national football team lined up at Wembley last night, it was a moment of poignant defiance which earned an instant place in sporting iconography. I shed a tear, but I didn’t sing La Marseillaise.
When horrendous things like the attacks on Paris happen, our first instincts are to offer solidarity and what help we can. And, yes, to hit back. The night after the attack, France launched 20 separate air strikes on what it said were Isis strongholds in Syria. And at home, an extra 115,000 gendarmes were deployed across France, leading to hundreds of raids with dozens of arrests. In the days following attacks on the West, there’s often a security snatch and grab, and this time was no different. The British government announced 1,900 extra secret service personnel and extra funding. Cameron, in his sternest voice, said the attacks ‘strengthen the case for military action in Syria’ and said that we needed increased surveillance. In claiming that British secret services had foiled seven plots this year alone, he succeeded in ratcheting the panic levels up another notch.
And the singing of national anthems is, certainly, an understandable response: if your country is under attack, you sing your country's song. But the danger is that, underneath this, jingoism is aroused. As a black Londoner, I will admit to a fear that police forces - already predisposed to treating black and brown people much more harshly - are going to be encouraged to crack more skulls and scrap more rights. And if police forces become more brutal, it follows that the public might too. Following the Charlie Hebdo attacks, a number of French mosques were vandalised. We read this morning about appalling scenes in Fife – hardly a hotbed of Islamic extremism – where a group of young men beat up a Muslim chip shop owner. And we should not forget how the heightened sensibilities and more active armed policing that followed the 7/7 London bombings lead to the death of Jean Charles de Menezes.
Fear is a strong motivator - and blind eyes will be turned as Muslims (or people who look like them) are profiled on both sides of the Channel. Being black in the USA can often be a fatal condition. The same discrepancies exist when it comes to police stopping certain groups in the EU, but the numbers are smaller and the officers are much less likely to be carrying firearms. Unsurprisingly, calls for more armed police on the streets of our big cities leave me cold.
So as La Marseillaise boomed out at Wembley, I couldn’t bring myself to sing those words as I watched – at least, not at the moment. My boeuf with this song is that it’s part of the ramping up of machismo. In a nutshell, the whole thing (the first verse anyway) is just aggressive sabre-rattling which builds towards a climax of:
Qu’un sang impur abreuve nos sillons!
Let impure blood water our furrows
I can hear you screaming ‘it’s just a song!’ but these are real words which have real history. They were written to inspire post-revolutionary France to rise up and repel the Austrians and Prussians forces who were at large ‘dans les campagnes’ in 1792. But, like all the good colonisers, France has spent the following two hundred years watering all sorts of furrows with all kinds of 'impure blood'.
If you are descended from migrants it’s hard to hear this and still feel that you are part of the ‘enfants de la Patries’ rather than those invading ‘féroces soldats’. Throughout France’s history impure blood, whether in the Middle Eastern and African nations or sub-Saharan Africa, has flowed pretty freely. The revenge bombing raids, now entering their third night, suggest this will be the case in the future.
When dispossessed nations ask for reparations or suggest that historical wrongs be acknowledged and righted, they are shooed away and told that it’s time to let history be history and stop fixating. But enriched nations can virtually demand you sing about what was done to your ancestors.
I stand with France and with my neighbours of all faiths and none. We need peace and unity not aggression and division. But I didn’t sing. For one night only, La Marseillaise was left on the bench.