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I love France... but now I fear for its future

Published 30/07/2016

Horrific acts: floral tributes to the late Fr Jacques Hamel
Horrific acts: floral tributes to the late Fr Jacques Hamel
On guard: France has stepped up security in the wake of the attacks
The shocked reaction to the Promenade des Anglais attack in Nice
Paying homage: a crowd gathers to see flowers and messages placed along the beach of the Promenade des Anglais in Nice
People grieve as they stand in front of floral tributes where bodies fell on the Promenade des Anglais, Nice, on Bastille Day, July 14
People observe a minute’s silence near the Bataclan concert hall in Paris on November 16, 2015
Police investigate the truck used in the terror attack
Southern climes: Ed and Pauline Curran

Like a real-life Day of the Jackal, French police are hunting the Islamist extremists behind a spate of terrorist outrages, including the cut-throat murder of an elderly priest. Ed Curran, who has holidayed in a 16th century French village for the past 12 years, reflects on how the country’s porous borders have created a cosmopolitan society - but also a security nightmare.

The Jackal is somewhere among the crowds in central Paris, stalking his quarry, waiting for the moment when he can assassinate President Charles de Gaulle. Millions have seen the fictional film and read the bestselling book by Frederick Forsyth - The Day of the Jackal - but now there are real-life Jackals haunting France - and no one can be certain where they may strike next. Two more appeared last week in the name of Islamic extremism, brutally murdering Fr Jacques Hamel by the altar of the old church in Saint Etienne du Rouvray.

In Forsyth's book, published 45 years ago, the president survived, but sadly for France today, more than 200 men, women and children have met terrible deaths in Paris, Nice and last week in the Normandy church.

It's been 12 years since I first came to spend my summer holidays in the ancient town of Agde, founded by the Greeks 2,000 years ago, and close by miles of stunning sandy beaches, which, at this time of year, are packed with sunseekers by the tens of thousands.

My little house in the old town dates back to 1505, spanning centuries of troubled times, from the religious battles when Protestants and Catholics slaughtered one another, through the French Revolution, news of which took more than a week to reach here from Paris, to the German occupation, symbolised to this day by concrete wartime bunkers on a beach nearby.

I was sitting on Thursday afternoon in the Place de la Marine, in the shade of the plane trees, discussing the recent terrorism with an English friend, who lives here. "You know," he observed, "that's the flaw of democracy. When there's true democracy, it is easy for terrorism to take advantage of it."

Perhaps nowhere in the world do civil liberties, rights, freedom of expression and movement count for so much as they do in this avowedly secular republic. "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity" - the guiding principles of the French Constitution - are cherished.

The result is a truly multi-cultural society, where even in such a small place as Agde, the diversity of the inhabitants is extraordinary.

France does not collate official census returns on race, or religious belief, but surveys suggest there are as many as five million Muslims among an overwhelmingly Catholic population, though secularism is rife virtually everywhere.

Every year, more than 200,000 people cross the borders of France, from neighbouring Spain and Italy, or, like me and many others, from the UK, Ireland and the Scandinavian countries, or increasingly from Eastern Europe, to live and work as migrants.

My next-door neighbours are from the Czech Republic. The person fixing my window grill is from Slovakia. I went for a meal the other evening to a tiny Lebanese restaurant and around the tables were people from Germany, Britain, Australia and the US.

When I play a weekly game of petanque at the boulodrome by the banks of the Canal du Midi, the players come from as far away as Norway, Sweden and Denmark. Next week, I will meet up with other neighbours who come every year from Thunder Bay in Canada.

Overhead, I see the distinctive blue and yellow livery of yet another Ryanair plane, its undercarriage down as it prepares to land at the tiny airport just outside Agde on the road to Beziers.

Week after week, they come from Edinburgh, Bristol, Luton and Manchester, but also from Stockholm, Oslo, Paris and Dusseldorf, bringing more visitors, but also many who have settled permanently in retirement in the sun of southern France.

Why do they and people like me chose to holiday, or live, in France? Of course, the weather is a fundamental influence. While the migration debate focuses on the UK and Brexit, it is easy to forget the flow of migrants from northern to Southern Europe.

Every day, I meet people from the colder, northern countries, who have chosen to retire full-time to the warmth of the Mediterranean coastline, or its vineyard-laden hinterland, purchasing second homes here.

Other than in high summer, the sun is not as intense as in Spain. Those who settle here come for the quality of living, where the food and wine are arguably the best in Europe. Not least in the list of attractions is the ambience of France, which sticks strongly to its own patriotic identity, despite the obvious encroachment of the English language.

No one takes any particular account of strangers in the way that we might do at home in Northern Ireland. In all my years of being here, I can't recall any attention, or curiosity, being paid to my presence, or, indeed, that of the many other "etrangers" - the French for foreigners.

While that is wonderfully welcoming in a country far from home, it is disturbing, to say the least, in today's dangerous world. The civil liberty which the French afford to me and other visitors is being taken advantage of, to such an extent that if the terrorism continues, closer scrutiny will be needed.

Certainly, I never thought that, one day I would do as I did this morning - download the French government's new smartphone app, which alerts the population about possible security incidents in eight geographic districts of the country.

Nor did I think that the locals attending Sunday morning Mass at the ancient, 12th century cathedral, would ever have any reason to feel uneasy, or think they might require the presence of a police officer to keep a closer security eye, after the appalling incident in the Rouen suburban church this week.

In general, French life is not going to be that easily upset, because it is not in the body politic of this country to erect barriers to civil liberties, or restrictions. The mid-summer wine and music festivals, the open-air concerts all along the Med beach-line are going on as normal.

On Tuesday evening, when the American singer Suzanne Vega performed her concert on the floating stage in the middle of the river Herault, which flows past Agde, thousands lined the banks and the bridge, as they do for summer concerts here.

However, traffic over the usually busy bridge lanes was blocked by police barriers - no doubt a lesson learnt from the tragedy of Nice.

This is the busiest weekend of the year on the roads of France, as millions set off for their annual August holiday. It is traditional for the French national police to decamp here also to control the seasonal crowds, but this year, their presence will have an added significance, not just in Nice, but all along this coastline.

From within its 64 million inhabitants, France has identified around 20,000 on a special security database, of which 10,500 are suspected jihadists. The names of two young men who killed Father Jacques Hamel were somewhere on that list, but still he could not be protected from such a barbaric death before the altar of his church.

The fear remains that somewhere out there, as in Frederick Forsyth's book, more Jackals are at large, but only time and events in the coming weeks and months will tell if that fear is justified, or imaginary.

The advice from the British Government to tourists states that there is a serious threat of terrorism. "Attacks can be indiscriminate. You should be vigilant in public places."

No doubt many people will be vigilant, but in a country with an open-door policy for so many, like myself, who have chosen to come here and enjoy its unique appeal, France will not bow the knee readily to changing its way of life.

Belfast Telegraph

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