The art of French resistance

Deutsche Welle
6 Min Read

On murals and makeshift memorials, the French are responding to November’s deadly attacks in the French capital with graffiti, music and poetry – art that is helping a nation to heal. Elizabeth Bryant reports from Paris.
Hours after the terrorist attacks, Patrick Jardry headed out with flowers and a few choice phrases from what he calls his ‘personal prophet.’

“I put a rose in front of each of the places where the attacks took place,” said the native Parisian, who was back this past weekend revisiting a Cambodian restaurant and bar where more than a dozen people died in a hail of gunfire. “I also left phrases from Victor Hugo.”

Asked for an example, he quoted from Hugo’s Deeds and Words, referring to the 1870 siege of Paris during the Franco-Prussian war: ‘Paris is the sacred city – who attacks Paris attacks the entire human race.’

“Everything is said there,” Jardry told DW. “Poetry is a language these terrorists cannot understand. But it’s not for them. It’s for us.”

On sidewalks, murals and makeshift memorials for the nearly 500 dead and wounded in this month’s carnage – but also on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and blogs – the French are finding solace through art.

“There’s a sad part about it, because the victims become much more than a name in the newspaper,” said Christophe Huguet, who owns a bar not far from some of the attacks. “But there’s also a joyous part. It’s all the diversity of opinion that is expressed here that pays tribute to the victims.”

Finding strength in ancient motto

Around the city, graffiti artists are spray painting the ancient motto of Paris, Fluctuat Nec Mergitur, Latin for “Tossed but not Sunk,” carrying the emblem of a ship. Politicians and poets are tweeting their favourite odes or their own compositions. Bloggers have posted photos of their favourite street art on the Internet and musicians have composed songs for the Paris victims.

The outpouring is taking place across the country. Murals in the eastern city of Strasbourg and the southwestern town of Biarritz count among myriad post-attack street art gathered under the #SprayForParis hashtag. A park wall in Valenciennes bears a giant mural of the capital and local trains in the northern Pas de Calais region are daubed in colourful, defiant graffiti.

Nestled amid the piles of flowers and gutted candles in front of Le Petit Cambodge restaurant where Jardry made his pilgrimage, are lyrics from Douce France (Sweet France) by French singer Charles Trenet, a poem by George Brassens, and a more contemporary sampling from slam artist Grand Corps Malade. Scrawled on a piece of wilted paper nearby is also a passage from Song of Myself, by 19th-century US poet Walt Whitman, next to an empty bottle of Brooklyn Brewery beer.

“All this tells me French will not be cowed by terrorists,” said American Stuart Scott, here for the Paris climate talks, as he paused to read the messages. “The poetry and images that are here, but also the very strong increase in security, French are making their statement in both ways, they will be strong in heart and in arms.”

At the Place de la Republique, Berlin resident Maida Schmidt contemplated the giant Flutuat mural towering over the square.

“What has impressed me the most is that everything after the attacks is about poetry – the most beautiful poetry,” she told DW.

About horror… and love

To be sure, writers and artists also took to their pens after January’s attacks in Paris, as Je suis Charlie quickly became an international rallying cry for free expression and the irreverent satire of the slain French cartoonists. But this latest round of slayings have touched a broader slice of the population – sparking wider soul searching about French values and identity.

“This shows that we can resist by our culture, by our words, by our ideas,” said Paris area resident Laetitia Gaspar, who stood among a crowd studying the messages piled up at Republique, under a giant statue of Marianne. Nearby, a note pinned under a glass of wine read: “You will not destroy our way of life. Resist!”

Another, attached with a long poem on a board, read “Kabylia is Paris,” reflecting the ethnic Algerian roots of some city residents.

Not all the art is uplifting. “Fuck Daesh” reads some graffiti against the “Islamic State” (IS) group that has claimed responsibility for the attacks. Others are are bitingly playful – like the cartoons of Asterix and Obelix fighting IS next to the Eiffel Tower, posted on Facebook by Italian artist AleXandro Palombo. “For me, it’s the barbarity and the horror that comes out,” said Parisian Raymond Moisa, making his own art tour around the Paris attack sites.

But a few blocks away on the Rue de la Fontaine-au-Roi, where the terrorists gunned down nearly half-a-dozen diners this month, senior citizen Ghislene Moret disagreed.

“This is all about love,” she said, pointing at the mounds of flowers and notes dotting the street on a sunny morning. “Love overcomes hate. We’re still standing. That is the essential message.”

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