Life on the home front in rural France’s ‘war on terror’

Jonathan Miller, journalist and town councillor in south western France, takes a lighter look on life on the home front in rural France amid the ongoing war on terrorism.

Life on the home front in rural France's 'war on terror'
Line dancing in Pézenas during the "war". Photo: Jonathan Miller

I can tell we’re at war because when the local association for patrimoine (heritage) held its annual dinner last weekend, in front of our 13th century church, four gendarmes from Pézenas (in the old Languedoc-Rousillon region) were present, making sure we were not getting ram-raided. 

Apparently, at the mairie (town hall), we have had a circular from the state, stating that we must arm our municipal police with guns (I am ambivalent, to say the least). They have even sent us two revolvers and our two police officers are to be sent on a course to learn how to shoot them. I am not sure that what makes our municipal police great cops, will be enhanced if they have to carry guns. The mayor agrees, but we must do as we are told by the state, because don’t you know, there is a war on.

(General panic? Not so far. Photo: Jonathan Miller)

Anyway, there’s enough high-calibre weaponry in the village already, given all the chasseurs (hunters), so I imagine that in a pinch, we’d be able to mount a pretty good army of papas, and even pépés (see second photo below), should that be necessary. Although it is hard to know who is the enemy. 

But let me be honest. Although there is a state of emergency in France generally, and sometimes the cops stand around at the big roundabout on the way into Pézenas with scary-looking assault weapons, and there are more cops and soldiers at the airport… I am not noticing a great deal of everyday war consciousness, but rather a pre-occupation with other matters.

We just opened our communal gardens (allotments) and its been a big talking point. You can already see who has the green thumbs and who has not.

(Line dancing during the war on terror. Photo: Jonathan Miller)

We’ve got a new restaurant in the Place de la République and everyone agrees that it has brought a touch of glamour to our humble village.

Are we supposed to be angry? Or afraid? It is not clear how to analyse the threat. The old timers, who remember the Occupation, say sugar is a good thing to stock up on, in time of war. Also olive oil. I am not immediately motivated to go along with this since the shelves at the Super U are, for the moment, well stocked.

(The front line of our home guard. Photo: Jonathan Miller)

As for terrorism, well it’s true that the local Lidl got a molotov cocktail thrown at the door (it was closed at the time) but this was the work of militant wine makers protesting against cheap Spanish imports.

In theory, an attack is possible anywhere.  The murder of the priest at Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray, near Rouen, was a long way away, but it suggested that even quiet communes could be hit.

The official response to this is hard to evaluate.  It is nice that the Gendarmes show up at the village fête. But some also seem to be going slightly mad, perhaps from having worked too much overtime without a break.

(The mobile patrols in the war on terror. Jonathan Miller)

A village friend, an upstanding citizen and vigneron who has carried a tiny utility knife in his pocket since God’s dog was a puppy, had it taken off him the other day by the police, who have charged him with carrying a weapon under the state of emergency. This is the same minuscule knife carried by everyone who works with wines and vines. It’s about as lethal as a biro pen.

And what are we supposed to do about the terrorists? Throw a croissant at them?

The chief of the French internal intelligence service recently warned a committee of the National Assembly that another terrorist attack could tip the country into civil war. Since then, there have been several, and the civil war still seems pretty low-key, relative to some other places that could be mentioned.

Here in my corner of France, we’re still a long way from sauve qui peut (a beautiful French expression, roughly translatable as “every man for himself, “or perhaps more colloquially, channeling Dad’s Army’s Private James Frazer, “we’re doomed.”).  The prime topic of conversation is instead the expectation of a much smaller harvest of grapes than usual, with less juice, as a consequence of no rain. 

But there are some exceptions. There was an angry man at our table at the village fête.  ‘The Muslims, they should get out,” he said, over and over again, jabbing his thumb in the vague direction of the Mediterranean. “Out,” he repeated: (Dehors !) Nobody was paying much attention to him.

Jonathan Miller, a journalist, is an elected town councillor in the Languedoc, and author of France:  A Nation on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (2015).

Follow Jonathan Miller on Twitter @lefoudubaron.


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