All across France, blue-white-red national flags flew from buildings on Friday. President Francois Hollande had asked people to hoist the tricolor in patriotic solidarity with the 130 people massacred two weeks ago in Paris.
And in the grand square of the Hotel National des Invalides, Hollande called guests together to mourn the victims in a national ceremony.
Attack survivors appeared alongside grieving families and diplomats representing the countries of foreign victims.
“They were shot dead because they were freedom,” Hollande said of the victims. In the name of the nation, he extended “our compassion, our affection toward the families, the nearest and dearest … parents who no longer see their children. The children who will grow up without their parents.”
Though the President’s words were tender and poetic, the spot chosen for the ceremony was laden with ominous symbolism.
His call to hoist a flag — and seize it as a symbol of national solidarity and pride — carries more undertones in France than it does in other countries.
The French flag symbolizes a more right-wing, militaristic nationalism to many in the country. It was embraced by the Nazi-aligned Vichy regime during World War II and during the country’s colonial era. (However, the flag is often prominently displayed during sporting events, like the 1998 World Cup, which the country won.)
Paris has many expansive public gathering places, but Les Invalides is a collection of museums and monuments to centuries of French military might. The remains of Napoleon Bonaparte are interred there.
Dignitaries and mourners were flanked by rows of stern-faced troops in ceremonial dress, holding weapons at attention.
And Hollande directed a threat at ISIS on behalf of the people gathered before him.
“I promise you solemnly that France will do everything to destroy the army of the fanatics who carried out these crimes,” he said.
Les Invalides was a fitting place for Hollande to stand at the end of a week filled with beating war drums against ISIS.
France at war
Since the November 13 attacks, France has been at war with the militant group, Hollande has maintained, and he has vowed to destroy it. On Monday, French warplanes flew struck at ISIS from the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle.
And Hollande’s appointment calendar filled with meetings with world leaders, starting with British Prime Minister David Cameron on Monday and ending with a visit to Moscow to speak with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday.
His rallying cry has drawn encouraging, if small, echoes.
Cameron called for Britain “to take action now, to help protect us against the terrorism seen on the streets of Paris and elsewhere.” But his Labour Party opposition has said it would oppose the Prime Minister’s proposal to expand UK airstrikes on ISIS positions in Iraq to include Syria, citing a lack of coherent strategy.
A conflict of interests
Pulling Russia into the mix has proved testy.
Russia is not a member of the U.S.-led global coalition against ISIS, although on Thursday, Putin said that his country is ready to cooperate with the coalition.
But there is a conflict of interests between Russia’s approach to Syria and that of the Western allies. The White House has said autocratic Syrian President Bashar al-Assad must go if there’s going to be a peace in the nation torn by war since 2011 — a belief France shares.
But Russia is an ally of Assad’s.
France and Britain are already part of a U.S.-led coalition that has been bombing ISIS targets, while Russia is conducting separate airstrikes against ISIS but also against more moderate groups that oppose Assad. And Russia has coordinated with the forces of Syria’s President.
Adding to tensions, Turkey, a NATO member and a staunch Assad opponent, shot down a Russian military jet this week, saying the plane had crossed into its airspace and ignored multiple warnings. Russia says the plane had been in Syrian airspace.
Hollande also spoke with President Barack Obama, but the United States has shown no clear sign of budging from its vow against a U.S. ground incursion against ISIS.
Germany reverses stance
Germany is constitutionally hampered in participating in attacks outside its borders, but when Chancellor Angela Merkel visited Paris this week, Hollande reportedly called out his close ally.
In a reversal of its previous stance, Germany committed four high-tech reconnaissance fighter planes and logistical help to the fight against ISIS, Spiegel Online reported.
“When the French President asks me to think hard about what more we can do, then it is a responsibility for us to think hard about it,” Merkel said Wednesday.
As France mourns its dead, a key suspect in the attacks is still at large. It has been more than a week since an international arrest warrant was issued for Salah Abdeslam.
Investigators haven’t detailed what they believe his role was in the coordinated series of attacks, but police say Abdeslam may have dropped suicide bombers off at the Stade de France and then made his way to another Paris neighborhood. His fingerprints were found in a car connected with the attacks.