Many were shocked by the reactions of some French people, the conspiracy theories and base instincts stirred by the devastating fire at Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral. They shouldn’t be.
A significant part of the French people are experiencing unprecedented pressure and uncertainty. They have already seen their once-safe world collapse. They are becoming poorer. They are witnessing historic chateaux and wineries being sold off to the highest Chinese bidder and being given new – and what many deem inappropriate – names. They have acutely felt the pressure of the migrant crisis, especially in Paris, and have also had a dearth of robust leadership capable of seriously addressing their concerns and seeking a way out of the quagmire.
So, when these people see one of their most iconic landmarks destroyed, it stands to reason that they will be frightened about the future, about their country’s identity and where it is headed. They may even question whether everything they had taken for granted about the West is collapsing as well.
Those of us who sometimes seem to inhabit a different world often fail to understand the prevalent sentiment, or, even worse, we turn our noses up at it. Western elites have paid a heavy toll for this in the past few years.
I was recently in the neighborhood where I grew up, once a quiet middle-class part of town, and saw Greek flags hanging from balconies here and there. The friend I was with assumed the owners of the flags were extremists. It’s easy to dismiss them as such, but such an attitude fails to consider that these people probably went from being relatively comfortable to being quite poor over the past decade. They cannot move and their apartments are worth nothing on the market.
They probably also resent the demographic changes their neighborhood has experienced with the migrant influx. It’s easy to dismiss them as racist when they complain about their neighborhood changing, but one doesn’t have to have read Yuval Noah Harari or Robert Kagan to reach a reasonable understanding of what is happening worldwide. Furthermore, no one prepared them for their predicament.
The flags on their balconies are a cry of despair. You can hear it if you take the time to talk to them. You can also convey it to the peddlers of hate and false hope that everything can go back to how it was. To be clear, I don’t believe that violent instincts born of the sense of being left behind, trapped or hopeless should be coddled or underplayed. But the worst you can do is dismiss them.