Against the backdrop of the Dutch EU Council presidency, OneWorld.nl has sent Reinier Vriend on a mission to identify the everyday European values and concerns. In the interview series #ThisIsMyEurope he speaks with colourful individuals in and of the continent, trying to find out what ‘Europe’ means to us. This week he speaks with Lucile from Paris.
Lucile Pouthier, PhD candidate, sounds strict when I ask her about Europe's most important value: “I have to warn you that this may sound a little beauty pageantly, but I think the essential European value is peace”. She laughs. Even over the meagre Skype connection it creates a sympathetic presence. “We may not be aware of it every day, but a little more than sixty years ago we were actively killing each other. This peace we have here is a fucking accomplishment.”
Lucile's appreciation for Europe's role in current day peace originates from her family history. “When I was small, my grandparents would tell me stories from their youth. You know how people who grow closer to death feel the need to share about their past and experiences? I was an attentive listener and asked questions.” Lucile's maternal grandmother was Bulgarian. She left her homeland when the Iron Curtain went up, separating her from her family, who later felt forced by the security police to denounce her and sever all ties for a period of nearly ten years. Her paternal grandmother grew up near the town of Besancon in the east of France, an area seriously affected during both world wars. Her grandfather, in turn, had fought in the first world war.
A unified Europe is something we often take for granted, but it isn't self-evident at all.
When on the eve of German invasion news came of the approaching troops, he lifted her in a cart and fled the town on foot”. As the French army commander Pétain announced the French surrender, the old man burst into tears. “That always stayed with her”. These stories have made a lasting impression on Lucile. “It is only recently that I realize how valuable it is to have known people with lived experience from that time. A unified Europe is something we often take for granted, but it isn't self-evident at all.”
Attacks in Paris
I speak with Lucile upon her return to Paris. In South Africa she carries out research for her PhD in cultural studies about their criminal justice and prison system. When she returned to Paris a year ago, she arrived home in the frenzy following the Charlie Hebdo attacks. This year her timing wasn't much better, as she landed within a week of the recent attacks. She has trouble finding her bearing in a city where people's response to the attacks are taking shapes she finds hard to digest: “It was haunting to see how soon demonstrations of grief and unity gave way to patriotic warlike sentiment. We're seriously hurt. But we should be willing to look at ourselves.”
Lucile sees a downside to Europe's current form. “The peace we have carved out for ourselves is sometimes to the detriment of others. We promote equality, freedom, diversity and human rights, from which we've built an identity. But we keep double standards.” She mentions Turkey's role in keeping refugees away from the EU as an example: “Regardless of a deteriorating human rights position in their country, Turkey is now invited to join the EU again. Europe conveniently forgets their own responsibility for the state the Middle East is in now.”
We ought to live up to our standards, no matter how ambitious they are. The stories of my grandparents are a grim reminder of what's at stake
Lucile sees a future for Europe in its propensity for criticism. “After the recent attacks here in Paris, there were voices that almost militarily promoted the idea that to overcome the terror, we would need to continue consuming the way we did. It surprised me how many people fell for the reasoning.” The climate summit COP12 brought a change. “It highlighted the absurdity of rebranding a consumerist lifestyle as a marker of French identity. It is not a solution. And neither is indefinitely keeping a state of emergency or stripping people who were born in Europe from their nationalities.” Lucile's hope lies with Europe's ability to notice the discrepancies between values and their application. “We ought to live up to our standards, no matter how ambitious they are. The stories of my grandparents are a grim reminder of what's at stake”.
This interview is part 1 of the series #ThisIsMyEurope. Join the conversation on Twitter [@OneWorldNL] and read the other interviews on the special #ThisIsMyEurope Oneworld page.