Academics react to terrorism in France, study-abroad students safe

Last modified: Saturday, January 10, 2015

In an essay he wrote in response to the terrorism that occurred in Paris while he was visiting this week, Ronald C. Rosbottom opened with a response to someone who asked if he was safe.

“The answer is yes, we are, but we do not live in safe times,” he wrote.

Rosbottom, an Amherst college professor who studies French culture and architecture, has been in Paris since Dec. 27. He is one of dozens of Valley residents who were in Paris — and confirmed to be safe — during the killings of 12 people Wednesday at the Charlie Hebdo newspaper offices.

University of Massachusetts Amherst spokesman Patrick Callahan said the school has 19 students in Paris on study abroad programs. Smith College has 21 students on its year-long Paris study abroad program, according to Sara Kortesluoma, the college’s International Study and International Students Coordinator.

The Smith program is currently on break and some students are traveling. Kortesluoma said that within 12 hours of Wednesday’s shootings, every student was accounted for. On Thursday, a female police officer was shot in the Paris suburb of Montrouge, located about three miles away from Reid Hall Global Center in Montparnasse, where the program is based.

In an email Friday, Rosbottom said he was shocked by the terrorist attack on the Charlie Hebdo newspaper offices, especially because it happened in what he called a typically quiet neighborhood close to the Place de la Bastille. “I didn’t believe it at first, that is, that some of the most famous editorial cartoonists in France had just been killed, not one or two, but four of the best known, plus their colleagues,” he said.

Rosbottom said that prior to the shooting, there had been a sense of excitement in the air because it was the first day of the winter sales. In Europe, retail shops only offer two sales per year. “But soon streets were emptier, and so were stores. One always wonders: is it safe?” he explained. “There was a palpable sense of wariness if not fear, and there still is.”

On Friday, Rosbottom walked through the Marais, an area he compared to New York’s SoHo, not far from Charlie Hebdo. He said he was moved by the display of solidarity he saw: everywhere signs reading “Je suis Charlie,” “I am Charlie” while photos of the murdered cartoonists were on display.

Progress set back

Mehammed Mack is a Smith College professor who studies Franco-Arab culture. In a telephone interview Friday after French security forces killed three suspects in Wednesday’s terrorist attack and subsequent hostage-taking at a kosher supermarket, Mack explained what he called a long history of racial tension in Paris.

He said that many Arab and Muslim immigrants came to France in the post-World War II years to escape oppressive governments in their home countries. They took jobs in manufacturing and construction, which provided for a thriving populace during boom years. But after the energy crisis in the 1970s, many became unemployed.

The result, he said, was a new generation of French-born people of Arab and Muslim heritage born into poverty, living in “les banlieues” — “What we could call, in quotes, ‘the ghetto,’ ” he said.

This upbringing in urban decay and discrimination led to a population of disobedient youth, Mack explained. “It started as delinquency before it was Islamic radicalism,” he said.

Two of the suspected terrorists who carried out Wednesday’s killings, Saïd and Chérif Kouachi, were brought up in that environment prior to traveling to Yemen where they received training from an al-Qaida affiliate, Mack said.

Mack has studied the Muslim response to the cartoons of the prophet Mohammed featured in Charlie Hebdo over the last few years. He said the response he had seen from nearly all Muslims was that they disliked the cartoons, yet they understood the importance of allowing them to be drawn.

“Western Muslims born in France, the U.K. or Belgium understand the necessity of free speech,” he explained. “They cherish it.”

In fact, Mack said he has seen through social media that French Muslims have joined in with the majority of other French people in what he call a “generous outpouring of grief and mourning.” They “have been going out to the streets, going to memorials, wearing “I am Charlie” T-shirts.

Now, he said gains in tolerance toward Muslims have been set back. “The actions of a few radicals have taken away the progress that has been made,” Mack added.

Confirmed safe

Though participants in the Smith College program stay with host families throughout Paris, both the director and associate director are based at the Reid Hall Global Center in Montparnasse and have provided guidance to the students. On Thursday, the college emailed students and their parents with safety advice, including suggestions for students to limit time outdoors and to check in with host families.

Before students depart for any study-abroad program they are oriented in Northampton where they receive general safety information including suggestions to stay in groups, to remain cognizant of their American identities and what Kortesluoma called “street smarts.” The students also receive a handbook addressing health and safety information. The orientation also includes program-specific information delivered by the director.

Both the program’s director Christophe Gole and the associate director are French.

“It’s really great to have local people to handle situations like this,” Kortesluoma said.

She said the college is well-prepared to handle emergency situations like this. They keep emergency contact information on file for the students, including phone numbers of host families. Students also receive a French cell phone when the program begins.

UMass officials have also contacted students studying in Paris, urging them to steer clear of political demonstrations and register their whereabouts with the U.S. Department of State, according to Callahan.

Chris Lindahl can be reached at


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