Not too long ago, I began to see and to hear the phrase “Même pas peur” on television, in newspapers, even among people on the street. I asked a couple of friends what it meant – more exactly, its significance in current speech. It’s one of those phrases more spoken than written, and more popular than grammatically correct (a little like “pas de souci” or “il n’y a pas de souci,” or no worries, as a way of saying you’re welcome, or “je vous en prie” – which seems to have been an unfortunate borrowing from the equally unfortunate English usage).
“‘Même pas peur‘ is something children say,” my friend Dominique told me. “Something you hear at the schoolyard.”
But I heard it outside the schoolyard. And I’d begun to hear it more and more, in fact.
“It’s a familiar expression that means ‘I’m not even afraid,'” said my friend Philippe, or “‘That doesn’t impress me’, or ‘It’s not a big deal.'”
“But it’s not used so much,” Dominique said.
Well, maybe I hang around with Parisians whose language is more familiar than proper (though I doubt it), but I had heard “même pas peur” spoken a lot. I think it’s a phrase that’s entered the current way of speaking. Who knows if it will last? Many expressions become démodé in a few years, and perhaps this one will too. But for now, it’s here.
I was struck by its usage after seeing it written on a sign affixed to the base of the imposing bronze statue of Marianne – who embodies France and its values – at the Place de la République, following the bloody recent attacks in Paris. After the January killings of several journalists and cartoonists at the weekly Charlie Hebdo (and the connected murders elsewhere in Paris), “Je suis Charlie” was scrawled on the statue, along with other phrases, and it became a statement of affiliation and defiance.
But since these even-more-horrific attacks on people at restaurants, on concertgoers, on Parisians and visitors going about their daily lives (each extraordinary in its own unremarked-upon way), no single phrase has come to represent the solidarity of the French people, or of Parisians, or of anyone who both shows contempt for the hollow ideology of terrorism or who demonstrates support for the victims of it. The recent barbarities were too widespread, perhaps, to lead to a single way of signaling alliance with the forces for tolerance, or for a culture of diversity.
But “même pas peur” is a good one for me. It’s not that you aren’t afraid sometimes in life, but courage is moving beyond fear. Parisians had massed around the statue, despite President François Hollande’s declaration of a state of emergency that forbids public gatherings. They didn’t want to show fear. But they did want to show the loquacious and argumentative bravado of so many French.
Of course, actions are more important than slogans or phrases or affirmations, and the people who stood together at the Place de la République know that. Despite their inquietude, or their anxieties or their all-too vivid realization that life is fragile, that risk can be everywhere, that nothing is certain even on the most ordinary day or the most innocent evening, they made a point of being out in public. As my friend Renaud remarked, people are already beginning to take action outside rather than cower inside at home, and by dining on restaurant terraces, attending theaters and concerts, they’re embracing life rather than retreating from it. Otherwise, what’s the point?
He knows, as I know, as most of us know who aren’t delusional, that we can’t control what others do. We can only change how we ourselves feel or react or interpret. And Parisians have chosen life. I’d much rather live in the vibrant and complicated and maddening cities that I love and that I call home – Paris and New York – among Parisians who disdain the hatred of others by living free, and among New Yorkers who’ve braved terrorists by choosing inclusion over incrimination, than give in to baser instincts. I’d much rather be seen than be hidden, be present than be absent, embrace openness and discovery than to close myself off from the glories and even the horrors of the world. I want, like my friends in France, to embody an abiding spirit of “même pas peur.“