January 9: France and the war on freedom

THE symbolism could not have been more striking last night when the Eiffel Tower’s lights were dimmed and France again fell silent to honour the victims of this week’s al-Qaida-inspired terrorist attacks. This was not just an attack on France and freedom of speech after 12 people were gunned down by assassins at the Paris offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, but a direct assault on the liberty of Europe.

It was perpetrated by an evil terrorist network prepared to undertake monstrous atrocities as part of a barbaric attempt to divide and rule. They tried and failed in the United States of America on September 11, 2001. The same in Madrid on March 11, 2004, and then London’s transport network experienced unspeakable carnage on July 7, 2005.

And now Paris mourns its dead with a quiet dignity which spoke volumes about the wishes of the silent majority who will not allow a hateful minority to alienate communities and cultures because of misguided beliefs which are a perversion of Islamism, and which do not belong to a civilised society.

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Though the focus is understandably on France as a grief-stricken country comes to terms with this unspeakable violence and the political ramifications which could play into the hands of Marine Le Pen’s deeply divisive far-right Front National, the French can draw comfort from the solidarity shown by people across Europe who have held deeply moving spontaneous vigils of their own.

These tributes, including an emotional gathering in Trafalgar Square, have sent a powerful message to al-Qaida, and its acolytes, that it will never suppress the rights of law-abiding people in a multi-cultural society that is respectful – and tolerant – of all in a changing world. At a time of great vigilance, not least in Britain, such acts remain the best deterrent in nullifying this terror threat and winning the war on freedom now being waged.

Food for thought

Wake-up call over school hunger

MANY WILL be surprised and shocked by the statistic that nearly half of all teachers in Yorkshire, more than any other region, have bought food for pupils suspected of having gone without an early morning snack. This revelation is made more perplexing by the amount of help that is now available to youngsters from deprived backgrounds, whether it be breakfast clubs, free school meals, food banks or schemes run by churches of all denominations.

Yet, while Labour will contend that this is further evidence of the coalition’s cuts having a disproportionate effect on the very poorest members of society, this report is another urgent reminder – if one was needed – that the Government needs to do far more to ensure that its support does, in fact, reach the most vulnerable youngsters. Ministers have much to prove before this assurance can be given. Yet it is their interests that they do so. After all, nearly 90 per cent of Yorkshire teachers said being hungry or thirsty made their pupils unable to concentrate on classroom lessons. The implication is clear. Such youngsters will struggle to pass the most basic of academic tests unless they enjoy regular food and a more nourishing diet on a daily basis.

Once again, the key is the strength of the relationship between teachers and the parents of the pupils concerned, with early intervention critical if the problems associated with hunger are not to escalate into longer-term difficulties for the youngsters concerned – and the welfare system. It is imperative that this wake-up call is heeded.

Out of fashion

M&S loses its sparkle – again

A CORNERSTONE of the high street since its Leeds Market inception in the late 1800s, Marks & Spencer needs to be careful that it does not lose any more of its once cherished sparkle because it cannot meet the expectations of a 21st century generation of shoppers. Its Christmas trading update could not have been worse – this was the 14th consecutive quarter in which like-for-like sales were down.

A top flight football manager would not be able to survive such a slump in performance and chief executive Marc Bolland’s future will come under scrutiny unless he presides over a revival in 2015.

Mr Bolland blames unseasonable weather and distribution difficulties for the slump, but he must remember that such excuses are no substitute for the five timeless principles – quality, value, service, innovation and trust – which served M&S so well before becoming neglected in more recent times. Some might regard such concepts as old-fashioned, but they’re all priceless assets – even more so when customer loyalty can no longer be taken for granted.