Comment: France is no longer afraid

From now on, Europe will no longer choose between the two versions of nihilism that are Islamism and populism.

A general view shows hundreds of thousands of French citizens taking part in a solidarity march in the streets of Paris January 11, 2015 (photo credit: REUTERS)
A general view shows hundreds of thousands of French citizens taking part in a solidarity march in the streets of Paris January 11, 2015
(photo credit: REUTERS)
There is something mysterious about Sunday’s mass mobilization.
Because, after all, France has already seen large-scale terrorist attacks. It has seen periods where bombs went off every morning, it has seen an assassination attempt against the president of the Republic and it has seen the Algerian National Liberation Front and the Organization Armée Secrète rival each other in their savagery to set Paris ablaze and drown it in blood.
But never has it seen 43 heads of state, or a quarter of the United Nations, come to march shoulder to shoulder with the survivors of attacks.
Never, since November 8, 1942, when Franklin Roosevelt broadcast in French over Radio London, have we seen the equivalent of John Kerry pronouncing, in the language of Molière, “Je suis Charlie.”
And those millions of Parisians took to the streets to mourn a satirical journal, whose existence they had hardly been aware of.
And those churches sounded the death knell for the cartoonists who had made the clerics their primary target.
And the Muslims of France – not all of them of course, not all… who we had waited to hear from for so long and who felt required by circumstances to respond: “Not in our name... Islamists have no place in Islam... there is a battle within Islam and we will defend inch by inch our Islam of peace against those who would arm the killers of policemen, journalists and Jews.”
And then these profiteers of hate from the National Front who believe they can capitalize on the tragedy (ah! poor Madame Le Pen, confusing a popular march with a Viennese ball and stupidly asking for an invitation before deciding to sulkily hold her own march... at Beaucaire!).
We have never seen anything like it before.
It was one of those moments of grace that transcended politics, that great nations have experienced from time to time.
And furthermore… perhaps not comparable with the emotions of 1789, neither with those of 1848, neither with the million people who came out to celebrate the liberation of Paris in August 1944... I am not even sure whether we should call this mass uprising a “demonstration” or a “march.” The only episode that is perhaps comparable is the funeral of Victor Hugo which brought out onto the streets “a procession of an entire nation,” as recounted by Auguste-Maurice Barrès – but even that momentous moment wasn’t quite the same.
So, what did happen? There were certain things that struck and shocked every Frenchman – but what were they? This huge global gathering, after everyone had said France was breathless, in decline, in the process of being crossed off the list of world powers, suddenly redefined the capital of the Enlightenment which had been murdered and brought back from the dead – but why? Perhaps the name “Charlie” has a magical property and resonates – Charlie Chaplin – in every language in the world.
Perhaps the right to laugh, just to laugh, this right that Rabelais said “makes men human”; the proof would be that as we have the right to contradict ourselves and the right to get up and go, the right to laugh will be added to the list of human rights.
Perhaps, yes, to laugh at the devil and to laugh at God, this laughter as glorious as could be heard at Easter during the Middle Ages which was an homage to the resurrection, perhaps this liberating laughter that Freud said was the language of the unconscious, and which another poet, André Breton, maintained was the highest revolt of the mind, perhaps, yes, if we are deprived of this visceral, vital laughter, it would be as fatal as depriving us of the very air we breathe.
Or perhaps it was the straw that broke the camel’s back and made a nation come out and say no to the barbarity for which for too long we have made too many excuses.
The truth is that nobody knows.
And here we are facing one of those mysterious moments – a logical rebellion – an event as pure as a diamond – the advent of a courage that spreads like fire – but no words can explain its furious path.
One thing is for sure: France is no longer afraid.
One thing is for sure: From now on, all of Europe will no longer choose between the two versions of nihilism that are Islamism and populism.
And what is certain is that there will be further jihadist attacks, inevitably, but there will be fewer and fewer people who will whisper that we must keep a low profile and make accommodations – and another thing that is sure is that quick-fire responses, responses that confuse Muslims and jihadists, responses by those who would like to deport entire communities of Europeans, have for the moment been swept away by the force that has been created.
France is back: Proof that the greatness of a country isn’t just down to how your accounting conforms with the rules of the bureaucrats, even those of the European Union.
Europe is back: The true Europe, that of Edmund Husserl, that of concrete universality, the Europe that the two vanguards of contemporary fascism would like to defeat – in France these are fundamentalist Muslims and their twins, who, like Jean-Marie Le Pen, declare that “we are not Charlie.”
Anything can happen, of course.
And the brightness of this moment of grace can dim in our memories. But such is the weight of the events that they will leave behind a long and lasting impression. It is up to us to be true to their spirit and prevent them from fading away.
The writer is a French intellectual and the author of, among other works, Who Killed Daniel Pearl?
Translated by Ilan Evyatar and Josepha Bougnon.