The French stand up

‘I’d rather die on my feet than live on my knees,’ editor-in-chief and cartoonist Stéphane ‘Charb’ Charbonnier said in 2012 about threats made to ‘Charlie Hebdo.’

People hold panels to create the eyes of late ‘Charlie Hebdo’ editor Stephane Charbonnier. (photo credit: REUTERS)
People hold panels to create the eyes of late ‘Charlie Hebdo’ editor Stephane Charbonnier.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
On Sunday, succeeding in catching the Paris Metro after noon was almost a miracle; too many people had the same idea. Parisians looked at one other, sharing the thought, “Are we all going in the same direction?” More than 3.5 million people marched in France on Sunday, in a tribute to the 17 victims of terrorism killed in the recent attacks, and to defend freedom of speech and French values.
In Paris alone, 1.5 million people gathered in a peaceful demonstration. A relatively silent march, the moments of quiet were only broken by spontaneous bursts of French anthem “La Marseillaise,” or rounds of applause in commemoration of the victims. French political figures turned out in full force, with more than 40 heads of state from around the world attending. No political slogans were shown; only messages calling for the unity of all French people.
The tragic events began on Wednesday, January 7, when two Islamist terrorists burst into the office of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, shooting dead 12 people, including five journalists and two policemen.
As a bloody Wednesday came to a close, French President François Hollande came out to reassure the public. In living rooms, bars and restaurants across the city, TVs went on and the public went quiet.
A national day of mourning took place on Thursday at noon – an unprecedented event. It had only happened a few times before, with the death of a head of state and, notably, the 9/11 attack in New York City.
The Grande Mosquée de Paris, on behalf of French Muslim organizations, issued a press release asking Muslim citizens to respect the moment of silence along with the rest of the nation, requesting that imams of all mosques in France strongly condemn the violence during Friday prayers. Lastly, they invited “Muslim citizens to join the republican march on Sunday, to affirm their wish to live together in peace in respect of republican values.”
Jewish leaders, through the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions in France (CRIF), an umbrella group of French Jewish communities, joined Sunday’s rally and stated they were “horrified at the barbarism committed against Charlie Hebdo journalists and the policemen, and democracy and freedom of speech.”
While trying to recover from the shock of Wednesday’s events, news reports that a policewoman had been shot and killed stoked fears that the violence was not yet over. At noon Thursday, a hush fell over the country, with 60 seconds of quiet memorial; politicians, public figures and private institutions had all issued calls to join the initiative.
Even the Paris Metro stopped and went silent. The familiar intercom voice – usually informing Parisians of any changes along their route – alerted passengers that the train would stop for one minute of remembrance.
The final attack came on Friday. At around noon Amedy Coulibaly, believed to have shot the policewoman the day before, took over a kosher supermarket in a Parisian suburb, holding its shoppers hostage and killing four Jewish men. While not working together with the Charlie Hebdo killers, the plans nonetheless were to commit these heinous acts simultaneously.
The targeting of Jews was intentional for Coulibaly.
France is no stranger to terrorism; the most standout events in the country’s history include a wave of politically motivated bombings in 1995, and the March 2012 shootings in Toulouse and Montauban.
Seven people were killed in those attacks, three members of the armed services and four members of the Jewish community, three of whom were children.
But in this attack, the French public was shocked to learn that the terrorists were born in France, had gone to French schools and grown up with French ideals – and still attacked a French newspaper and French Jews.
An attack on French values On Saturday morning, France slowly awoke from three nightmarish days. These attacks seemed to loom in the French psyche more than any other.
According to Aurélien Devernoix, a French journalist based in Morocco for Medi 1 Radio, this was because they were an assault on French values, “something about French identity,” he said in a phone interview from Tangier, “how we define what it is to be French through the question of individual freedom, relating to religious matters and anti-clericalism.”
After the initial shock of the Charlie Hebdo attack, the message from all political figures was clear: national unity.
Within the last decade, French society has debated the benefits of more open borders with Europe against the minority far-Right National Front party, with leader Marine Le Pen advocating an anti-immigration policy. But Wednesday night, tens of thousands of people spontaneously gathered all over France to show their support for the victims and for freedom of speech.
Devernoix went on to describe how hard it was to be outside France at that moment, “because the hardest times are also the most [defining].”
While the majority of French people were familiar with Charlie Hebdo and its drawings, many didn’t pay attention to its over-the-top caricatures, nor did they necessarily agree with them. The magazine has a long history in France, with its satirical and biting depictions of many a sacred cow.
Created in 1960 and originally called Hara-Kiri, it changed its name to circumvent a ban by the French government.
In November 1970, the publication mocked the importance of the death of president Charles de Gaulle, satirizing their headline to play on an earlier tragedy in which 146 died in a nightclub fire. When the French Interior Ministry banned Hara-Kiri, claiming the publication had gone too far, it changed its name to Charlie Hebdo and published the following week.
It was thus the assault on freedom of speech, secularism and satire that the French united behind.
Many people took to using the slogan “Je suis Charlie,” or “I am Charlie,” to express solidarity with the victims. In a characteristically French way, those who sought to not be hypocritical – in that they had never before supported the magazine – instead employed the phrase, “Je ne suis pas Charlie,” or “I am not Charlie.” Rather than imparting a negative meaning, the French were actually invoking one of their most celebrated citizens, the 18th-century philosopher Voltaire, who said, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
French citizens overwhelmingly banded together behind this idea.
“My religious beliefs do not enter the equation,” said the 34-year-old Souad, who had earlier posted on Facebook in French, “I am French, I am Muslim. And you know what? Who cares! I am Charlie.”
This sentiment repeated itself over and over again on social media, as people reaffirmed that it was French law they subscribed to – not terror.
Unity above all Tragedy has a way of connecting even the most polarized groups. Before last week’s terrorism, the top news was the new novel by controversial French author Michel Houellebecq, titled Soumission (Submission), which imagines a France in 2022 under Shari’a law, after a Muslim party defeats a far-Right party in presidential elections.
Ironically, it was Houellebecq who was the target of Charlie Hebdo editors the week before – satirized as a wizard lazily smoking a cigarette, saying, “In 2015, I lose my teeth” and “In 2022, I do Ramadan.”
The majority of French people have demonstrated their wish to stay unified following the recent events. How long will it last? What they have stood up for – en masse – is their commitment to the values they hold most dear: freedom of speech and freedom of expression.
Alexandra Schwartzbrod, assistant editor of the Libération daily, commented that the overwhelming feeling among the French was a focus on communitarianism, the need to balance individual rights and interests with that of the community as a whole, and resist blaming a group for the acts of an individual. She explained that it was important for the French to “resist the temptation to point our fingers to one community… It is everybody’s business and responsibility – political leaders, religious leaders.”
France has now gone through a roller-coaster of emotions, from unbelievable grief to ecstatic positivity.
But as the intensity of the last few days begins to ebb, real questions as to whether or not things will truly change need to be answered.
The people want security, democracy It is with this spotlight on security that French people are having trouble understanding how the terrorists were not stopped sooner.
The terrorists were known to security services, so why did their ties to jihadist groups not place them under constant surveillance? Nearly every national media outlet is calling for tighter security.
On Monday, Le Figaro, a right-wing daily, announced that the French government had mobilized an extra 10,000 soldiers and 4,700 police officers to deal with remaining terror threats.
Following the attack on the kosher market, Prime Minister Manuel Valls renewed his attachment to the Jewish community, saying, “France without its Jews is no longer France” – making clear that security around Jewish schools and places of worship would be increased.
Meanwhile, the French Muslim community has faced a wave of violence since the attacks. The British watchdog group Tell Mama (Measuring Anti-Muslim Attacks) published a map showing around 14 incidents of violence across France on sites associated with Islamic worship, including vandalism, graffiti, gunfire, arson and, in one instance, a pig’s head and entrails left outside a prayer room with a threatening note saying, “Next time, it will be one of your heads.” The community is asking for improved and increased protection.
For Geneviève Garrigos, president of Amnesty International France, it is crucial to ensure the security of all French people, while always respecting basic human rights like individual freedoms. She asks for justice instead of revenge, and for France not to follow the example of the US with Guantanamo Bay, where she maintains (in a way that will certainly ruffle some feathers) that so many people have been “arrested, tortured and then freed because they had nothing against them. Is that what we want?” Indeed, on her Facebook ac-count, Garrigos cited Oslo Mayor Richard Fabian Stang, who said in 2011 – after an extremist gunman in Norway killed 77 people, the majority of them children – “We shall punish the terrorist, and this will be his punishment: more generosity, more tolerance and more democracy.”
Libération editor Laurent Joffrin offered views in the same vein in his editorial on January 9: “Suspending democratic procedures or harming them is falling into the terrorism trap that tries to spread fear and harm democracy.”
At the same time, religious leaders like Kamel Kabtane, the rector of Lyon’s Badr Eddine Mosque, acknowledged ignorance on the part of French Muslims in how they view the Jewish community.
Asked on French radio if anti-Jewish sentiments exist among the Muslim community, Kabtane answered: “It is true there’s a lack of knowledge, yes. It is bad.” Yet, he added, a cultural exchange in coordination with the liberal Jewish community in Lyon was already in place; young Jews and young Muslims are actively meeting to better understand one another.
For now, French people are waiting to see what consequences these bloodstained three days will hold for the future. But with joie de vivre they welcome, without pause, the next edition of Charlie Hebdo. On Wednesday, three million copies – 50 times its usual circulation – were distributed in France and abroad.
Taken in by the staff of Libération and working out of their offices, the surviving Charlie Hebdo staff published their response to the tragedy that befell them. Their cover image depicted the Prophet Muhammad shedding a tear, holding a sign saying “Je suis Charlie” and the headline above reading, “Tout est pardonné” (All is forgiven).