France Reacts to Charlie Hebdo Massacre

PARIS – All over Facebook, people changed their profile pictures to a simple black box with broad white letters that reads “Je suis Charlie.” Joachim Roncin from the French magazine Stylist designed the image just after the terrorist attack that targeted the Parisian office of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo on Wednesday January 7, at 11:30 am that left 12 people dead.

While this very “modern” response to the tragedy – which means“I am Charlie” – embodies the pain of a nation in mourning, the grammar used in the image is also symbolic. Those who used the image gave up their profile picture, which stands for each user’s personality. In their own small way, each person replaced their unique identity with a common one: that of a newspaper that was the victim of a terrible attack against both freedom of speech and freedom of the press. During this day of terror, these French citizens were all the same and shared the feeling that they were also attacked when many in Charlie Hebdo’s newsroom were massacred.

The evening of January 7 saw massive demonstrations of this solidarity. Approximately 100,000 people gathered around France’s main cities, with 35,000 in Place de la République in Paris.

There, a giant wake took place at the end of the afternoon. People lit candles, held pens in the air meant to symbolize freedom of speech and the press and chanted that they were all “Charlie.” A sign made of glowing letters read in English “Not Afraid.” The words of the magazine’s editor and one of the cartoonists who was killed, Stephane Carbonnier, or “Charb,” were everywhere. They read, “I am not afraid of retaliation. I have no kids, no wife, no car, no mortgage. It surely sounds pompous said like that, but I’d rather die standing than live on my knees.”

Nevertheless, it was clear from the first responses to the attack that the French are anticipating a coming storm in the next few days. The first signs of discord in this mourning harmony started to show within hours of the attack and a growing fear arose of what a national reaction could look like. When the rumor spread among the crowd that nationalist extremists were trying to take advantage of the situation, people whistled in protest when a French flag appeared, fearing that those extremists were holding it. In the meantime, others started to try and cover the Marseillaise, the French national anthem, with other songs, fearing that some of its lyrics could be misinterpreted as a desire for revenge, since the historic song calls for the slaughter of the enemies of the nation.

The feeling of uncertainty that reigned over Place de la République, despite the emotional communion, is a symptom of a climate that is now common in France: the purgatory between a fear of sparking nationalist extremism and the despair that there is something rotten in what once was the country of human rights.

In a country traumatized by the fact that some of its own citizens joined the Islamic State, where islamophobia is now rampant,  nationalist parties are getting stronger, and where popular polemicists like Eric Zemmour suggest more or less explicitly that all Muslims could, and maybe should, be deported from the country, any event that could lead to linking Muslims with terrorists, is now like fire in a powder keg.

One can only imagine the fear of the French to see this now common controversy begin once again, only this time with the powerful impulse of fear and grief.

Charlie Hebdo has always been a controversial magazine, often accused of sexism, racism, intolerance, and homophobia for its provocative cartoons. One thing cannot be denied, the magazine never missed an opportunity to mock any person, belief, or opinion. The main argument in favor Charlie Hebdo’s use of free speech was that it targeted everyone, especially every religion.

It was first created as Hara-kiri hebdo in 1969 as a weekly magazine. Even its current name is evidence of its inflammatory character. In 1970, when former French President and founding father of the 5th Republic General Charles de Gaulle died, Hara Kiri hebdo published a cover mocking the fact that the nation was mourning him, while it was not mourning the deaths of 146 people at a ball. The cover read: “Tragic ball at Colombey – one dead.” Colombey was the village where the General lived. The magazine was censored immediately, but reappeared just as quickly, using the name Charlie as a reminder of Charles de Gaulle.

More recently, the magazine became globally famous for its caricatures, which pictured the Prophet Muhammad. The cartoons underwent condemnation from some Muslims around the world, similar to Salman Rushie’s Satanic Verses. For the team of Charlie Hebdo, mostly gone today, it was necessary to consider Islam as a religion that could accept good or bad jokes, as other religions do in France.

One can understand that Charlie Hebdo maintains its insolent provocation, and this is why its place in French society was crucial. Now it feels as though there are only two alternatives. The first is a heavy silence and inaction about the challenges the country is facing for fear of stigmatization, a sort of passive tolerance. And the second is a sneaky form of hidden xenophobia, which has recently gained acceptance as a voice in the media. As the moderate forms of discussing these issues disappear, there are fewer and fewer ways to have a constructive conversation.

The violence of these events will force the French to acknowledge the fractures in their society and that the risk of terrorism can no longer be ignored. The French need an active form of tolerance, one that shapes a new future and allows them to sign a new social contract: all must respect French secularism and its values of tolerance and democracy, but France must also give to all its citizens a place in its democratic forum.

Calls have already been made to the Muslim community in France to actively unite them with the rest of the country. This is a necessity, provided the rest of the country actually welcomes this community in its nation. An ephemeral union through emotion cannot hide the need for a mutual step forward. The massacre at Charlie Hebdo was nothing short of a tragedy, but if January 8 marks a new direction for France, the 12 deaths of January 7 would not be in vain.







  1. Susan Livingston says:

    After posting with Emma, now I realize I could have replied directly to you. Have traveled quite a bit and worked with a few international projects at Texas A&M, but have never been to France. So, I enjoyed getting your penetrating insight to the recent tragedy. Not too original but all I can think of is the old quote: “It was (is) the best of times; it was (is) the worst of times.”

    • Marc Goetzmann says:

      Thanks for this wonderful thought. Dickens’ quote is one of my favorites and I wonder why it didn’t cross my mind sooner. It acutely discribes how I feel tonight. I barely find the strenght to keep faith and hope… So thank you!

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