Along with everyone else, I watched in horror the events that unfolded in Paris last week, which saw the assassination of ten Charlie Hebdo journalists and the caretaker of their office building, two police officers and four Jews in three related terror attacks. Since then, I have observed with interest the French response to these attacks, most notably of course under the ‘Je suis Charlie’ motto. For reasons I will explain in this piece, I haven’t been surprised by the mass response to the shootings, but I have been struck by the level of criticism aimed at it.
Some of this criticism has been the inevitable pseudo-intellectual disdain for anything that is mass, and therefore immediately condemnable as unthinking or ignorant. I have read, for instance, that the current mood is ‘moral hysteria’ and that ‘When people don’t know their own minds – but think they do – they are liable to be swept away by self-righteous moral passion’. I have also read that it is ‘arrogant’ to try and colonise the experience of the victims, and that proclaiming ‘Je suis Charlie’ is a ‘Low risk, cost free’ show of solidarity. As ever, the arrogance of this kind of piece dismays me, as does the eagerness of the ‘intellectual’ community to gobble it up because it thinks it makes it look cleverer than everyone else.
On the other hand, the difficulty that many are having with reconciling the mass adoption of ‘Je suis Charlie’ to the current climate in France – and elsewhere – is of course entirely valid. France has desperate integration issues as do many other countries struggling with increasingly polarised societies where the more extreme ends of cultures and religion clash dangerously. As a result, millions of French citizens marching in reaction to the shootings can smack of hypocrisy, of ignorance and of provocation, as can the support of citizens of other countries.
While there is obviously a pressing need to address all of the issues that have been highlighted by the attacks and the varying responses to them, there is also a problem with the patronising assumption by so many commentators that French citizens are not aware of the apparent dichotomy between ‘Je suis Charlie’ and the reality of the situation. In fact, for the most part, they are. As this marcher states on his banner, ‘I am marching but I am aware of the confusion and the hypocrisy of the situation’:
So why then is he even marching? It is clear to me, both as a French national and as a historian, that an explanation for the massive and emotive response to the shootings in Paris can be found in the history of the French Republic.
During the European Enlightenment of the ‘long’ eighteenth century (1685-1815), ideas of equality and freedom became increasingly popular and widespread. When the French Revolution came about in 1789 abolishing the monarchy, separating religion from power and establishing the First Republic, these notions were a natural fit for a revolutionary slogan. And so ‘Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité’ – ‘Freedom, Equality, Brotherhood’ – was born.
Today, these values are part of the mythology and legacy of the French Revolution. Perhaps without knowing France well, it is difficult to understand the omnipresence of these in French civic life: the slogan is on nearly all public buildings; it is exuberantly celebrated on the 14th July every year; it is constantly referenced in political speeches and in education. When I was eight years old, my school celebrated the two hundredth anniversary of the Revolution by asking our parents to dress us up as little revolutionaries so that we may spend the day waving banners and shouting out those hallowed ideals. They are an inextricable part of the cultural and historical fabric of France and of French national identity.
In what may seem like an ironic twist, the aim of upholding these values has always been to ensure civic integration. Together with France’s post-Revolutionary public sphere secularism, equality, freedom and brotherhood were four principles that were intended to be implemented to ensure that all French citizens, regardless of race or religion, would be treated as equals and would be able to co-exist peacefully in accordance with the law and the principles of the Republic.
Regardless of whether they disagree with or are offended by Charlie Hebdo, the attacks on the paper have been so difficult for the French to swallow partly for this reason. However, there has a been a deep misunderstanding about this outside of France, where ideas of peaceful integration and tolerance have been erroneously pitched as the opposite of what Charlie Hebdo stands for. I have read many an accusation that Charlie Hebdo is a white boys’ club, that it is a base form of racist or xenophobic persecution aimed at already marginalised groups, disingenuously concealed behind the banner of freedom of expression.
In fact, Charlie Hebdo has always stood for the values of the Revolution, mocking with searing satire the failures of the French government or French society to uphold them. If you don’t keep up to date with French news, it is difficult to understand the context of most of the cartoons. Their construction is complex and one cartoon often alludes to several French news items of that week.
And of course, Charlie Hebdo is part of that other dearly held French revolutionary legacy, subversive satire. It has probably become increasingly clear to anyone previously unfamiliar with the genre that we are not talking a light chuckle along the lines of Spitting Image here, we are talking satire which is most often offensive, obscene and provocative in the extreme. This type of satire had already been prominent in France long before the Revolution although highly popular pornographic cartoons of Marie-Antoinette helped to cement its position in French culture as they were used to ridicule the monarchy and rally opposition in the lead up to the Revolution.
Underpinning this satire is the secularism established in post-Revolutionary France. When France declared its public sphere to be secular in 1790, the law no longer recognised blasphemy as an offense. It may surprise many that in a country often considered Catholic, a tradition of radical anticlericalism was born, and nowhere has this been more vigorously manifested than in the French satirical press. And, historically, this satire has aimed fire not at religious doctrine per se, but at its more fanatical, fundamentalist forms. In France, religious, political and social satire must be able to exist freely even, and especially, in its most offensive forms in order to uphold the founding values of the Republic.
It is obvious, however, that the conceptual world of the revolutionary legacy and the reality of modern day France aren’t correlating, a fact that has engendered much of the criticism for the ‘Je suis Charlie’ movement. Yet the millions of marching French citizens, whatever their ethnicity and religion, and whatever their personal views on Charlie Hebdo, are saying ‘Je suis Charlie’ exactly for this reason. ‘Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité’ as well as French secularity and satire have since their founding days been about ensuring peaceful multi-ethnic, multi-religious integration and coexistence. ‘Je suis Charlie’ is both a cry for these ideals to be upheld and a protest that they have failed to be.
For further reading on the role of the revolutionary slogan in modern day France: http://www.humanityinaction.org/knowledgebase/199-liberte-egalite-fraternite-realite
For an excellent explanation of the way in which Charlie Hebdo cartoons are constructed: bit.ly/1wTxjTb
© Ariane Galy and History Box, 2015.