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On Charlie Hebdo...

English-speaking French historians have contributed Op Ed pieces and commented on blogs about the awful events in Paris, each trying to offer an historical perspective. Is the answer to be found in France’s colonial past and the influx of Arab immigrants from the Maghreb who have not integrated well? Is the problem France’s resolutely secular approach to “multiculturalism”? Or should we focus on its longstanding satirical culture? Whatever the path taken, everyone has expressed outrage at the attacks on freedom of speech and a free press, and the cold-blooded liquidation of a group of well-known and much loved cartoonists.

Everyone knows by now that France has no blasphemy laws although it prosecutes incitements to racial hatred (including denial of the Holocaust and of the Armenian Genocide) to which was recently added praise of terrorists. The court ruled, after representatives of the Muslim community complained in 2007, that Charlie Hebdo had not contravened any law by reprinting the Danish caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed and adding some of their own. Although he hasn’t been charged yet, it is for infringing the law against promotion of terrorism that the anti-semitic comedian Dieudonné was held after his Facebook posting stating “he felt like Charlie Coulibaly” (combining Charlie Hebdo and Amédy Coulibaly, the Jihadist who murdered four Jews at a kosher supermarket and a black policewoman who was in his way). I am perplexed by accusations of a double-standard.

It is all rather confusing to say the least. First there is the premeditated attack on Charlie Hebdo whose editor Stéphane Charbonnier was on a kill-list for demeaning the Prophet. The order to pursue “the struggle” within France apparently came from the Yemeni branch of AQAP that trained Saïd Kouachi, the younger of the two brothers who carried out the attack. Then, whether coincidentally or through joint planning, Amédy Coulibaly, who had met Chérif Kouachi in jail, decided, it is now thought, to attack a Hebrew school, but instead took refuge in a nearby kosher grocery where he held the shoppers hostage, murdering four of them. He had ties to ISIS and his girlfriend was in Syria during the shootings. All three jihadists were raised in France and most likely became radicalized in prison. But was there a common project? To what end? To eliminate perceived enemies of Islam? To generate a backlash against French Muslims that would convince them to join the cause? I’m not the only one puzzled by all this, of course.

Another head-scratcher for some: Should Charlie Hebdo be blamed for insulting the sensiblilities of Muslims? Around much of the world, the response was a resounding no (although protest marches in Chechnya and other Muslim countries have been held since). To show solidarity, from the first day, “Je suis Charlie” signs popped up everywhere. President Hollande declared January 8 a day of mourning, asking for a minute of silence, which was only openly opposed in those schools and suburbs that harbor a large Muslim population. A national unity rally was held on January 11. Altogether, an estimated 3.7 million marched that Sunday in various French towns, 1.6 million of them in Paris. In an unusual demonstration of solidarity, Muslims and Jews mourned the victims of barbarism together and random citizens embraced policemen.

The representatives of forty states, including the UK’s David Cameron and Germany’s Angela Merkel, Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestine’s Mahmoud Abbas, linked arms with Hollande and his top advisors. Ministers from countries that daily flout freedom of the press, like Russia, Egypt and Turkey were there, as were six presidents of former French African colonies. To the consternation of their citizens, the latter failed to bring up, as if it were somehow unseemly, the massacres perpetrated but a few days earlier by the extremist Jihadist movement Boko Haram that left 2,000 dead. To whom were foreign dignitaries displaying their bona fides?

In France itself the rally was described as a moment of national unity, reaffirming Republican values, but political considerations were not absent. Since the events both President Hollande’s and Prime Minister Manuel Valls’s approval rates have shot up. What of the supporters of the racist right-wing Front National party? Whatever the political agenda, the entire French Parliament stood up to sing the Marseillaise, something that had not happened since the end of World War I. Few believe that this spirit will last.

There was something particularly awful about the assassination of the cartoonists and staff of Charlie Hebdo. Because French cartoonists work for multiple publications, they are deeply embedded in the national cultural scene. If Japan is the home of manga, France (sometimes by way of Belgium, think Tintin) is the home of the graphic novel, an art that is taken extremely seriously. One needn’t go back to Voltaire or longstanding satirical traditions. I don’t know the statistics or what French teenagers are reading these days, if anything at all, but BD (for bande dessinée the French term for comics) is a fixture, filling rows in bookstore after bookstore. So the French relationship to the visual is more practiced than elsewhere.

Not everyone however appreciates Charlie Hebdo’s crude and irreverent sense of humor. The magazine embodies the left-wing, libertarian spirit of May ‘68 where nothing is taboo. All forms of grandstanding and political, economic, and religious oppression are equally mocked. The intention is to provoke, to jostle, and to make people laugh at the absurdities that surround them. The survivors are determined to go on, not to give in to pressure, especially not to self-censor, and it is because of this that I too say “I am Charlie.”

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