And an unmistakable message from the deep recesses of French history
Every decade or so, something happens that splits history in two—a moment when your life feels divided into a neat ‘before’ and ‘after’. The fall of the Berlin Wall was one such event; 9/11 was another. For the French—and maybe for anyone who consumes media—the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris last week and the meleé that followed may be that kind of moment.
As is often true of such events, the ultimate significance of the 12 murders in the office of the controversial magazine and a related hostage crisis that killed five people two days later won’t be clear for awhile. A lot depends on what happens next. If the past is prologue, the killings at Charlie Hebdo (‘Charlie Weekly’) may mark the start of something new and terrible.
Over the past 200 years, Paris has been an important innovator in political violence: think of the guillotining of the entire aristocracy in the Revolution, or the merciless execution of 20,000 working class socialists in the Paris Commune eight decades later.
Terrorism, too, may well have started on the streets of Paris. In his 2009 book The Dynamite Club, Yale historian John Merriman argues that modern terrorism began with the bombing of a café near the Gare St Lazare in 1894. Although people had assassinated leaders from time to time or led pogroms against Jews and other people they didn’t like before a young anarchist named Émile Henry bombed the Café Terminus, no one had tried to kill ordinary civilians of a particular class—in this case, the Parisian bourgeoisie. Despite the fact that only one person died in that attack, Merriman argues that Henry had demonstrated the proof of a concept that continues to maim, kill and terrify today.
I hate to say it, but it seems to me possible that Paris made history again last week with a new kind of terror— call it ‘editocide’: the near liquidation of an entire publication in one fell swoop.
Of course, people have been ridding themselves of troublesome journalists fairly regularly for two or three hundred years now. In the past, however, they seldom needed to do more than hack a printing press into pieces or make an example of one or two reporters. With rare exceptions, most journalists discourage just as easily as everybody else. Even taking them off the White House Christmas party guest list has been known to do the trick.
But that was only part of the point of the Charlie Hebdo gambit. In the end, terror is not just a military tactic, but a brutal form of publicity. Like editors, terrorists must struggle constantly to hold the world’s attention, and certain terror-tropes wear out. Car bombs used to make the news, for example, but they’re no longer of much interest, even if they kill 38 people, as happened in Yemen the same day as the Charlie Hebdo hit. Even raw numbers now fail to shock: you might kill 2,000 people, as Boko Haram did over the weekend in Nigeria, and still not buy any space on a Western front page.
Until recently, bagging a reporter was almost always good for a placement, but these days, it’s grown so familiar, it’s hardly worth the trouble. Even beheading reporters is passé. Mow down a whole editorial board, though, as with last week’s massacre—well, that’s a story: look up ‘Yemen car bomb’ and Google can locate 4.3 million results. Look up ‘Charlie Hebdo’, you’ll get 174 million.
Nor is this a story that editors will tire of soon. The decline of advertising has gotten many editors in the West used to the prospect of literary death: one bitter irony of the Charlie Hebdo saga was that the magazine’s bankruptcy was reportedly considered all but inevitable before the attack. However, the prospect of their own literal end means editors will stay interested in this topic indefinitely.
Aux Armes, Citoyens!
Fortunately, terrorists aren’t the only people who can innovate. The rest of us have choices too.
So far, France’s Hollande government is doing what governments generally do in the face of terror: tighten security. They have responded predictably enough, by stationing 10,000 soldiers at ‘sensitive sites’ around the country, and are now preparing a Patriot Act-style bill to enhance the government’s surveillance powers.
Similar things happened in the US after 9/11—as they did after the Café Termine bombing. Often, says Merriman, reached at Balazuc, the village in southern France where he lives half the year, those moves are actually part of the terrorist’s underlying goal: to goad the government into cracking down so harshly that the group he imagines he represents will rebel.
On the other hand, a response that felt more hopeful to me and many other people was the ‘Je Suis Charlie’ (‘I am Charlie’) campaign that began on Thursday and became part of a memorial march that drew over a million people into the streets of Paris on Sunday, an unusual demonstration of solidarity among the normally fractious French.
For a moment, at least, that outpouring seems to have revived spirits in a country trapped for years now in a deep funk, by failed political leadership (before the crisis, support for Francois Hollande’s presidency stood at a microscopic 15 per cent), stagnant economy (hundreds of thousands of its most talented young people have left for London, Dublin and Berlin), and declining cultural relevance (to cite just one example: between 1958 and 1978, France won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film 8 times; since 1978, it’s only won once, for Indochine in 1992).
I remember a similar sense of camaraderie in New York after 9/11, the one good aspect of an otherwise sad and frightening time. But that closeness may have some terrible consequences of its own later on, as it did for the US. As Sigmund Freud noted, ‘It is always possible to bind together a considerable number of people in love, so long as there are other people left over to receive the manifestations of their aggressiveness.’
So far, French authorities have been careful to try to include Muslims within that aura of good feeling, and anti-immigrant National Front leader Marine Le Pen seems to have been singularly unable to obtain much political profit from the turmoil. However, I think there are likely to be some limits to this new-found fraternité.
First, it seems tied up with nostalgic feelings about the old Patrie. One telling sign, I think, are the number of online tributes that include pictures of Asterix and Obelix, the goofy cartoon Gauls who outwit silly Romans in adventure after adventure, with a brand of humour much gentler than what I’ve seen of the aggressive and often vulgar style of Charlie Hebdo.
Second, even before this event, fear of Muslims was already deep in the French Zeitgeist: the issue of Charlie Hebdo going to press now features a story about Soumission (‘Submission’), a novel by French novelist Michel Houellebecq that imagines the transformation of France into an Islamic theocracy in 2022.
I also keep reading things online that give me the sense that some French Muslims may be viewing this past week in a very different way—online videos that ‘prove’ the gunman couldn’t have shot the policeman on the street as they left the Charlie Hebdo office; speculation about why the two gunmen would conveniently leave their national identity cards behind when they ditched their black getaway Mercedes.
Other bloggers contrast the public’s Voltairean defence of Charlie Hebdo’s anti-Muslim cartoons with the authorities’ continued prosecution of the controversial anti-Semitic comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala for hateful speech. The fact that Charlie Hebdo fired one cartoonist for an anti-Semitic cartoon is also pointed to as evidence that France has one standard for permissible discussion when the topic concerns Muslims and another for everyone else.
The truth is that France, for many French Muslims, is a long way away from Asterix’s jolly village of ‘uncrushable Gauls’ than it is for secular and nominally Catholic France. It’s a grim concrete housing project outside the postcard-perfect city—a quarter of little economic opportunity, ruled by an out-of-touch elite seemingly determined to keep it that way; a former colonial power that ran large swaths of Africa and the Middle East until relatively recently, and one that still plays a very direct role in parts of West Africa.
Ramin Jahanbegloo, an Iranian philosopher of non- violence educated at the Sorbonne in Paris who now teaches at York University in Toronto, says that unfortunately, violence tends to postpone problems rather than solve them, in part because it distracts journalists from asking important questions. “Journalists very often look for the spectacular, and that creates a big problem, because I think that the spectacular that we see, especially in TV journalism, is not as import-ant as a second reflection on these events and a questioning of those events,” he says.
“Journalists need to ask why these things happen and [what] has been done wrong to create entities like ISIS… or Al-Qaeda, or even I would say fanatic Hindus in India, or the killing of Muslims in Myanmar by Buddhists,” he says.
And in France, he adds, why did the French-born men who led the attack last week feel so estranged from their country, or why have so many hundreds of young French people left France to join ISIS?
Old French Values
If the French do follow the same playbook as the US ‘War on Terror,’ we may, unfortunately, expect a similar result. In fact, within France, the results may be even worse, given the fact that the fear is not directed primarily abroad, but at their neighbours. My concern is less that the jihadi fanatics lack ‘French values’, as the Right often says, it’s that they share them, in their own fashion.
In the eight years I lived in France, I often found people to be principled to the point that they would act against their own apparent self-interest, though of course not to the degree that Charlie Hebdo’s cartoonists demonstrated by continuing to publish anti-Muslim cartoons even when faced with death threats: people like the shoe salesman who refused to sell my wife the pair of men’s shoes she wanted to buy because it was not a lady’s pair; the lady on the train who for reasons I still don’t understand refused to move out of my wife’s seat even after we showed her our ticket—and even after the conductor offered to move her to first class; the wine dealer who wouldn’t sell me cognac for my boeuf bourguignon because he didn’t agree with my cookbook.
They’re trivial examples, but I saw in the coverage evidence that at least one of the attackers was acting not in a blind rage, but according to a very particular kind of moral code.
In the Charlie Hebdo offices, one of the gunmen told a freelance writer he found cowering on the floor that he wasn’t going to kill her because “they did not kill women.” At the same time, he advised her that she should think about what she was doing in working for that company. Later, when they holed up in the printing office on the outskirts of Paris for their last stand, one man recalls a heavily armed man shaking his hand as he escorted him out of the building, telling him that they were letting him go because “they didn’t kill civilians.”
I’m glad those people survived because at least one of the killers had a little vestigial humanity left. At the same time, it also suggests to me that far from being a foreign product, they are actually part of a long tradition of French revolutionaries—people who can be as cool and dispassionate as Émile Henry was more than a century ago when prosecutors asked him how he felt killing an innocent person and he replied that he didn’t believe there were any innocent bourgeois.
(Bennett Voyles is a Berlin-based observer of global trends. He was formerly with the Economist Intelligence Unit)