Grappling with Charlie

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I’ve sat on the news of the horrific attack on Charlie Hebdo for the last week, unable to untangle a multitude of conflicting thoughts and feelings. That anyone can commit this sort of violence unflinchingly is not something you can easily get your head around, and there is nothing, absolutely nothing, that can excuse such a barbaric act.

I knew I should say something, as a French national and as an expat but I’ve struggled to know how to express myself with honesty. However, I think it needs to be done, and so here is my attempt.

As the events unfolded, I initially felt quite remote from them, and that in itself was a strange experience. It could have been going on in the US or Japan or elsewhere in Europe, for all the emotion I felt, that is, not very much at all. Horror yes, and sadness, and ‘I can’t believe this is happening’, but I wasn’t more shocked or horrified than I would be about any other terrible world event. I felt numb. I didn’t expect it, and honestly, I still don’t know what to make of it. I guess it marks a turn in my sense of belonging maybe, the fact that I can see things happen in France and no longer identify enough that it is happening to ‘my people’. So there was that.

The supermarket attacks affected me a lot more. I was reminded of the 2005 attacks on the London Underground. At the time I was commuting into London every day, so I knew, like everyone else, that there was a risk attached, but what could we do? We still had to go to work. There was some anxiety of course, but then everything was so normal so people just got on with it, with life as usual. The situation in France has been quite different. I can’t imagine what it must have been like to live in Paris during those three days of terror. Nowhere was safe; the attacks weren’t attached to any specific location or job type or people group; there was senseless killing of civilians just because, in as pedestrian and commonplace a location as a supermarket. It’s a wonder anyone ventured out of their homes, and that got to me more than anything else.


It wasn’t long after #jesuisCharlie went viral that criticism of the paper and the hashtag appeared on the web. I thought it was too soon to take jabs at either regardless of whether any of the assertions were correct, with the situation barely settled and people’s emotions still so heightened. It was uncomfortable to find things to agree with; I should not have to consider these issues yet, was my thought.

My gut reaction, when #jesuisCharlie first appeared on my Tumblr page, was to reblog it immediately, which I did. Because no one should die for expressing an opinion, however offensive it may be. Ever. And so, #jesuischarlie, in support of the victims and their right to express their opinion free from the fear of reprisal.

This aside, my discomfort is real. Let me be clear, I do not condone what happened at all. I do not excuse it either. Let’s have none of that ‘they had it coming, they knew fanatics were on to them’. But what are we to make of the content of the Charlie Hebdo (CH) magazine? I was already aware of them, hence my discomfort. Their purpose, as a publication, is to criticise the powers-that-be through satire, and often through offense. Yet as we know, to get on with your fellow-man in the reality of daily life, you don’t go out of your way to cause offense. There is a fine line between your right to express your opinion free from retribution, and the natural consequence that you will end up being part of a small world indeed, with no friends aside from those who agree with you. In the real world, deliberately causing offense just because you can is not ok. With regards to the content of CH, people have accused the magazine of hitting ‘downward’ with their satire, and their supporters have argued that on the contrary, CH’s main nemesis was the far-right political party Front National and all that they stand for. True as it may be, it’s not immediately obvious in many of their work. It is my impression that in the process of pointing the finger at a religion, policy or government figure (and everyone was fair-game), there was a lot of collateral damage. It certainly looks like the magazine often portrayed the victims derogatorily to make the joke stick, and that seems rather wrong to me.

Criticism of Charlie Hebdo as a paper is not the same as supporting terror acts but in the wake of the attack, lines get blurred, accusations get thrown around, and I was so uncomfortable even just thinking about this, let alone expressing it. Is it still too soon? I don’t know. The CH cartoonists and their colleagues didn’t deserve what happened to them. Fanatics will jump at any excuse to commit the violence that boils within them, and they were sadly provided with one. I suspect someone else would have been the target if not CH, it was only a matter of time.

What disturbs me in the worldwide endorsement of #jesuischarlie is not that it shows support for free speech and for the victims and their families. And it sure expressed a willingness to stand united in the face of terrorism. I applaud that. But I am skeptical that aside from the big gesture, it will mark a change in people’s every day life. I am skeptical that a similar sentiment would have risen if the victims of the terrorist attack had been Westboro Baptist Church or UKIP. I don’t think we would have seen #IamUKIP or #Iam Westboro trend on Twitter. I doubt people would have taken to the streets in support of the victims. Maybe I am too cynical.

There is a history of casual racism alive and well in France that will not be easily shifted with unity marches. Franglaise Mummy wrote a post on what it feels like to live in France at the moment, which I would encourage you to read. The people at the other end of it are mostly Muslims and poor people of colour who live in the French HLM ghettos. The way people talk about them is similar to the way people in England view the travellers’ community. You don’t have to be a Daily Mail reader to have a negative opinion of them, you’re vaguely ashamed of it but it’s there and it is a common view.

My personal experience, which I now feel I will have to speak about in my next post to highlight the point, is that unless people take PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY for giving dignity, respect, friendship and love to the marginalized that cross their lives, or get out of their way to do so by doing practical things to help them feel more integrated and supported, talk of unity is, if not empty, certainly anemic. Lasting change has to be personal. We cannot and should not wait for the government to initiate the change. If we are in earnest about wanting to stand united, we need to be willing to take a risk and engage with the differences we so wish to protect at a personal level.

I don’t know that this post does the topic justice at all. France is in a complex situation and it is a clumsy attempt in the circumstances to try to make sense of it, especially when my own thoughts and emotions are in a state of flux on the matter. I hope it is clear that I don’t mean to offend the memory of the victims and the genuine horror of the situation by voicing some criticism.


6 thoughts on “Grappling with Charlie

  1. To be honest, I think the issue is so complex that the debate could last days… You would need more than one blog post! I was affected a lot by the attacks and I participated to the march in Dublin last week. For me it’s more about freedom of speech than supporting Charlie Hebdo in itself. If we start censuring everything that could offend someone, then who knows what might happen down the line? I don’t want to live in a society where you could be killed or tortured for your opinion ( look at that blogger in Saudi Arabia). But that’s just one side of the issue. The other side is what explained Franglaise Mummy in her post that I just read. The debate about immigration in France is just too wide that I would need more space to comment and I have more questions than answers unfortunately….

  2. Nice Post.

    Freedom of expression is incontestable. It needs no defense or explanation & those who would obstruct the freedom may be called any number of names, none of which improves on the fact that self-expression is a sacred right. But this sacred right is also nuanced. It is a right to be exercised with conscience. For every expression, there is an impression. In the case of Charlie Hebdo, I get the impression of an organization that is intolerant, crude, hateful: as backward as the backwardness it attempts to mock.

    1. Thank you very much for reading and commenting! I am tempted to agree with you with that last sentence, however, it is once again a bit more complicated than that and I cannot be categorical about it; it’s definitely my ‘impression’ too.
      For one, I just don’t think that the illustrators are as aware of their own social privilege as one might think. Secondly, French humour and satire in particular are historically crude and go back to the long tradition of rude pamphlets about the monarchy; the closest you might get to it in the UK would be Punch & Judy, and the show is long gone. This kind of thing just doesn’t fly in modern Britain anymore but is still acceptable in France in some contexts. My personal preference is for satirical and funny without being deliberately offensive, like Private Eye, but the two papers can’t really be compared either.

  3. Thank you for linking to my blog post. I think yours is far better written than mine though. It was so hard to put into words what I wanted to say, especially in the short space of a blog post. And I still don’t know what the future brings but it does worry me, and also reassure me that we are best in London for now. I agree with “Nearly Irish” that I have more questions than answers for now. Far more.

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