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Laughing In The Face Of Death: On Paris & The Charlie Hebdo Attack
Jeremy Allen , January 8th, 2015 14:17

Reporting back from last night's vigil for the victims of yesterday's atrocity, our Paris correspondent Jeremy Allen asks how it will affect French society and, optimistically, if it will galvanise the nation's left

Image via conejota/Shutterstock

Yesterday morning people were being shot dead in cold blood a few blocks from where I was picking up my morning coffee and baguette. Journalists, sat together on their first press day of 2015, were massacred, with all the evidence thus far pointing to the perpetrators being the murderous mediaevalist killjoys of fundamentalist Islam. Ten people had been killed within ten minutes' walking distance from our building, seemingly because they'd published satirical cartoons. Alongside them perished two policemen, one of whom was a Muslim.

At 3.30pm I went out again expecting to find the streets empty. Instead people were stoically going about their business, and the only sign of a disturbance was police tape across Rue Richard Lenoir. That's not to say people weren't in a state of shock. To comprehend how France is feeling right now, try to imagine a similar scenario where the offices of Private Eye in the UK are obliterated in an unspeakably violent assault. It doesn't even bear thinking about.

Within hours of the attack the phrase 'Je suis Charlie' - originally written somewhat poignantly on the homepage of the Charlie Hebdo website - had been retweeted and shared on Twitter and Instagrammed hundreds of thousands of times, while Paris' top trending topics were nearly all related to the publication, or to the writers and artists themselves who'd been cut down, and who were all individually greatly admired. Jean 'Cabu' Cabut, who elicited the ire of Muslim fundamentalists with his 2006 depiction of the Prophet Mohammed, had once been described by director Jean-Luc Godard as "the best journalist in France". Others praised editor Stéphane Charbonnier, known as Charb, Georges Wolinski and 'Oncle' Bernard Mavis, a member of the Bank of France's General Council. These were men who put the "ire" into satire. Yet despite emotions running high, I didn't notice anything particularly vituperative or vengeful among the many tweets and tributes I read through.

"Charlie Hebdo is frequently offensive," Paris-based lecturer and writer Russell Williams told me, "and its satire isn't always particularly funny, but it plays a crucial role - I think - in the French democratic landscape. You might not like it, but I think that most people would rather live in a country where Charlie Hebdo can exist, than where it can't. It's too soon to speculate about what will happen to the paper after today's devastation, but I sincerely hope it - or its legacy - can continue."

The staff at Charlie Hebdo upheld the constitutional right to commit blasphemy with unfaltering gusto, regardless of sectarian inclination. Continuing a lineage that stretches back to Voltaire, their recalcitrant attitude and assumed mantle of responsibility to take the piss out of everyone and everything was unflinching where so many err towards diplomacy to save their own skins. In going to their deaths for that right, these Frenchmen are forever honourable martyrs.

Le Place De La Republique was also trending on Twitter, so I wandered down to find other solidarity seekers drifting toward the national symbol of the French state, many of them having just finished work. At first there were hundreds, and then came many thousands as dusk fell, some bringing 'on est Charlie' signs, others just milling around in order to be counted. Political organisations like the Conseil Démocratique Kurde en France, and trade unions the CGT and the CNT Solidarité Ouvrière showed their faces. Within hours the vigil had grown enormously, young and old gathered together, and despite the bleak morning and its affront to press freedom carried out with the psychopathy of Robespierre, those in attendance that evening were there to make it clear they were not about to be silenced or told what to do. Some of them were even having a good time. By around 8pm, somebody had got it together enough to project 'Nous Somme Charlie' on Marianne herself, to great cheers. People lit candles to symbolise the light of the République. A group held up single letter boards to spell out the words 'NOT AFRAID'.

"I don't have numbers," said Liza from Germany, "but I imagine there are 5,000... 10,000 people gathering here in the street? People are coming spontaneously and they're showing that they sympathise with the magazine, and with leftist media. Also you can hear people shouting 'we are all Muslims!' and showing solidarity with Muslim people in France and universally."

"I came here because something very stupid and terrible happened today," said Mark from Paris. "It was worth being here tonight because Charb, the guy who is head of Charlie Hebdo, said, 'I'd rather die free than live on my knees', so that's why I'm here."

"We came for the rally," said Julian, who'd arrived straight from work, "and for liberty. It's very important for us to be here. Everybody is incredibly affected by this story. This is a spontaneous meeting and it was very important for us to gather here."

"Charlie Hebdo is a very old magazine and it's part of the story of the French," interjected his friend, David.

The positivity seemed a far cry from the disaster scenarios described by writers like Michel Houellebecq, Eric Zemmour and Alain Finkielkraut, or the views expressed in Causeur, a new magazine that takes a hard line on immigration and national identity. The publication's director Gil Mihaely says he is just attempting to "broaden the spectrum of debate" on immigration, echoing the views espoused by Nigel Farage in Britain. How will these attacks affect the rise of Islamophobia in France, and Europe at wide?

"I guess it depends on who you believe and how France responds," says Williams. "If you believe the scaremongers, the pessimists and Marine le Pen, then they'll naturally want to use this to do what they do best: spread panic, division and anti-Islamic feeling. If you ask the people at Place de la Republique today, they'll probably be slightly more optimistic."

Yesterday was a bad day for Paris and a bad day for Francois Hollande, though politically it was probably good for him. His presidency popularity levels hit 12% last summer, a post-war low. On Wednesday he acquitted himself with the requisite balance of strength and sensitivity heads of state are supposed to demonstrate during these freak occasions of unspeakable grimness. Hollande has made other minor improvements too, though Ifop pollster Jérôme Fourquet noted when talking to the Financial Times last May that he was in a "very deep hole" and "coming from so far back, he really needs a huge improvement to recover his position". Nobody wants to look at an appalling tragedy like this one and go seeking out opportunities, but a demonstration of overdue leadership credentials from Hollande will surely be a boon for unity, where other parties seek only divisiveness to stoke their own agendas.

Is there a possibility now that the left - flailing somewhat in government - can be galvanised because of this horrendous act? Or is a sympathetic surge for a party not insidiously promoting Islamophobia like the Front National (who made large gains in European and council elections last March) too much to ask for?

"I think it's too soon to say," admits Williams. "Hollande has performed well today, or at least hasn't put his foot in it. That's a start, I suppose."

Back in the Place de la Republique, Liza told me that right wing radicalisation might be on the rise because of what happened yesterday.

"Basically people in France are afraid," she says. "They are afraid of Muslims and jihadi terrorism, so of course now they're afraid that there will be larger terrorist attacks that will harm their children. They're afraid for their own families. What happened today is maybe the beginning of radicalisation of people who are afraid and have resentments against Muslim people and resentments against immigrants in general. That is what is happening in Germany right now."

"I think all of the French people are united against terrorism," states Julian when I mention the left. "This has nothing to do with left or right. It isn't a political issue, we - the left and the right - are all against terrorism."

Mark too, an unsatisfied Hollande voter miffed that the rights for immigrants to vote at local elections has yet to be implemented, is cautiously optimistic that there won't be an increase in Islamophobia: "So far most of the political people from all parties have said we should stick together, and we'll have to see how that plays out. Politics is not just saying things, it's backing it up with actions."

Call me hopelessly naive, but the scenes I saw in Paris last night and the people I talk to daily make me believe the French are more unified than they realise. I've had naysayers emailing, fearful about the ramifications for French society, concerned that this could become a fissure to tear factions further apart, but who's to say a horrific event like this might not educate people to better differentiate between peace-loving Muslims and warmongering loons? That maybe it's a minority of cranks with no sense of humour that we all need to direct our collective energy against. Who knows, maybe even Hollande can prove that he has authority, vision and the ability to unite the French nation?

"It's no secret that France has had - and continues to have - difficulties in dealing with the legacy of its colonial past in some quarters," says Williams. "Tensions and Islamophobic incidents have risen in France over recent years. But it's also important to stress that there are vast numbers of Muslims who live in France alongside non-Muslims and everyone is very happy indeed with that situation. Walking around the streets of Paris - Belleville, for example - I don't get the impression that France is a divided country. I'm an optimist."

Most importantly people are not scared, which they showed in the heart of the French capital last night. Fear is what the adversary thrives on, and when people are frightened, governments start to tamper with constitutional rights in the pursuit of bad men. Above all liberty must be maintained, as well as laïcité - the division of state and church. Dark times lay waiting for us if we cede power to the enemies of enlightenment. A quote often attributed to Voltaire, "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it," was actually the handiwork of his biographer, Evelyn Beatrice Hall, and it is no less true just because Voltaire didn't actually say it. A quote we can attribute to Voltaire is this one: "God is a comedian playing to an audience that is too afraid to laugh."

And if that's true, then let's make 2015 the year of the rire.