Tuesday, July 04, 2017

A 2015 editorial on Charlie Hebdo by an American in Paris

Horrifique. Déplorable. Révoltant.

The French words describing the events surrounding the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris in January hardly need translation for an English-speaking audience. But for this journalist, partway through a one-year stay in the City of Light, it was not only horrifying but fascinating to be in the middle of it.  Ironically International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors member Jennifer Karchmer, with connections to Reporters Without Borders, the organization publishing an annual list of the most dangerous places to ply the journalism trade, was visiting my wife Mary and me at the time. To continue with the irony, a little before noon on January 7 we had just descended from the ninth-floor terrace of the Institute of the Arab World, created by France and 18 Arab countries including Algeria to foster understanding of the Arab world by disseminating information about its cultural and spiritual values, when we heard sirens. Having just viewed the Notre Dame from the terrace, we stood on the banks of the Seine about to cross the Sully Bridge to Saint Louis Island when several police cars tore through the intersection against our green light on their way north across the bridge toward Place de la Bastille.

We didn’t know it at the time, but they were apparently speeding towards the scene of a grisly crime at 10 Rue Nicolas Appert. A few minutes earlier at about 11:30, gun-toting brother terrorists Saïd and Chérif Kouachi, French citizens born in Paris to Algerian immigrants, had attacked the offices of satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo about a mile from where we stood. They killed 11 people in the building as well as a policeman lying on a sidewalk nearby. Eleven others were wounded in the deadliest terror attack in France since 28 people were killed in a 1961 train bombing by a paramilitary group opposed to Algerian independence during the Algerian War.

Paris is a small place, approximately six miles by five miles, with about 2.3 million people packed into 31 square miles. So any incident like this “hits close to where you live.” Our apartment near Place Monge in the 5th Arrondissement is about a mile and three quarters from the newspaper’s offices. The intersection in Montrouge where a policewoman was killed the next day by co-conspirator Amedy Coulibaly and the kosher supermarket at Porte de Vincennes where Coulibaly murdered an additional four people a day after that are both about two and a half miles from our place. Oblivious to the carnage at Charlie Hebdo, Jennifer, Mary and I explored Île Saint Louis, where the two women stopped at a cafe to have something hot to drink while I took pictures along the island’s quais on the Seine. Then we crossed over the river again to the Left Bank to continue our tour of the Latin Quarter before returning home in late afternoon. Jennifer’s and Mary’s social networks were buzzing with news about the shootings. We turned on the TV and stayed glued to it all night. Many friends and relatives e-mailed us hoping we were safe and sending their prayers.
The next day was a national day of mourning declared by President François Hollande. The Je suis Charlie rallying cry had already exploded by then. Thousands held black-and-white Je suis Charlie signs at a rally the night of the 7th organized on a few hours’ notice at Place de la République, the square where Parisians traditionally hold major demonstrations. We bought a couple of newspapers, both tabs, on the morning of the 8th and observed interesting front-page treatment. Le Parisien’s banner head cried, “Ils ne tueront pas la liberté” (They will not kill freedom), over a photo of the rally the night before with people holding Je suis Charlie signs. Inside the 40-pager, the newspaper had 24 pages of attack coverage with a Je suis Charlie sign in the banner atop each page and heads such as “Hollande face à son 11 septembre” (Hollande faces his 9/11) and “En état de choc, les Français se rassemblent” (In a state of shock, the French gather).

The front of conservative Le Figaro featured a Second Coming banner, “La liberté assassinée” (Freedom assassinated) with a grainy photo taken from the video of the Kouachis pointing automatic rifles outside their car. The only copy on the front was an editorial, “La guerre” (The war). Inside, the main head stated, “Des tueurs sèment la mort à Charlie Hebdo” (Killers bring death to Charlie Hebdo). Mary and I wanted to stand with the French in their grief and outrage on the day of mourning. We walked to a vigil in the square in front of the Notre Dame at noon, where a minute of silence was observed. Even the Métro, the city’s subway system, stopped at  noon for the observance. Just about noon, the skies opened up and rain drenched the mourners as they stood silently listening to the bells of the Notre Dame toll. It fit the mood, as if the skies were crying for France. However, I read later that some Muslim children did not appreciate the moment of silence in their schools. (Muslims constitute about five million of France’s 64 million people.) To the kids it must have felt like a forced Pledge of Allegiance. There was another vigil at Place de la République on the night of the 8th, and we took the Métro to the plaza where tens of thousands had gathered. It sent chills down my spine to hear a mass of people chant, “Nous aimons Charlie!” (We love Charlie!) and not because that is my name.

I have been to France 18 times in 37 years because I love this country. I have made my home here for a couple of years, but no matter how long I live here I will never be considered French. However, I have never felt more French than when I attended the two vigils on the day of mourning. I felt as though I was standing with the French for freedom of expression, and yes, because of the beating that journalists take for seeking truth, the month of January and the vigils were especially emotional for me. Jennifer took off from Aeroport Charles de Gaulle on Friday morning the 9th bound for the States. That was the morning police had cornered the Kouachis in a printing plant in a suburb called Dammartin-en-Goële north of Paris near the airport. Authorities closed two runways because of the proximity of the siege to the airport, Jennifer’s flight was delayed, and she missed her connection to Atlanta in New York. At about 6:30 that morning I walked her the 10 blocks from our place to the Luxembourg subway station for the ride to the airport on the suburban train. On the way home I took a one-block detour to check out a sneaking hunch. I guessed I’d find a policeman standing in front of the synagogue on Rue Vauquelin, the street where I lived in 2010-2011. Sure enough, a gendarme guarded the place at 7 a.m. At the end of month, there were two cops there, one with a submachine gun.

The police have to protect everything from everybody. Police stand outside the Grand Mosquée de Paris four blocks from our apartment because they’re just as concerned about an attack there as at a synagogue. In the week after the Charlie Hebdo attack, there were 54 anti-Muslim incidents in France. The American Church in Paris where we attend had stepped-up security after the shootings. The police chief in the 7th Arrondissement, the church’s district, came by the church five times in the days after the murders to talk to the people there. He is Muslim. Authorities instituted bag checks for those entering the Notre Dame after the shootings, and I even had my bag checked at the post office here in the Latin Quarter. Bag scans were standard practice at museums such as the Louvre and Orsay and at sites like the Sainte Chapelle and Eiffel Tower long before the latest incidents. And Parisians are used to soldiers with submachine guns walking three abreast in public places such as train stations, the Champs Élysées, the Eiffel Tower and other crowded spots.

We did not attend the largest rally for freedom that week, held on the Sunday following the attacks with heads of 40 countries leading a demonstration of more than 1.5 million people. About 3.7 million French rallied around the country that day, which would be like 20 million Americans marching for a cause. The French government said the turnout was the highest on record for anything. The rallies that week must have been a cop’s worst nightmare – ensuring the public’s safety when throngs were gathering without security checks. Some of my friends writing from the U.S. believed President Obama had made a mistake in not attending the unity rally, but I read the arguments on both sides, and his absence didn’t bother me. It was all symbolism in the first place, and to say the U.S. didn’t care about France, freedom of expression or fighting terrorism that week isn’t logical.

The signs of the citizens’ solidarity following the attacks can be seen throughout the city. The Hôtel de Ville, city hall for the entire capital, displays three-story banners that say, “Paris est Charlie” and “Nous sommes Charlie” (We are Charlie) and another banner declaring, “Charlie Hebdo: Citoyen d’Honneur de la Ville de Paris” (Citizen of Honor of the city of Paris). Each of the city’s 20 districts has a mairie or town hall; when we walked the streets of the 11th Arrondissement, location of the newspaper offices, we saw “Je suis Charlie” signs in many storefronts and a “Nous sommes Charlie” banner over the front door of the mairie, whose Christmas trees still guarded the door. People have spray-painted “Je suis Charlie” on the pavement and benches through a stencil. When we went to the Bourse flea market in front of the French stock exchange a month after the shootings, we noticed hundreds of “Je suis Charlie” signs in the windows of the Agence France Presse building across the street. Another time we noticed flags at the Assemblée Nationale (House of Representatives) at half mast. “Paris est Charlie” was projected onto the Arc de Triomphe on the Friday and Saturday nights after the murders, and at 8 o’clock that Thursday night the lights on the Eiffel Tower were turned off “en hommage des victimes.”

On Sunday the 11th I was taking the RER or suburban train from the Austerlitz station to church. The trains are designated by four-letter names such as ELBA, MONA and ROMI displayed in lights on the front of the engine to indicate their destinations, and I was looking for the 8:14 SARA. Here comes a train in the distance and I am confused over the name in lights, which is too long. As it comes closer, it’s CHARLIE. Letters one story high spell out “Nous sommes tous Charlie” (We are all Charlie) in French and Arabic on the side of the Institute of the Arab World in our arrondissement. Billboards now advertise the release of the book Nous Sommes Charlie, in which “60 writers unite for freedom of expression,” and they’ve obviously donated their pieces because all of the proceeds from the five-euro paperback go to Charlie Hebdo. (The newspaper has received $750,000 that I know of from press funds separate from the book project for its recovery.)

My story started with irony, and I must continue with the biggest irony of all: Terrorists who thought they were martyrs for a cause, who wanted to sow terror, avenge the Prophet and destroy a newspaper by killing its main characters, have turned Charlie Hebdo’s dead into martyrs and brought worldwide attention to a little weekly with half the circulation of ISWNE member Elliott Freireich’s West Valley View. Charlie Hebdo translates as Charlie Weekly, Hebdo being short for hebdomadaire or weekly. It took its name from a monthly comics magazine called Charlie, the Charlie coming from Charlie Brown, lead character in one of the comic strips it published. Charlie Hebdo was founded in the early ‘70s when a group of journalists running a satirical weekly had to find another name for their publication after it was banned in France for mocking Charles de Gaulle’s death. (I had the same question as you about freedom of expression in 1970.) So the “Charlie” was also an inside joke about Charles de Gaulle.

The newspaper mocks religion, the far right, politics and culture, and its offices were firebombed in response to its November 3, 2011 cover, on which it renamed itself Charia Hebdo and depicted Muhammad saying, “100 lashes if you don’t die laughing.” When you compare it to Le Canard d’enchaîné, the country’s most popular satirical weekly with a circulation of about 700,000, you get the idea that the general public didn’t appreciate Charlie Hebdo’s raw brand of humor as much. As near as I can tell, Charlie Hebdo’s press run was 60,000 and it typically sold 35,000 to 40,000 copies a week. The issue printed the week after the shootings sold about eight million copies worldwide. Five of those went to ISWNE member Andy Schotz, who asked me to pick up the souvenir editions for newspaper-society auctions. The cover depicts Muhammad again. In my neighborhood, there was a line of 400 people at one newsstand on the morning it was released and vendors all over the city reported selling out in minutes. After that edition, the magazine had to go on hiatus until the end of February, but its “comeback edition” has a press run of 2.5 million. It undoubtedly will benefit from sympathy buys for weeks or months to come.

A college friend who is coming in April and does not understand French wants to buy copies of Charlie Hebdo when he arrives and leave them in public places in Paris for people to read. He also wants to go shopping at the supermarket Coulibaly attacked. Le Figaro was right literally, but not figuratively, when it said killers brought death to Charlie Hebdo. The reaction of the French people was more one of outrage than fear. And great sadness. Interviews on the street indicated shock and disgust, anxiety and compassion. I walked the streets and rode the subway with Parisians in the days after the shootings, and we were all attempting to live life as usual. It wasn’t as if people hunkered down at home because they thought the streets were unsafe. I heard one TV report that said there was chaos on the streets of Paris, but I never saw that. Mary went out to Rue Mouffetard, our local shopping street, to buy bread on the night of the 7th and found a “normal” situation. Some feared more attacks in the future, understandable given terrorism around the world and Paris’ history in the 1980s and 1990s when the city suffered five bombings killing 31 and wounding hundreds and an attack on a restaurant in the Jewish quarter that took five lives. I remember how the bombings changed things for this traveler – increased security measures, the disappearance of metal garbage cans on the streets (clear plastic bags hanging from holders blow in the wind now) and the elimination of storage lockers in train stations. One French person interviewed said the fact that people knew the work of the victims reinforced the feeling that they lost someone close to them and the shock. A few said the country needs more security measures in public places, one even favoring a military presence on the streets.

The vigils I attended and stories I read made it obvious that the French people were livid over the attack on their freedom of expression. Millions upon millions took it personally. I sensed a loss of innocence. The Le Figaro editorial spoke of a war happening far away that people did not want see. “By scruple, doubtless for fear, too, we did not even dare speak its name.” The war has come to Paris’ doorstep, it said, and it’s clear that the democratic West’s way of life, values and civilization are under attack. …

(A poll story I read a few weeks after the shootings showed that the French overwhelmingly believe social measures should be taken against jihadism and that jobs for the Muslim population would help prevent resentment toward the French state.) Isabelle wondered aloud why people bought Charlie Hebdo after the tragedy but not before. She believes that the reaction of the world to the murders means freedom of expression is not going to die, and she hopes that all the people who reacted to January 7 will continue to react. Isabelle’s frustration over the availability of weapons was evident. A report indicated Coulibaly bought the weapons used in the attacks from the underworld in Belgium. They easily come across borders now in the new European Union with traditional borders diminished. Weapons are illegal in France except for sport, said Isabelle, who doesn’t even like her children watching TV shows or movies with gun violence. She also resents the fact that her country has imported conflicts, in her words, that a religious war has been brought here. Her words when she picked up a magazine printed after the shootings resonated with this American. On the cover was the French motto, “Liberté, égalité, fraternité,” (liberty, equality, fraternity). “We don’t have égalité, we don’t have fraternité, and we are getting less and less liberté,” she lamented.

There has been much discussion about Charlie Hebdo’s provocation of violence. Some argue that freedom of expression is absolute, meaning that poking fun is not provocation, while others contend that though there is no excuse for murdering people you disagree with, the newspaper and a cartoonist with a bodyguard knew they were risking physical, not just intellectual, retaliation when they enraged jihadists. The dinner discussion touched on that, when we found there is room for disagreement under one roof. Gilles repeatedly said there’s a difference between attacking the far right and printing something that irritates a religious faction to the point of violence. He called Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons provocation. Isabelle argued that it was not provocation and that freedom of expression is the right to speak your mind about anything. She even had the numbers to explain that the Muslims had not been picked on. She said 30 percent of Charlie’s covers attacked the extreme right, the next highest target was the church, next Jews and last Muslims at 4 percent. One thing seems clear: Charlie Hebdo isn’t going to back down. As I write this today, February 25, the new issue went on sale with a cover featuring a cartoon including images of the Pope, right-wing politician Marine Le Pen, former French President Nicolas Sarkozy and a jihadist carrying a Kalashnikov. The people are drawn as vicious dogs chasing a pup carrying a copy of Charlie Hebdo, and the big head reads, “Here we go again!”


Post a Comment

<< Home