Paris shootings: Terror, sadness but also strength. The tragedies in Paris have galvanised the French public
by Anne-Elisabeth Moutet, Paris
8:09PM GMT 10 Jan 2015
It has been a terrifying, depressing, yet also strangely uplifting week in Paris. It is as if the bloody murders of 12 people, among them cartoonists whose work and names were familiar to most French people, last Wednesday at 11am in the Charlie Hebdo offices, had released something important about the country’s soul, something which had seemed almost forgotten in recent years.
France is not entirely united, because we French are an ornery people and we will argue on anything from the filter of our Gauloise cigarettes to the wartime government. But France is certainly more united than it has been in a very, very long time.
In the early hours of shock, all of us who’d grown up giggling at Wolinski’s and Cabu’s cartoons, seen in our teenage comic weeklies, broadsheet political pages, Vélib ads, or indeed the wilfully offensive, wickedly funny and anarchistic Charlie Hebdo, could not imagine a France without them.
Aged 17, and a Charlie reader, I went to support the team in court on the public benches during slander or obscenity cases regularly brought against them. Afterwards, everyone – readers and cartoonists – would repair for beers stood us by Charlie’s founding editor, the late François Cavanna, at the café opposite the Palais de Justice. More recently, I was a regular co-panellist on the talk show 28 Minutes on ARTE, France’s equivalent of BBC2, with the editor Charb, as soft-spoken and calm as his cartoons were brutal; and Coco, who sometimes brought her baby daughter Irène in her carrier. Coco – Corinne Rey – was held at gunpoint by the terrorists and made to open the door to the Charlie building. On Friday she gave her only television interview to 28 Minutes, promising that the magazine would go on, with as much bad taste and as much offence as before, telling the programme team: “I lost my first family; you are my second family.”
The usual pundits – the unchanging coterie of Establishment journalists now as despised by the French people as cartoonists are still loved – immediately started intoning their usual clichéd predictions: France would be divided, the Muslim minority would be ostracised, Marine Le Pen’s hate-mongering Front National would benefit.
In that, these modern versions of Lenin’s useful idiots were unwittingly at one with the murderers. “The notion of backlash before it even happens is a jihadi propaganda weapon to shield the jihadists by elevating tensions between communities,” explains the Lebanese Middle-East expert Walid Phares. The Kouachi brothers, who spent time with al-Qaeda-affiliated movements in Yemen, had integrated this as part of their terrorism shock and awe tactics.
Yet, essentially, none of this happened. Most commenters and politicians gave us tired platitudes; it was the people, away from the distrusted elites, who spoke true. In France, the ultimate top-down country, where hierarchies matter as much as in the Mandarin civil service and subordinates are expected to shut up, every catchword and hashtag came from the grass roots. The first night, as the country struggled to understand what had happened, people carried homemade placards with the famous #JeSuisCharlie hashtag, but also #JeSuisAhmed in the shot policeman Merabet’s name and large jerry-built neon signs that said “We Are Not Afraid”.
As the nation was still processing the first quake came the deadly aftershocks: the murder of a policewoman in south Paris on Thursday. Then, as the police dragnet spread to over one quarter of the country, two hostage-takings, one in a factory near Charles de Gaulle airport, where the Charlie attackers were holed up; the other, co-ordinated to try to blackmail the police into sparing the terrorists, in a kosher supermarket in east Paris.
This last was a cruel reminder that for well over a decade now, a toxic brand of largely Islamist-inspired anti-Semitism has fouled France, claiming life after life in what everyone insisted on calling “isolated incidents”, perpetrated by disenfranchised youths from the country’s problematic banlieues, spouting a mishmash of fashionable pro-Intifada sentiment mixed with the resurgent tropes of the oldest anti-Dreyfusard hatred.
One young rock DJ, Stéphane Sellam, had his throat slit by a childhood friend (the murderer, one of his neighbours, then boasted to his mother, “I have killed a Jew, I’ll go to paradise, Allah guided me!”). A 21-year-old mobile phone salesman, Ilan Halimi, was kidnapped by a gang, tortured over three weeks then burnt to death in 2006. In 2012, Mohamed Merah killed Jewish children in a school in Toulouse. Less than a month ago, armed thugs invaded a young Jewish couple’s flat in Créteil, beat them up, robbed them and raped the 19-year-old woman because “Jews are all rich”. Assaults against yarmulke-wearing Jewish boys on their way to school are so common that rabbis have issued authorisations not to wear them.
The French West Indian stand-up comedian Dieudonné has been filling theatres with a strange mix of extreme-Left and Front National supporters (including, once, Jean-Marie Le Pen himself) for a show in which he jokes about the “myth of Auschwitz” and, of course, “Jewish bankers”.
Every time, the police investigated; the authorities said all the right things; then everything was forgotten again: no spontaneous vigils or national shock. The country, however disapproving in its overwhelming majority, seemed to be getting inured to the sad but inescapable fact that Jews get attacked. You could denounce it to general nods of agreement, but try to suggest that one extremist strain of Islam was actively fostering this and you immediately got branded “Islamophobic”.
This is the kind of atmosphere in which a deranged man will drive his car into a crowd of Christmas shoppers, shouting “Allahu Akbar”, and “This is for the children of Chechnya and Palestine” — prompting three copycat assaults throughout France within days. This is the kind of atmosphere that brought us to this terrible week. “First they came for the Jews. Then they came for the cartoonists. Then, for good measure, they came for the Jews again,” one journalist quipped.
We, the nation, all knew such things if we paid any attention at all; but they were never mentioned in Central Paris polite society; and what was absolutely forbidden was connecting the dots. “Isolated” was the catchword.
The dots are being connected now. On one of yesterday morning’s most popular radio talk shows, teachers from France’s problematic banlieues were saying how they’d tried to organise debates on the Charlie killings in their classes, only to hear the majority of their pupils justifying them. For years, another explained, it had become impossible to teach mid-20th century history in classes, for fear of starting mini-riots. “The Ministry of Education knows, but we get no help at all,” one teacher told the popular interviewer Jean-Jacques Bourdin.
We are mourning our dead; the country remains under maximum terror alert; police helicopters fly over Paris as I type; the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré is closed off to traffic in the blocks around the Élysée palace and various Métro and tramway lines were evacuated at least three times in the past 48 hours. None of the economic and political ills we have been moaning about for months and years has changed – and yet, it is as if France, under shock, is waking up.
There is a mood of defiance instead of fear. Nobody talks about anything else; but almost nobody (the editor of a national news weekly saw no contradiction between his JeSuisCharlie button and his languid opinion that cartoonists should be “responsible” and “think of the consequences” before publishing “just anything”) seems to give in to the temptation of surrender. If France ever experienced a Blitz spirit, this is it.
In a country that seems at war, two luminous voices are redefining, in a radical way, a national shock that is the country’s 9/11—and they come from two French Muslims; one Socialist MP and one constitutional magistrate who is a former Sarkozy minister.
The ex-minister is Jeannette Bougrab, a beautiful, slight, tragic figure, who was the partner of Charb. Charlie Hebdo’s slain editor was a radical, an anarchist; as messy and casual as Bougrab is chic and precise. Theirs was a meeting of minds. Each said of the other that they fell in love with “a freedom fighter”. The daughter of an Algerian metalworker who’d fought on the side of the French in the Algerian war, Bougrab, a feminist and a lawmaker who argued against the headscarf and the burqa, said vehemently that the French republic, by letting go of some of its principles, “failed the Charlie dead”.
“We could have avoided this massacre. Now everyone loves Charlie Hebdo; but until last week they were branded as Islamophobes; they were pointed out for murder on Twitter and elsewhere in general indifference, they received anonymous death threats daily.” Charb, she says, was finishing a book to do away with the false Islamophobia concept – a concept assuming that criticising an idea is racism. It will soon be published under the Charlie imprint.
The other voice is Churchillian in tone: it belongs to the Socialist MP Malek Boutih, who two decades ago founded the SOS Racism movement precisely to combat growing anti-immigrant racism. There is an ongoing polemic on who should “be allowed” to attend this Sunday’s March. François Hollande, although he has received Marine Le Pen at the Élysée like other political leaders, does not wish to see her among the marchers. Boutih, in a television interview, did the unthinkable in the regimented world of French politics: he contradicted the president. To him, people’s votes, like their origins, no longer mattered. “Do you think the killers, these new Nazis, looked at ethic origin or voting records before shooting?”
Tapping into the new French mindset – so alien in a country where ideological polarisation is reinforced by backbiting and personal feuds among the political class – he said: “Any human being who recognises the nature of barbarity, who believes in democracy, is welcome. Political parties do not decide national unity: the nation itself does. We’re all together in this, fighting this new IslamoNazism. And I think the country is finally taking its own destiny in hand.”
© Telegraph Media Group & Anne-Elisabeth Moutet, 2015.
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