Full disclosure*: I started writing this post over a week ago. I have been reading and talking and muddling through these pretty complicated issues and though I’m not sure my marinating thoughts are going to come out perfectly cooked here, at least I can share them with you in all their unseasoned glory.
France was thrown into turmoil when, on a Wednesday afternoon, two gunmen attacked the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo, a scathingly satirical weekly that frequently criticized…well, everything and everyone, but especially organized religion. The attack and subsequent manhunt resulted in two separate hostage situations, ultimately leaving 20 dead, including the two French-Algerian brothers who orchestrated the attack. It is the most deadly attack to occur on French soil in at least 50 years.
I come from a country that is (unfortunately) no stranger to gun violence; where it happens so frequently that we are all but desensitized to its tragedy. But on that Wednesday afternoon, 500km away from Paris, the New York Times alert on my phone still stopped me in my tracks.
One of the first French media reactions I saw was this cover of Le Monde.
“The French 9/11” I’ll admit, at first this really offended me. Enormous difference in death toll notwithstanding, attacking a specifically targeted group of provocateurs didn’t seem anything like attacking the symbols and morals an entire nation and killing thousands of innocents in the process. But, though I still find it perhaps gratuitous, after a lot of reflection and discussion, I accept this comparison and here is why:
Whatever you think of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons, it is without doubt that the murders of these cartoonists are a gross violation of liberté d’expression. No one should live in fear that they could be killed for something they have written. And that, in effect, is the defining french principle.
The US has “We the People”, the American Dream, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. France has Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité. The morals of an entire nation.
For the French, an attack on freedom of speech is an attack on a way of life, on a uniting principle and fundamental value. It is difficult to describe the pride France has in its sovereignty and in its very particular brand of society, but if it can’t be described, I think it can be witnessed in the immense show of solidarity and unity that has been displayed across France (Chambéry included) in the days following the attacks. Nearly 4 million took to the streets all over France, the most since France was liberated in WWII. Chambéry had a phenomenal showing, with 20,000 sporting Je Suis Charlie signs, pencils and pens, copies of political cartoons.
What happens now is still to be resolved. Anti-muslim attacks have increased, including an incident in a mosque in the next town over. Alleged attacks have been stopped in Belgium and François Hollande has launched an aircraft carrier to target ISIS militants. And, in perhaps one of the most awkward displays of diplomacy yet, John Kerry has gotten to show off his French skills with his pal James Taylor. No one can say exactly what the blow back will be, but it will almost certainly effect all of Europe, and those countries with large muslim populations in particular.
It has been strange to witness a national tragedy as a foreigner, to feel simultaneously inside and outside the events, and I have found my self on numerous occasions using 9/11 as my personal reference point for contextualizing the reactions. But what it comes down to is this: in the weeks and months after 9/11, what I remember above all is a country shaken to its core, but fiercely united. And it is encouraging to see France reacting in a similar way: Rising up to defend their rights. To assert that No, We will not accept terrorism in our country. No, We will not be bullied. No, We are not afraid. ✽
*Fuller disclosure: I definitely said that in Sarah Koenig’s voice.