Misunderstanding the lessons from Charlie Hebdo

A pencil left by a Charlie Hebdo supporter in Place de la Bastille, ParisA pencil left by a Charlie Hebdo supporter in Place de la Bastille, Paris (Source: Christian Bille)

January 7th, 2015. Chérif and Saïd Kouachi burst into the office of the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, killing nine of its contributors.

A few hours later, Anne Hidalgo, the Mayor of Paris, sends a tweet calling on the French population to “react to this act through a sacred union around the principles of the Republic”.

Twelve dead, two assassins on the run, and already the infernal apparatus of party politics is set in motion, with all French parties churning out their personalised calls to unity in the name of the values of the Republic.

Seventeen dead, three criminals reduced to silence by the French armed forces, and – for their own political gain – the vultures of the Republic continue to feed on the popular sentiment of anger and solidarity shaking the French population.

Twenty dead. The word “terrorism” is already hurtling through the media and the French population. A golden opportunity for the government to awaken Marianne, the symbol of French Republican spirit, from the deep slumber into which she had been plunged by years of financial crises, crippling austerity measures and increasingly unpopular governments.

Twenty dead. Two months later, and France is left with a schizophrenic Republic that wouldn’t recognise itself in the mirror. For this Republic that French politicians constantly refer to as the bastion of national unity is a confused, ahistorical, idealised ghost of a notion, a Republic that has forgotten its origins, a risible Marianne trying its best to conceal her many wrinkles as she continues to be torn to pieces by party politics under heavy layers of political discourse and appeals to Republican unity.

Through its attempts at reclaiming the genuine spirit of humanist solidarity displayed by the French population in the aftermath of the killings for political purposes, through its constant politicisation of the socio-economic and cultural issues it felt were at the origins of the attacks, the French government has achieved what the terrorists failed to do. The French government is subverting and distorting the very spirit of Charlie Hebdo and the principles that underlie the French Republic. They are doing those things in the name of that spirit and those same principles, to justify moves towards an ever more securitarian state where freedom of speech and thought, while they remain legal rights in theory, are transformed into a form of commodity. Access to these rights is increasingly subject to limits and regulation “for the general good”.

The French government has been more successful than any Kouachi or Coulibaly could have been in undermining the Republican values it seems to value so highly.

From freedom of speech to hypocrisy

When Hollande declared that “the Republic will be intractable, implacable, irreproachable for liberties and rights” during his press conference on February 5th, high on the fumes of a recent surge in popularity, had he forgotten that a new law on military programming implemented in December 2013 gave multiple government agencies access to personal correspondence for investigative purposes? Had it slipped his mind that his administration had legislated for the possible collecting “in real time” of “any information or document, processed or stored”? He had forgotten, perhaps, that this law, expressed in such vague terms, risks providing loopholes for access to content data as opposed to simple connection data, like previous laws allowed?

Unfortunately, such a display of incompetence is all too unlikely, and a glaring instance of hypocrisy on the government’s part seems more plausible.  This instance of hypocrisy takes on an ironic aftertaste when the government, having committed itself to defending freedom of speech and individual liberties in the name of Charlie Hebdo, proceeds to do so by enacting a recent “anti-terrorism” law that is controversial at best, and downrightly anti-democratic at worst. This law was put into effect through recourse to an emergency procedure that bypassed political debate just days after the execution of a French journalist held hostage by ISIS. Moreover, by facilitating the blocking of websites without judiciary control and stipulating that no citizen may leave the French nation if they are simply suspected of being in contact with individuals and institutions potentially inciting terrorism, the law in effect creates crimes of intent and criminalises opinion, using general safety as a pretext to put in place measures worthy of a security state through methods that arguably verge on being anti-democratic.

But maybe ironic isn’t quite the right word. For it is more risible than ironic that in no less than six days after Christiane Taubira recommended a particularly strict enacting of the article on incitement to terrorism contained in the law, judges in a democratic state are able to return at least six convictions involving that particular offence, most of which were expedited through immediate summary trials and appeared closer to drunken brawling and disrespect for the police than to any intentional incitement to terrorism. Risible when, after an altercation between a teacher and parent, an eight year old child is questioned by police for two hours for having replied to a teacher asking “are you Charlie?” that he preferred to side “with the terrorists”. Risible, too, when Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, the young Education Minister, feels it appropriate to approve a move that is clearly the expression of a collective hysteria fuelled by paranoid fears of rampant terrorism.

Politicisation, definitions, and denaturation

In pledging itself to defend freedom of speech and fight terrorism through such measures, the French government has in fact denatured a popular impulse for the defence of freedom of speech, turning it into a justification for policies that, only a decade ago, would have been considered unworthy of the French left. And yet the media, both in France and across the world, constantly refers to the “spirit of January 11th” as a symbol of the renewed vigour of French national unity, while the government is in the process of implementing a series of educational and social reforms designed to palliate what they perceive as the socio-cultural origins of the rampant radicalisation of part of the French Muslim population and the increasing threat of terrorism. And how could measures designed to reduce inequality and promote social and cultural integration be seen as anything less than commendable?

Yet once again, the policies advocated by the government take root in a discourse based on notions of “Republican values” that have been distorted by their harnessing for party political purposes in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo events. When Manuel Valls talks of a “territorial, social and ethnic apartheid” in France, he establishes an implicit link between the spatial concentration of ethnic and social minorities and terrorism. As for Vallaud-Belkacem, who put forward a plan for educational reform involving the compulsory signing of a secularism charter by parents and students alike, and the regular use of patriotic symbols such as the national anthem and flag in educational establishments, she would perhaps do well to revise the French law on secularism of March 4th 1905: if she pays close enough attention, Vallaud-Belkacem might notice that the law was designed not to enforce an a-religious environment in French establishments, but rather to govern relations between state and church, allowing individuals to freely practice their own beliefs without interference from the state. She might also notice that in assuming that radical Islamism is at the heart of the issue of terrorism, and in assuming that her distorted concept of secularism is the answer to this radicalisation, she risks providing a justification for extremist parties that seek to use secularism as a pretext to denigrate Islam, a move which could, ironically, play a role in radicalisation by hindering integration.

For all its good intentions, the French government seems incapable for the moment of recognising that terrorism is more than a mere problem of segregation, education or secularism, despite the evidence being difficult to miss: the Kouachi brothers themselves spent the larger part of their adolescence in Corrèze, an area of France that, last time I checked, was hardly a socially unstable, ethnically segregated region. In their eagerness to unite the population behind the traditional Republican bastion of secularism, not only is the government corrupting the original meaning of the ideal, it is also failing to recognise that France has a problem of religion as well as social, economic and cultural problems; a real, tangible, French problem of religion, as paradoxical as it may sound for a nation that constantly brags of its attachment secular principles. It is failing, too, to recognise that the terrorist acts of citizens such as the Kouachi brothers is perhaps the symptom of a state where the traditional methods of political participation are no longer adapted to the political, social and economic reality of the country. Indeed, when the centre-right UMP publishes a list of suggested measures in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attacks that resembles a hasty cut-and-paste straight off the National Front’s website, and when the left begins to adopt security measures that risk infringing on personal liberties through a procedure deliberately aimed at bypassing debate, it feels like citizenship is no longer a politicised, active condition, but a passive, given juridical status in France. It feels like voting is no longer a guarantee of popular political agency, but a mere opinion poll.

In their efforts to outdo their respective bid for popular support in the aftermaths of the killings, French political parties have politicised social and cultural issues in a way that could only rest upon denatured conceptualisations of the original values of the French Republic. In doing so, the government is able to shy away from addressing the deeper, institutional and legislative issues at the origins of the fragmentation of French society. More than this, the politicisation of social tensions is achieved through a discourse that risks giving a platform to and legitimising extremist ideas such as that put forward by the National Front, because it potentially allows the use of the Republic’s “values” to impose uniformity of thought and cult as opposed to toleration of multiplicity, and potentially allows the pretext of national and individual security to serve as a justification for laws that could become a threat to the individual rights that the government seems so keen to preserve in its rhetoric.

If only they were still here

I cannot help but regret that Cabu is no longer here to present us with version 2.0 of his infamous February 2006 cover, with members of Charlie Hebdo as the protagonists instead of Muhammad.

“It’s hard being loved by morons.” The words seem almost too gentle to express what would undeniably have been the disgust of these bastions of French satire and irreverence at the lamentable recuperation of their deaths for petty party political purposes. Not content to join in what was initially a genuine, spontaneous human response to a barbarous act of violence, the government took control of the Paris rally planned for January 11th, renamed it a “Republican march” and, along with the other major French parties, used the events in a manner that could only subvert and distort the very spirit of Charlie Hebdo. Not only this, but their attempt at fostering unity has been a magnificent failure, as shown by two opinion polls carried out separately by the IFOP and CSA, both of which reveal that if general elections were to be held this year, Marine Le Pen and the National Front would come very close to victory.

January 11th 2015 might go down in history as a prime example of French national unity, but in the meantime, whether at the social or political level, France is deep in the throes of a major identity crisis, and unless it starts to wake up and break away from discourses based on an idealised past to begin a constructive effort to redefine the values of the nation in a manner that would allow for true integration at the social and political level through a recognition, not of the unity of the French population, but of its multiplicity, it is unlikely to recover any time soon from its schizophrenic episode.