France’s Open Wound/ La Plaie Béante de la France

Je suis parisienne d’origine, et de voir les évènements de cette semaine se dérouler à la télé, sur internet, m’a donné une nausée presque constante. J’ai mal au cœur. J’ai mal au cœur à cause de la violence inimaginable du meurtre des journalistes de Charlie Hebdo. Mal au cœur parce qu’on est encore en pleine situation de crise, avec des djihadistes armés, en fuite, terrorisant Paris et la France. Mal au cœur parce que de nombreuses mosquées et lieux de culte musulman en France, et en Europe, ont été attaqués depuis le massacre de Mercredi. Mal au cœur parce qu’en France, les gens d’origine musulmane, maghrébine vont payer pour les crimes d’une poignée d’individus extrémistes marginaux. Mal au cœur parce que ces actes ne vont que continuer à diviser l’opinion, à monter les gens les uns contre les autres, ce dont la France n’a pas besoin. Finalement, mal au cœur parce qu’on vit dans un monde ou les libertés fondamentales – et pas seulement la liberté d’expression – sont en danger.

Les terroristes veulent absolument fomenter la haine et la division. Pour qu’on s’en sorte, il faut absolument éviter les pièges et les raccourcis intellectuels.

I’m from Paris, and watching the events of this week unfold on TV and on the internet has given me near constant nausea. My heart aches because of the unimaginable violence of the murders of the Charlie Hebdo journalists. My heart aches because we are still in the midst of crisis, with armed jihadists on the loose, terrorizing Paris and France. My heart aches because many mosques and Muslim places of worship in France, and Europe, have been attacked since Wednesday’s massacre. My heart aches because in France, people of Muslim and North African origin will pay for the crimes of a few individual marginal extremists. My heart aches because these acts will only continue to divide opinion, to pit people against each other, which is not what France needs. Finally, my heart aches because we live in a world where basic freedoms – not only freedom of expression – are in danger.
Terrorists want to foment hatred and division. It is essential to avoid the pitfalls and intellectual shortcuts that would lead us right into that trap.


Who is Charlie ?

It’s important to understand that Charlie Hebdo is not especially popular in France. The publication has been around for decades, but it has always had a small readership and is considered to be a fringe magazine. They often dealt in unsavory clichés, and most people don’t care for their type of humor. That said, the people who worked there – the journalists and cartoonists who were behind the publication – were themselves popular and respected. Many had had long careers working for various media. Cabu, one of the murdered cartoonists, used to do drawings on a popular kids TV show (which I remember watching as a kid.) Wolinski, another cartoonist, also drew for popular, mainstream Paris Match, and was awarded the highest civilian honor in France – the Legion d’Honneur – in 2005. These cartoonists were not hateful, did not have an agenda other than to poke fun, mock and satirize symbols of authority – including religious authority. To compare them to hate-filled groups which directly promote racism and intolerance is the wrong analogy.

The limits of the right to offend

In the aftermath of Wednesday’s murders, many – myself included – shared the #JeSuisCharlie hashtag and image. As many have said, the right to free speech includes satire, and even the right to mock, to offend, to insult. These are fundamental precepts of a liberal open society: that all ideas are welcome, no matter how much we disagree with them or find them distasteful. But much has also been said about the appropriateness of the drawings, and the need for civility and compassion in a society where minorities are already kept down. In recent days, a fierce debate has emerged about whether images which mock and deeply insult already marginalized minorities, contributing to further polarization, should have a place in society at all. This is understandable, and a valid issue which should be debated.

Freedom of expression benefits from this ongoing debate, and its limits should always be challenged. The rules around free speech are part of a legal and political framework, which can be influenced through courts, through legislation and through social change. I know where I stand on the debate around free speech, but I respect and welcome the opportunity to have these views and the status quo challenged. (I also agree with Max Fisher’s pithy take).

In the coming days, months, and years, people who fall somewhere along the spectrum of support for free speech will argue intensely. I believe this degree of interest in free speech and its limits is healthy for our society. But we should not lose focus on the real offense which took place: the brutal massacre of people whose only crime was to make jokes – an excuse to unleash madness. How we address this – in France – and how it’s interpreted further afield, matters for the long term sustainability of democratic society.

The danger of amalgamating terrorism and other issues

There are very serious, deep issues of division in France today – this is nothing new. The marginalization of French Muslim and other minority communities has cast a shadow over France for a long time – it has caused decay, mistrust, an uncomfortable, tense environment. The nasty debate over immigration has invigorated the nationalistic right, which has happily exploited people’s fear by stoking racist, xenophobic stereotypes. The suffering, and the malaise are real.

But the collective response of the events of this week, in spite of the massive shock, should not drift into the further marginalization of Muslims and minorities in France.

Already, there have been several attacks on mosques and Muslim businesses, an unacceptable and deeply disturbing response, which should be harshly condemned, and the perpetrators punished severely. But more generally, the rights and freedoms of minorities in France – who are also victims of these attacks –  must be upheld. We must come together to condemn the actions of a few who seek to tear us apart.

More aggressive surveillance and profiling laws, cracking down on Muslim communities, more restrictive immigration policies and the perpetuation of injustice and inequality will not solve the deeper issues. We have to let new ideas emerge, and eschew reactionary tendencies.

France, and more broadly Western nations where demographics are evolving, must confront these problems honestly and comprehensively. And we must also deal with the scourge of extremist fundamentalism, which affects us all, without destroying our freedoms – our freedom of expression, but also of religion and of conscience.