On The Charlie Hebdo Attack in France

Paris is reeling from a terror attack which has so far left 12 dead and five critically wounded. Cartoonists and editors of the French satirical publication Charlie Hebdo were the target of a violent, reprehensible mass murder. Masked gunmen erupted into the publication’s newsroom during an editorial meeting – which take place weekly, and bring together most of the journalists, cartoonists and editors – shooting and killing four cartoonists and Charlie Hebdo’s editor-in-chief. The gunmen also killed two police officers. In a video posted on social media, one of the gunmen is seen shooting a policeman lying on the ground in the head, giving a sense of the cold blooded nature of the attack. As of now, the three gunmen are on the loose, after escaping in stolen vehicles. France has raised its terror alert to the highest level and potential target areas have been secured.

What happened today, though, goes much beyond a simple act of vengeance, and the shockwaves have only just begun to reverberate throughout France, and globally. There are two key threads to consider. First, the ever growing anti-Muslim discourse and the political forces behind it will surely gain strength – both in France and further afield – in an environment already rife with tensions. France’s extreme right has already been gaining a lot of support, and the French intelligentsia is increasingly contributing to the laying out of an intellectual foundation to support the popular notion of “France for the French.” Already, some are speculating that the gunmen – who appear skilled and in control of their operation – were trained abroad, stoking fears about the global reach of Islamic jihadists and groups like IS.

Secondly, this attack will impact the French media – and Western media, more generally. Will the – justifiable – fear of violent reprisal silence journalists, cartoonists and satirists? In France, Charlie Hebdo had been criticized for “taking it too far”, and for using the “cover” of free speech to publish reprehensible, hate-filled opinions – of not only Islam, but also of Judaism and Christianity. But that was Charlie Hebdo’s editorial choices, as distasteful as they may be to some; the publication has always pushed boundaries. Throughout its history, it has been known to create controversy with satirical cartoons  – in particular, they had raised the ire of the Muslim world by printing cartoons of the prophet Muhammad (including the Danish cartoons from 2005, which had caused a global uproar at the time), and were even sued for this in 2007.

Charlie Hebdo won the court case based on the fact that their printing of the cartoon was covered by freedom of expression laws in France. They never stopped poking fun – irreverently and defiantly – at religions. The publication has been the target of both threats and attacks in recent years, including arson in 2011. One of their main cartoonists – who lost his life today – had been under police protection for some time, due to the serious nature of the threats. He had told French newspaper Le Monde two years ago that he “would rather die standing than live on my knees”.

At the United Nations, Ban Ki Moon called the Charlie Hebdo attack a “direct assault on a cornerstone of democracy.”  So far, the attackers are still on the loose. When they are captured and their motives ascertained, we can expect some profound and immediate consequences for French politics, and possibly French foreign policy. This attack may certainly raise the issue of the active French involvement in the fight against IS in the Middle East. Overall public opinion was supportive of the decision to participate in airstrikes against the group in Iraq, but these attacks could change the calculus – but not necessarily to swing the pendulum the other way. France might be strengthened in its resolve, and have the political mandate to join the “war on terror” more firmly than ever before.