Who is Charlie? And What Now?

On Sunday 11 January France witnessed the largest rally on records of people taking to the streets with close to 4 million people all over the country, of which almost 1,5 million in Paris. The world saw one of the largest gatherings of state leaders in one place outside of those we witness during the annual UN General Assemblies, in what was reportedly a nightmare for the security services. Prior to this, the social media sphere saw one of the largest spreads of a hashtag, with more than 3,4 million #jesuischarlie in less than 24 hours.

Plantu, Le Monde


So who is this Charlie able to trigger such massive mobilization?

Who actually read Charlie Hebdo?

Charlie Hebdo was not a large publication before the attacks, with barely 60.000 prints per issue, a figure in steady decrease. As a lot of people have pointed out since the attacks that ”no one read it anymore”, some claiming it has taken an Islamophobic turn, others finding it just too radical, and others seeing it simply as made up of a bunch of “old 68’ers” intent on criticizing the sacred and the powerful. Yet, ”everyone” knew the drawings, they made the headlines, colored the newspaper salesbooths, and generated debate. A whole generation, or even two, grew up with the drawings of Cabu and Wolinski – seen as national treasures for many – as well as Charb and Tignous amongst others. Before joining Charlie Hebdo, Cabu was even the resident cartoonist on the most popular daily children TV program of the 80s, drawing and teaching French kids to have a sens critique and satire long before they were of age to be interested in politics.

Vous avez dit liberté d’expression?

As a student in Paris in the 2000’s, Charlie Hebdo was part of my basic introduction package to French press, culture and public debate. When we debated, in one of my journalism classes, what freedom of expression is and should be, Charlie Hebdo was always there, in the background or in the foreground, showing where the borders of the socially and politically accepted went, sometimes by respecting them and sometimes by transgressing them, but in any case, feeding this debate.

What my years in France, from primary school to PhD studies, have taught me, is not only this critical sense in itself, but also that this culture of debate is deeply anchored in the early French education. This appears to have been at the core of the mobilization in France in recent days, reflecting the sense that this attack was more than a brutal and targeted attack against cartoonists, more than an attack on the free press. It is lived as an attack against the core of the most basic French values and what makes up French society.

Être ou ne pas être Charlie, is that the question?

A lot of different meanings are put into the new popular meme “Je suis Charlie”, not to forget the counter-reaction “Je ne suis pas Charlie”. Overnight, “Je suis Charlie” has become a symbol of the right to criticize, and to speak out, without fear of reprisals. Some use it as a way to claim “we are not afraid” in the face of terrorism, a sort of “if you want to silence Charlie Hebdo, you will have to silence us all”. Yet, as has been pointed out, those who say “Je suis Charlie” do not necessarily say that to condone every drawing and utterance made by the Charlie Hebdo newspaper, but to defend a “something” that they feel has now been threatened and (variably from one individual to another) to protest against terrorism, against attacks on the press in general, against extremism and racism and/or simply to defend a free society where communities live at peace with each other.

The tenants of “Je ne suis pas Charlie”, also from a range of different stances, remind of the provocative drawings by Charlie Hebdo in order to draw attention to the norms (whether social, legal, political or religious) that should regulate freedom of speech. Some have used it more plainly to remind us that “no, we are not all subversive and provoking cartoonists” – to what some of the “Je suis Charlie” defenders have responded that that doesn’t mean that Charlie Hebdo in any way “asked for it”. Some again have used it in the “spirit” of Charlie Hebdo, to not sacralize the newspaper, but to keep the right to criticize what they did and do even after the attacks.

Another response has been ”Je suis Ahmed”, the name of the police officer shot in the street in front of the Charlie Hebdo premises, or the names of the other victims both to illustrate that “Charlie” the newspaper is not dead, and to remind of and honor the memory of all the victims. “Je suis juif” is used to stand up against the anti-semitism apparent not just in the recent attacks, but in a series of attacks in the recent years. The series of other “Je suis…” are used to defend the diversity of French and European societies, and remind of the importance of the “vivre ensemble” (the knowing how to live together). This is probably where one of the greatest challenges lies ahead.

Indeed, after the historic day on Sunday, France now faces a lot of crucial questions;

  • How to face the events that have just unfolded, how to prevent future ones from happening, and how to prevent the recent attacks to deepen the existing or create new internal fractures?
  • How can the socio-political context allowing such attacks to take place be understood, without resorting to stigmatization and discrimination?
  • How can the recent events be the starting point of a better social and integration policy, notably in the banlieues, rather than lead to increased disenfranchisement for a large part of the population?
  • How can France and Europe define the appropriate security responses, without building hyper-securitized societies and taking us several years back by reinstating internal border controls?
  • How can France, and Europe, learn from the American experiences, without reproducing the same mistakes?
  • How can we protect the freedoms which were branded so high during this last Sunday in Paris, without at the same time reducing the freedom of movement, of thought and of speech (for some or everyone) and the sense of living in open societies with equal rights for everyone?
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