Since the attack on Charlie Hebdo over one week ago, little else has occupied the thoughts and conversations of people here in France. Indeed, little else has occupied news outlets all over the world. I’ve been reading an incessant chain of reports, responses, analyses, and background articles, in both French and English. Some of the chatter is the natural aftermath of an important event; some of it is just trying to grab attention (like USA Today publishing the op-ed of a radical Muslim cleric), gain political leverage (Fox covering Obama’s absence at the march in Paris), or fill the 24-hour news cycle.
But amid all of that discussion, I haven’t read many personal pieces. I think it could be beneficial for English speakers to see a firsthand account—not of the events themselves, but of what’s happening more broadly here in France. I’d like to offer my perspective as an expatriate in an average city in an average region. If I were living in Paris I’m sure my experiences would be a little more intense, but I venture to say that what I’ve witnessed over the past week may represent a more universal experience in France right now. I want to tell you where I was, what I’ve seen, and a little bit of what I think concerning Charlie Hebdo.
Wednesday January 7
It was early in the afternoon, in the checkout line of an electronics store that I heard about the attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo. A friend checked her phone and said: Oh my God! You guys, there’s been a shooting in Paris. Another friend responded: You see—I told you France was next. Just a few weeks prior we had all discussed how there hasn’t really been a major terrorist attack in France, and one seemed inevitable.
For the rest of the afternoon we followed the updates. Although the names of the suspects were released (Cherif and Said Kouachi), the whole ordeal lingered in irresolution. As with any breaking news story, bits and pieces of the story surfaced: corrections, details, videos. That night there were little vigils held all over France, but it seemed to me premature in a way. The suspects had escaped; the picture was still clouded.
Thursday January 8
On Thursday I went to work, and I doubt that I had or even overheard any conversation that was not about the attacks. The teachers’ lounge was buzzing with simultaneous discussions. Even when I tuned out the words, I could still hear the tone of disbelief. Of course everyone tried to get in a few words with the one Muslim teacher, to get his thoughts. He seemed particularly distraught, although I couldn’t say whether or not that was augmented because he felt observed.
President Hollande had declared Thursday a national day of mourning, one of only a handful in France’s history. The entire country was supposed to observe a moment of silence at noon, and announcement memos were posted all over my high school. The administration broadcasted the news over the intercom, but they neglected to remind over the intercom at noon. I was in the cafeteria at the appointed time, and I was surprised to find the moment of silence not particularly silent.
When I got home I caught up on the news: a policewoman was shot in Paris, but no one knew if this was connected to the Charlie Hebdo shootings. Elsewhere, the two attackers had been spotted robbing a gas station. The manhunt continued. The whole country was gripped with a sense of uneasiness. There was so much uncertainty about the violence, the potential scope, and the eventual end. Everything seemed far from settled, and people knew that more violence could (and probably would) erupt again. In absorbing all of the news and footage, I couldn’t help but watch the unedited amateur video of the pair killing police officer Ahmed Merabet. The two men, dressed in black, get out of their car and open fire. One casually trots over to Merabet, rolling on the ground, and calmly executes him with one shot without breaking his stride.
I needed some fresh air. Why am I reading the BBC? I wanted to go outside and see France for myself. I wanted to be a part of it in some small way. I felt like something big was happening, and I wanted to witness. I found the streets surprisingly normal. There had been a large demonstration at noon in front of the Chambéry town hall, but everyone had dispersed—leaving only candles, cartoons, and Je suis Charlie signs.
Friday January 9
I followed more news. The French sources were always a little bit ahead of the English sources, but both seemed to be capturing a partial and delayed reality. The manhunt continued north of Paris. The two suspects had spent the night in a forest, but they emerged in the morning and a high-speed chase ensued. They hid inside a warehouse and took a hostage, initiating a standoff. Then, there were more hostages taken in a grocery store in Paris, confirming that there were multiple, connected attackers. The new captor was Amedy Coulibaly, the same man suspected of killing the police officer the day before. He would only let the hostages go when the Kouachi brothers were released from their standoff. How long will this go on?
In Chambéry on Friday night there was a large gathering planned at 6:00 PM in front of the courthouse. Word started trickling through around 5:00 PM: both situations were reaching a climax. There was so much confusion as news sites alternated between stories, and as I alternated between sources. Eventually it became clear: all of the attackers had been killed. That was enough for me; I knew the details would follow.
I arrived at the courthouse a little late and found my friends in the crowd of hundreds and hundreds of people. There had been some speakers before I got there, but I had just missed them. The gathering was interesting; everyone was just lingering and talking. It was surprisingly calm and convivial. Some people had signs and candles, but it honestly didn’t seem like there was a set goal for everyone assembling. Nevertheless it was meaningful: so many people just physically present together, united.
On Sunday there were huge demonstrations all over France, with the largest in Paris. Millions of people went out into the streets, and about fifty world leaders joined Hollande in marching for solidarity and freedom of speech. Everyone must have felt the same connection, the same magnetism.
On Monday, students in my school were given a break in the middle of the day to organize and participate in a march of their own. Little rallies popped up during the week as well, but they slowly petered out. Now it’s all given way to discussion of what it all means. France has raised security, deployed troops, and rounded up people it was keeping tabs on. Belgium just stopped a large terrorist attack. The weight of it all, however, doesn’t seem to have petered out yet. I’ve had people actually greet me saying, Hey Charlie.
I could share my thoughts at length, but since much has already been said I’ll try to keep it personal. The Charlie Hebdo attacks have really shaken France. The French haven’t really experienced anything like this—at least not since the 1960’s. They aren’t desensitized to violence like some other Western nations. Seventeen killed and twenty-two injured: sadly those numbers seem pedestrian when compared to 9-11, the Boston Marathon bombings, and the dozens of shootings in America over the past decade. That’s not even to mention terrorist attacks in Nigeria, Kenya, India, or the Middle East.
But it’s not just a cynical question of numbers. The targets of the Charlie Hebdo attacks were significant: a media outlet and France’s Jewish community. Bringing free speech into it adds an entirely new layer. The attacks also touch on everyday issues in France—things you see all the time if you live here. As many others have already pointed out, Charlie Hebdo is an explosion of so many tensions in France: immigration, Islamism, cultural assimilation, and French identity.
For me, however, the most notable point of this entire affair has been the hopefulness and resolution of France’s response. Of course France hasn’t had just one response, but overall I’ve witnessed an incredible unity. Unfortunately there have been some incidences of violence against Muslims and Muslim sites, but it has been far from the norm. Certainly France’s far right party, the Front Nationale, will try to manipulate this, but for the moment they’ve been relatively quiet. By far the most common response has been overwhelming and peaceful solidarity. The message is: unity and freedom of speech. France has reacted with far more positivity than I anticipated—at least publicly. Any hatred is happening privately in the dark, in the graffiti on mosques, in the man yelling at the television in his own home.
Sure there have been some foibles. Obama missed the march and didn’t send anyone. Hollande walked alongside some world leaders with less-than-immaculate records on free speech and civil rights. Then the French government arrested the comedian Dieudonné for something he said. In the end though, I’ve never seen a country unite like this. Maybe I was too young to remember the aftermath of 9-11 accurately, but I recall it being extremely emotional and nationalistic. Following the recent attacks, France's response has been more sober and centered around physical gatherings. I’ve never seen so many people come together and demonstrate on such a scale.
It seems to me that the Charlie Hebdo attacks have utterly failed. First, it appears that the terrorists did less damage than they originally intended: the police managed to stop them before they could kill more people (or use their Molotov cocktails and rocket launchers). The killers martyred the cartoonists they despised and turned them into a symbol of free speech and resistance in the face of terror (although the merit of their work can be debated, the importance of their deaths cannot). The French media have done an excellent job of focusing on and celebrating the victims of the attacks rather than the perpetrators. Instead of suppressing the original cartoons that provoked their hatred, they gave them international attention. On top of that, they helped Charlie Hebdo go from a struggling fringe satire publication to having an immutable voice and selling millions of copies of their current edition (which had another depiction of Muhammad on the cover). Lastly, as of now, the attacks haven’t divided the country and fueled the underlying conflicts like their authors would have hoped. Although time will ultimately tell, right now it looks as if France as a whole has been united and galvanized against extremism.
It would have been better, however, if the attackers were captured, tried in court, and sentenced to a lifetime in prison. I wish they didn’t have the satisfaction of self-deception, of dying believing themselves to be martyrs. I wish they could have seen an entire country, alongside people all around the world, unite in peaceful defiance. But it would be better still if we lived in a world without terrorism—and if those seventeen people still lived among us.