Seven Questions My American Friends Ask About the Charlie Hebdo shootings
I’m a French journalist at Le Monde, in Paris, and a Fellow at the Nieman Foundation in the United States this year. I’ve been hearing a lot of things in the U.S. since the Paris shootings. I thought I’d try to help American readers understand the context of these horrific events.
Keep one thing in mind: While French and American societies look alike, and share common values, they have different definitions of what Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Religion and Racism mean (although it may sound weird).
1. Was Charlie Hebdo as popular as The Daily Show?
Reading the American press and watching TV, it looks like Charlie Hebdo is a huge institution in France, and that its focus is mostly about Islam. It’s more complicated than that.
What is Charlie Hebdo? Try to think of this weekly newspaper as a mix between South Park, Mad Magazine and The Daily Show, but with a very left-wing and anti-capitalist component.
A big difference, though: Charlie Hebdo is a very small publication. In the last few years, its circulation was between 45,000 and 60,000 copies a week, which even by French standards is quite small.
Charlie Hebdo has always been a very politically-focused weekly, and this is why people read it. The staff makes fun of everyone, and they also participate in the policy debates of the left wing in France. In 1996, they launched a petition to forbid the existence of the National Front, the main far-right party in France. It got more than 150,000 signatures. The paper was also involved in the movement of solidarity with undocumented immigrants in the ‘90s.
They have been been attacking all ideas and religions, always. I remember a series in the ‘90s against Buddhism called “the most stupid religion ever,” and in their special coverage of Pope Benedict XVI, he was dressed as a Nazi officer because he had been (against his will) a member of the Hitler Youth when he was young.
As Adam Gopnick puts it in the New Yorker :
“The magazine was offensive to Jews, offensive to Muslims, offensive to Catholics, offensive to feminists, offensive to the right and to the left, while being aligned with it — offensive to everybody, equally.”
In 2006, when Charlie Hebdo republished the cartoons of Muhammad first published by the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, Muslim organizations sued. The paper won the trial. Throughout the newspaper’s history, it was routine to be sued by religious organizations, but until then, most of those bringing suit were Catholic organizations.
> Watch : In this short French documentary published on the New York Times website, the staff is working on a cover that shows Muhammad saying “It’s hard to be loved by morons”.
2. Is Charlie Hebdo Racist ?
I’ve seen some of my American friends comparing Charlie Hebdo cartoons to the anti-semitic drawings in the 1930s, which fueled the rise of the Nazis in Germany. I have to say I don’t think you can compare the two.
A lot Americans might consider Charlie Hebdo racist; Slate.com called Charlie a “heroic and racist” publication. But most French citizens don’t think Charlie Hebdo is racist, because making fun of religion is not considered racism in France in most cases. Not only is it not considered racist; it’s considered a political duty by most liberals since the French Revolution.
Of course, not everybody thinks this way. Muslim organizations and anti-racist activists in France have accused Charlie Hebdo of racism ever since they published the Muhammad cartoons in 2006.
It is fair to say some of Charlie’s writers and cartoonists have been obsessed with Islam since the publication of the Muhammad cartoons. Former Charlie cartoonists and writers said they were uncomfortable with the publication focusing so much on Islam.
Charb — the editor-in-chief, who was killed in his office — answered to these accusations in 2013 in Le Monde (the translation is mine) :
“We are almost ashamed to remind people that anti-racism and the passion of equality between all human beings are in the founding pact of Charlie Hebdo…We are not afraid to say that we are anti-racist activists. We are not members of an organization, but we have chosen our side, and we will never change. If by mistake — but this will never happen — a racist cartoon was to be published in the newspaper, we would quit our jobs denouncing it”.
Charlie Hebdo has been struggling for years against racism, against the far-right National Front and the paper has stood alongside anti-racist organizations, social justice activists and undocumented immigrants.
My personal opinion is probably not shared by the majority in France. I think it’s wrong to say Charlie Hebdo is racist. But I do think they made stupid choices. In a country where racism against Muslims and Arabs is high, and at a time when a lot of political parties are using fear and hate against Muslims to gain political power, it was definitely not a very good idea to ride that horse.
When Charlie Hebdo published these cartoons, I was upset because I thought it really wouldn’t help Muslims and Arabs in France. I was ashamed they did it, because as a journalist, and also as an Arab living in France, I know how hard it is to fight stereotypes and racism in this country. And I thought Charlie Hebdo should be, as it had always been, on the side of solidarity and cleverness. But I didn’t think that these mistakes meant they are a bunch of racists. (Needless to say it doesn’t allow anyone to violently attack them or to threaten them).
>> This thread on Quora may help you to understand this debate about racism.
>> If you want to know more about this debate, this Vox piece tries to explain it with an American perspective.
3. Who were these Charlie guys ?
An American friend asked me, if very few people actually read Charlie Hebdo, why was their publication a big deal? It’s because some of the writers and cartoonists were VERY famous in France…for other reasons.
Cabu, who was killed during the attack against the newspaper, drew for a lot of other newspapers and magazines, where a lot of French readers saw them. He created one the most famous French cartoons characters: Le Beauf. Le “Beauf” was so widely recognizable that “beauf” became a common word in French meaning meaning to talk (in a very derogatory way) about uneducated and intolerant people…you can compare it to Redneck.
When I was a kid, Cabu drew cartoons live in the most watched children show on public television, Récré’A2.
Wolinski, who was also killed by the Kouachi brothers, is one of the most famous cartoonists in France. He started drawing during the May ’68 uprising, and for years worked at the communist daily newspaper L’Humanité.
Charb, the editor-in-chief, was known by my eight year-old nephew and a lot of other kids for a character he created more than 10 years ago for the children’s daily newspaper Mon Quotidien.
He was drew numerous cartoons (like this one)for anti-racist organizations, like the MRAP, one of the biggest anti-racist oganizations in France.
Bernard Maris was not a cartoonist, but a well-known left-leaning economist, who wrote under the pseudonym “Uncle Bernard”. He was on public radio every morning for an economics debate, and in 2011 he was appointed to the board of the Banque de France, which is the French equivalent of the Fed.
This is one of the reasons for the incredibly large demonstrations French people organized last week. A lot of people felt like they knew these guys, even if they didn’t read their newspaper.
>> If you want to know more about it, French columnist Guillemette Faure explains pretty well how people feel about Charlie these days in Paris in an article published on Time.com . And French journalist Florence Martin-Kessler tells to Nieman reports what Charlie means to France.
4. What is Free Speech in France?
As Jon Stewart put it in The Daily Show, Free speech in France doesn’t look like free speech to a lot of Americans. I know it’s not easy to understand: Free Speech is free speech and that’s it, right? Well, no. Free speech in the U.S. is as much the product of American history as the French “Liberté d’expression” is the product of French history.
Some things are forbidden in France.
Everything that is considered as “incitation to racial hate,” for example. In 2006, this is the accusation upon which several Muslim organizations sued Charlie Hebdo after the publication of the cartoons of Mohammad. Charlie was not condemned by the court, who defended the right to “satire”. (But it’s worth noting that the judgement stated that one of the cartoon “clearly suggested that terrorist violence is inherent to Islam”.)
The rules are very specific: You cannot say that the Holocaust didn’t exist, for example. And there has been several condemnations for this (including of the former leader of the far-right party, the National Front). France also voted for a law two years ago forbidding anyone to deny that the Armenian genocide ever existed. And the country has also a law to prohibit political parties or organizations that call themselves Nazis or fascists. Another example ? Last week, the demonstration initiated by an anti-Muslim organization, Riposte Laïque, have been forbidden in Paris.
Mathieu Davy, a French lawyer, explains in the New York Times :
“There are clear limits in our legal system. I have the right to criticize an idea, a concept or a religion. I have the right to criticize the powers in my country. But I don’t have the right to attack people and to incite hate.”
This doesn’t mean that France is perfect in terms of free speech (far from it, really) : after the Charlie Hebdo attack, like after 9/11, several persons have been prosecuted in France for “Vindication of terrorism”.
>> This article in the New Yorker explains better than I do why France’s law are this way, in terms of Free Speech and Religion
>> This article from Damien Leloup and Samuel Laurent in Le Monde explains very well what free speech is according to the French law and what are the the differences in several cases (it’s all in French, sorry, but if you insist a lot, they may translate it)
It’s also worth noting that the cultural norms about what you can say or write is different between our two countries. It’s not only a question of law or constitution. An example? Almost all the French newspapers published at least one cartoon published by Charlie Hebdo about Islam after the shooting. A lot of American media refused to do so (you may have read this on the Public editor’s NYT blog).
In France, it is seen as courage and resistance, an act of freedom from publishers. A claim that there is a right to blasphemy, a right a lot of French people think is really important.
But at the same time, the front page of the New York Times published a huge picture of the killing of Ahmed Merabet, the French policeman assassinated by the Kouachi brothers on the streets of Paris.
In France, only one newspaper put it on the front page, the weekly Le Point. And this was seen as a provocation and a very bad editorial decision by a lot of people, including the French Prime minister, who called the Front Page “disgusting.”
A lot of French journalists considered this as disrespectful to the policeman. And others say that it’s sensationalism that a serious newspaper shouldn’t allow itself to do.
5. What is this French thing called Laïcité ?
A lot has been said in the U.S. since the Charlie attacks about freedom of speech and freedom of religion (just an example here). The difficult thing about it: it’s hard to understand the French context without explaining the word “Laïcité”
There is no English equivalent to “Laïcité”. It’s the word we use to describe the separation between religion and state in France. It is REALLY different than in the US.
The French Political scientist Olivier Roy tried to explain this difference a few years ago :
“It is not easy to explain the French notion of laïcité to Americans, not because it is entirely foreign to the American experience, but because it is close enough to it to give Americans exactly the wrong idea. Laïcité is about the separation of church and state, a concept Americans know well. But in America, separation was designed to free religion from state interference (and vice versa), whereas in France separation evolved to exclude religion from public space and to promote the supremacy of the state over religious organizations. And the historical reasons for the distinction are clear enough. As de Tocqueville observed, the American Founders saw Protestant Christian religion as a support for freedom and civic virtue; French republicans saw the Catholic Church as having been complicit with the worst features of the ancien régime and sought to limit its sway over French democracy.”
Religion in France and in the U.S. are also different. You would never have a church in a college, or people voting in a church in Paris. France passed a law in 2004 banning headscarves from public schools and another one in 2011 banning burqas in the streets (although very few women, less than 300 before the law was passed, actually wore it).
This situation may be shocking for Americans — but, as Olivier Roy puts it, Laïcité is at the heart of what the French Republic actually is.
Laïcité used to be a very liberal concept. For years it has been championed by teachers, unions and the Socialist party. But recently, after 9/11 and the rise of a strong Islamophobia in France, Laïcité has been (mis)used to specifically limit the presence of Islam in public spaces. Therefore, this notion is now also championed by Marine Le Pen and the National Front in their anti-Islam political platform.
Everything in France nowadays is seen according to the prism of Laïcité: there have been controversies about a fast-food restaurant who wanted to sell only halal meat, about a law forbidding women wearing a veil to work as nannies for children and about the construction of mosques in many cities in France.
Most of these controversies are ridiculously fueled by the far right. But they also show that the French laïcité was designed to separate clearly what were the roles in the French society for the State and the Catholic Church. Now that there are 5 million Muslims in France, they want to practice their religion the way they think is right. And the French laïcité doesn’t know how to answer those questions.
6. Who are the “French Jihadists” ?
Another thing I hear a lot in the U.S. : Are these guys the same type as the Tsarnaev Brothers? Or are they more like the 9/11 terrorists ?
Many of the so-called French Jihadists share a common trait: they are French citizens — not foreigners raised in Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan and sent to France in order to perpetrate terrorist attacks.
Many of them, including Amedy Coulibaly and one of the Kouachi brothers, were thugs or small-time gangsters before becoming radical Islamists. They went to prison, then got out, then went back to prison, where they discovered or re-discovered something they think is called Islam.
Amedy Coulibaly himself explained what happened to him in prison — years before killing five people in Paris last week. In 2008, he gave Le Monde an illegal video of a prison. “Prison is the fuc**** best school for becoming a criminal” he said to the reporter, adding that French prisons created hatred.
All these guys have something else in common: they know very small about Islam or the Muslim world. They create their own version of religion in their homes or their cells, watching videos on YouTube.
They don’t necessarily come from very religious families, and they are not involved in their local religious community: there are living a personal adventure.
>> In the case of the Kouachi brothers, this New York Times piece explains very well how far they were from Islam during their whole life.
A large part (more than 20%) of the French citizens going to Syria to join ISIS or the Al-Nusra Front to fight were recent converts. Asked why so many French converts were joining ISIS, French historian Jean-Pierre Filiu, explains (the translation is mine) :
“It’s because it has nothing to do with Islam! We keep looking at this like a religious issue, but it’s political. The so-called Islamic State is a cult, they kill other Muslims. Their totalitarian speech can work only with people who have no knowledge of the Muslim culture. The more you know about Islam, the less susceptible you are to joining them.”
7. Is there a “Muslim community” in France ?
“What is the reaction of the Muslim community ?”, is one of the question I see a lot, both from Americans who think Muslims should speak louder against terrorism and from people who are afraid of the rise of anti-Muslim sentiment.
There are between 5 and 6 million of Muslims in France. Ten percent think of themselves as a “mosque goer” on a weekly basis. But they don’t form a consistent community.
It is important to understand that Muslims in France are immigrants or sons of immigrants coming from different parts of the Muslim world: Algeria, Turkey, Mali, the Comoros, etc.
They bring with them different forms of Islam, coming from different school of thoughts and traditions.
And as Sunni Islam has no official clergy or equivalent of a Pope, the French government has spent the last 20 years building a French institution to represent French muslims, the CFCM (the French Council for Muslim Religion). But this institution represents only a small portion of the French Muslims, and most Muslims don’t participate in its elections or really know it.
So when French or American people (or Rupert Murdoch) ask the “Muslim community” to react against the shootings, they get it wrong. There is no such voice. There are thousands of voices. And some of them were demonstrating against terrorism and for the freedom of speech on January 11, in Paris and in many other cities.
To help you understand: one of the policeman killed by the terrorists, Ahmed Merabet, was himself a Muslim, as his brother recalled. And one of the employee of the Hypercacher, the Jewish supermarket that was attacked by Coulibaly, is Lassana Bathily, a Muslim immigrant from Mali, who saved some of the customers by hiding them downstairs in the cold room.
These attacks hurt French Muslims too. Since the shootings, there has been more than 20 (and counting) anti-Muslim attacks in French territory.
Let me (again) quote Olivier Roy, in an op-ed published in Le Monde after the shootings (the translation is mine, not his), called “a community that doesn’t exist” :
“Every so-called Islamist attack kills at least one Muslim. Imad Ibn Ziaten, the Army officer killed in 2012 in Toulouse by Mohammed Merah, or the police officer Ahmed Merabet. Instead of being seen as examples, they are seen as counter-examples: the “real” Muslim is the terrorist, the others are the exceptions. But it is statistically wrong: in France there are many more Muslims in the army or the police than in any Al-Qaida network, not even mentioning, the civil servants, doctors and nurses, teachers or lawyers.”
“Whatever we do now, we are blocked…Sunday, everybody was demonstrating together, but tomorrow, people will look at me as if I am Bin Laden”.