The real story of how cops responded to the Charlie Hebdo massacre — and what the future holds in a highly charged, and newly armed, France.
By Mac McClelland
The most interesting thing, to an outsider, about the morning J.R. was having on January 7, 2015, was how fervently he spent it wishing his dog would die. He’d gotten up at 7:30 for his usual 9 a.m. shift, and the ancient, squat thing glowered up at him in the elevator ride down to their morning walk, its miserable mug pulled into a permanent frown. All J.R. wanted, as they descended the floors, was for the dog to keel over. Or at least to make it the length of one claustrophobic elevator ride without noxiously farting. It would be about another four hours yet before J.R.’s city and country and profession would be the very center of the whole world’s attention — though that wouldn’t change anything between these two mutually hateful parties.
J.R. wasn’t doing much when it happened. Inside the police station where he worked, one of Paris’s many, the scanner wasn’t even on. It’s a detective unit, not an intervention one, so operations typically occur only after lots of investigation and planning. Their mornings could be slow. Sometimes, they involved playing darts. Today, they involved chatting and drinking coffee, after walking in the door and planting kisses on the cheeks of each colleague (woe to the man who arrived last and had to circle the entire building giving out, rather than sitting back receiving, kisses). Their guns were often kept in cabinets. They may not have considered themselves warriors, as they were given to understand American cops did, and maybe police in general were hated more than hailed in France — the country had an absolute-monarchy hangover, and whether police control or totalitarian bullying, the French would. Not. HAVE IT. But they still had a job to protect the people. So when J.R. saw on social media that there had been a shooting, the station jumped to, and turned the scanner on.
The radio squawked out necessary police information: that there were suspects loose, and who was doing what — two Arab guys with ammo; this unit is going here; that unit is going there — so many crowded and frantic messages and questions that Paris’s director of police had to come on to say, Everybody shut up! I am giving orders. But the cops in J.R.’s station wanted to know more. The news, when they turned the TV on, was shocking. The reporters were talking about maybe 10 dead people. Gun deaths are somewhat rare in France, less than a third of the rate of America’s per capita, but mass shootings are exceedingly so. The idea that 10 innocent civilians could be killed together, by anyone, was unbelievable to everyone. The news mentioned a video of a police officer getting shot, and J.R. pulled YouTube up on his phone. Some of the cops standing around him fell quiet as they watched a masked man in black stroll up to a cop on the ground, then shoot him in the head.
Several people gasped. J.R. felt the air thicken around him. The moments were long, because time is weird in dreams, which is what he seemed to be having.
It’s not real, he thought — definitely, he felt that. It’s a movie. Or, it’s a video game? J.R. was a man with a pensive face, always looking like he was thinking about something — you could tell, by his eyes, that he missed nothing — but now he was lost. At the very least, if this video was real, he thought-felt: That’s the United States. Even for gun-massacre America, though, something was surreal about the footage. Stark and unglamorous, but set against a French backdrop, and containing French people. J.R. was in shock, as much as the man he was watching on his smartphone screen was clearly not.
The shooter. He is so calm.
A few hours’ drive across France’s winter-dead wilderness, in a compound rising up from mind-numbing expanses of fields, a cop of another stripe named Theo was having a more calculated reaction. While J.R. and the rest of France’s national police, who keep the cities, are regular cops, Theo was in the national gendarmerie, whose members have military status. They are also colloquially referred to as cops. They also carry guns — though all French cops, military or not, rarely used them.
Gendarmes work the countryside. Some of them form mobile units that travel around France as well as to its overseas territories and beyond — working to reinforce the police in Paris or Montpellier, guard embassies, control riots, even help out the American mission to train police in Afghanistan. Theo’s unit was part of the Peloton Spécialisé de Protection de la Gendarmerie, stationary but highly specialized, securing one of the country’s 19 nuclear power plants. All his unit did was talk about terrorism. Subsidized by the energy company whose property they protected, PSPG had more, and bigger, guns than regular units. Twice a day they did counter-terrorism exercises. Imagine: a bomb scenario. Drill: maneuvers for an organized attack.
Theo had his assault rifle with him as he watched the video of the cop die — they all did, in this plant; within an hour of two gunmen entering the offices of a satirical magazine called Charlie Hebdo and killing 12 people that morning, Theo’s facility went on red alert, bulletproof vests on (okay, they were always supposed to be on, but for real now), beefed up patrols, additional men called in, big weapons not just nearby in bags but at the ready, one per man. These gendarmes had caught something early on in the TV footage that told them a very, very terrible event had transpired. The riot branch of the national police was visible in the background of the newscast. Usually, they carried only nine-millimeter handguns. Now they all had M14s.
Eight of Theo’s colleagues watched the cop’s killing on YouTube together. Theo’s dark, serious eyebrows raised in astonishment, then knitted together as he immediately went into analytical mode.
Their rifles aren’t fully automatic, he thought. They’re firing one shot at a time. That’s weird. They look trained, but not quite professional. The news was reporting that the suspects looked like professionals. No, Theo thought. They’re not checking their perimeter. Not the roofs.
His training permitted him to watch the violence more coldly than your average guy. But as his normally scheduled, 24-hour shift wore on, his professional distance vanished. “Gros fils de pute de merde,” he texted another gendarme he knew, a guy from a mobile intervention platoon — big sons of bitches of shit, literally, but better translated as MOTHERFUCKERS. “I’m so mad I want to throw up,” he texted. Typically, the maximum prison sentence served in France is 30 years; these motherfuckers could end up getting decades of paid-for food and studies in incarceration.
Back in one of Paris’s police stations, a visiting civilian heard his name repeated over and over. “Merabet,” “Merabet,” the cops were all saying. Confused, the civilian asked an officer, “Why are they saying my name?” This man named Merabet was in the station by wild coincidence; it just happened to be after the officers had watched police officer Ahmed Merabet get shot in the head in the video. A chief took the visiting Merabet into a room with a closed door to tell him what had happened when the guys figured out that this Merabet and the other one were brothers.
Theo, like most cops, doesn’t normally talk to journalists in the course of his life. His life is work, and at work, talking to journalists could be a fireable offense (Theo is not his real name; none of the police names are real in this story). Starting from their time in the academies, police and gendarmes are lectured about the importance of never giving interviews to reporters. Theo knew exactly one journalist personally, an American one — this one — who he met through his buddy, and who he used sometimes for language or cultural translation: sending emails asking for clarification of an English idiom, or links to pictures of American cops facing down protesters in Ferguson with war weaponry and asking Can you explain what THIS is?? That buddy was on leave, the same buddy from the intervention platoon Theo had texted about the motherfuckers. That buddy happened to be my husband.
My husband texted Theo back that day that the best thing would be for the intervention team who found the suspects to kill them.
These kinds of politics — that criminals got what they deserved — and his background as a law enforcement officer — in a nation that, for example, once proposed mandating DNA tests for immigrants — made for the most frequent points of contention in his marriage to a liberal journalist. Sometimes, we attacked the dogma of each other’s entire homelands as proxy in an argument over the dishes. “Why don’t you go arrest some Muslim women for wearing veils?” I might yell, walking away from the sink. And he would fire back, “Maybe I will go to buy a very BIG CAR.”
But even as a cop’s wife, and with my husband vouching for my character, it wasn’t easy to get police officers to talk. Plenty still said no. Some, like J.R., required several hours of hanging out, feeling out, first. Six days after the Charlie Hebdo massacre, he looked rough sitting at his dining room table, his thoughtful eyes rimmed in red, as he recounted his week before.
Thursday, the day after the massacre, J.R.’s Facebook feed was filled with support for cartoonists. After scrolling through message after supportive message for the murdered Charlie staff, #JeSuisCharlie, rallying cries about free speech, and after another cop, too, was killed by a different gunman that day, later linked to the original attacks, J.R. posted on Facebook that yes, cartoonists died, but don’t forget cops died, too. This most recent one was a woman in the municipal police, the third branch of French law enforcement. In general, they were not even armed.
J.R. hadn’t slept much the night before. He didn’t sleep much that night, either. None of the suspects had been found.
The next day, on the way back to the station from executing a search warrant, J.R.’s squad drove past a kosher grocery store that, 15 minutes later, would become the site of a hostage situation. The perpetrator was the gunman who had killed the policewoman. When J.R. got back to the office, where the police radio was on — yes, it was always on, now — he called his wife just as the bulletin that Shooting Shooting Shooting came in. He still had his coat on. Everybody already had their bulletproof vests on, because that was the new rule, always, despite how they choked them as they sat at their desks. The officers sped to the store and formed a blockade. An officer from another station radioed that a man had come in saying he was the husband of a woman hiding in a refrigerator in the store’s basement with other hostages. They didn’t know how many captives there were altogether, but another cop, who was on the scene, radioed that he’d gotten a glimpse into the store and seen an African guy with a vest and a gun. And a stroller. So one of the hostages was probably a baby.
J.R. waited for the intervention team to arrive. For a situation this serious, it would be Recherche Assistance Intervention Dissuasion, RAID, the national police’s elite counter-terrorism SWAT team. Sitting there in the intersection in his car, J.R. was soon swarmed by other cop cars whizzing past him into the area. He texted his wife, “It’s war.”
Meanwhile, on the perimeter of another hostage situation just outside of town, this one involving the brothers who’d shot up Charlie Hebdo, a mobile gendarme named Christophe was also waiting in a vehicle. He’d ridden all night in the back of his unit truck to get there, but he wasn’t going to be one of the cops going directly after Saïd and Chérif Kouachi. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to: Christophe had been waiting for action since Wednesday, when he’d been watching TV at lunch in the gendarmerie barracks mess — Wednesday was, in his unit as in many others, steak-frites day — and seen the attack. The mobile gendarmerie units lived in compounds just so they could be on call and ready to move, and Christophe was both. Everyone in his unit had even been given an assault rifle, the first time in Christophe’s nearly 10-year career that so many were handed out. But Christophe knew it was going to be the Groupe d’Intervention de la Gendarmerie Nationale, or GIGN, the gendarmerie’s special-ops counter-terrorism and hostage-rescue service, on the front line of this conflict.
Regular gendarmerie platoons — even the I platoons, who had tiger patches on their shoulders and did interventions, busting into houses of suspected criminals to make arrests and whatnot — sometimes shot target practice only once a year, 10 bullets per person. GIGN did target practice all the time. Theo, as a member of the nuclear-protecting PSPG, was sent to train with the GIGN sometimes, and he’d shoot 500 bullets in a week. Theo already shot regularly with all different calibers and fancier assault rifles than Christophe’s, plus accessories like lasers and lamps and all the gun gadgets, but even to him GIGN training seemed intense. They practiced tactical movements in groups with loaded weapons. When they had started shooting live rounds around and behind each other during training, Theo kind of thought he was going to die.
Part of Christophe’s standard training was learning that though a cop could shoot a civilian in legitimate defense, he couldn’t shoot excessively—and that he could still get fired, anyway. The politics and the culture of France did not stand behind a policeman who killed, cadets and officers were warned. But the GIGN got a different message: In training, instructors told stories about the time they had to put 11 bullets in a guy. “If you shoot someone just in the leg who has a gun,” Theo was cautioned in one of their classes, “he’ll kill you.”
The GIGN were special. They made up just 380 of the national gendarmerie’s 98,155 troops, and the test to join was a weeklong endurance marathon of physical exams, mental stress, and some lighter forms of torture.
Now here the GIGN was, down the street from Christophe. They gathered in a parking lot around armored trucks, the sides of which were acting as makeshift bulletin boards, with photos and schematics taped up. They were wearing the heavy-dutiest of bulletproof vests. “You will be waiting here in case the guys come out,” a leader, pointing to a schematic, said to the restless men, some of whom wore camouflage accessories — evidently for effect, as they were surrounded by gray cityscape. The would soon be donning ski masks and neck-crushing, bulletproof-visored helmets. There was much pointing at the plans. Eventually, some troops departed through the nearby woods on foot to their designated locations. Others had taken position stalking rooftops. Still others herded into vehicles. “Hey, who’s got the keys?” someone asked through all the head-and-face gear.
Ultimately, after everyone was ready: gunfire. And gunfire, and gunfire, and gunfire, in two separate sites around Paris. Across town at the grocery store, dozens of RAID officers amassed outside the wide front door, then shot into the place from two columns, one on the left, one on the right, handguns blazing, the first man in each column carrying a ballistics shield. One of these — the one on the left — took two of his colleagues’ bullets in the back of his vest when he ran inside and right, through the line of fire, to protect hostages. That was the rumor on the force. The suspect, Amedy Coulibaly, was shooting, too, hitting multiple cops in their legs. RAID threw a flash-bang, and when Coulibaly ran outside, he fell to the ground instantly under fire. Even when he was down, the men on both sides, from both columns, leaned in to shoot him some more.
At the building where the Kouachi brothers were taking cover, the siege had come to just as fast a conclusion some 15 minutes before. The GIGN swarmed; the brothers came running out shooting; they were shot — some 30 times each, everyone said. No one else was killed there, four hostages were killed in the kosher grocery.
“What we have accomplished — more important, what you have accomplished on the field tonight — will no doubt be remembered as one of the best operations led by the GIGN,” the gendarmerie’s national director said, looking gracious, to gathered men as darkness fell. “I am very proud of the commitment you have shown.”
J.R. was back in his office by the time the shootouts ended. He’d left the area surrounding the grocery store well before Coulibaly had been killed; his convoy had been relieved of blockade duty once enough other units arrived — some 1,500 gendarmes from all over the country, with still more sent into other cities. It was normal that J.R.’s squad wasn’t involved in crowd control. In the station, though, things were not entirely the same. The men wore their handguns on their hips, constantly, in addition to the flak jackets, and while a visitor might notice that he now had to be buzzed in through the station’s newly locked doors, what he wouldn’t know was that the officer behind the front desk was now concealing a very big rifle.
That night, after he had finished securing the perimeter around the Kouachi raid, Christophe went to a restaurant in Paris. When he and the rest of his out-of-town unit walked in, the patrons stopped dining to clap for them. After a moment of shock, Christophe’s unit clapped back, for the Parisians, for each other, and for the rest of their colleagues. For France.
Make no mistake: French people were no patriots. They did not own, much less display or wave, replicas of their flag, did not sing their national anthem for hardly any reason, including national sporting events, and did not treat their police as heroes. These things were true to an extent that a newspaper article in the aftermath of the terrorism told readers that it was okay to sing the national anthem without embarrassment now, and to not be dicks to police.
Christophe had noticed a change right away. That Thursday, after the Charlie Hebdo shooting, people came up to him saying, “We’re happy you’re here.” “Be careful,” the people said. They said, “We’re scared,” and they brought the cops free baguettes. Even the old guys in Christophe’s unit said they’d never seen it before. When the population likes you, was the sentiment among the guys, you should take advantage and enjoy it.
Yeah, but how long will it last, Theo demanded of his coworkers and his girlfriend as he watched Je Suis Policier and Je Suis Ahmed become hashtags and signs on Twitter and the news.
It lasted through the weekend, at least, as Christophe stood on the sidewalk in front of a publishing company’s office with a colleague — at least two guards per every press outlet in Paris — while millions of citizens gathered for a unity march on Sunday. One person out of three who passed Christophe stopped to say thank you or to give him stuff: kisses, hugs, petit pain au chocolat, coffee, a big pasta dish with fresh basil and mozzarella. That night, when he got back to the undisclosed sleeping place of his unit — a unit multiple guys had lost friends joining, friends who agreed that cops were pain-in-the-ass oppressive jerks—he was so full of edible gifts that he couldn’t eat dinner.
In a couple of days, people will start getting tickets again and we’ll go back to being the assholes, Theo grumbled, not endearing his job, which was already the only thing he ever talked about, to his girlfriend any further.
Like a lot of French people, Theo didn’t read Charlie Hebdo. But like most French people, he was familiar with it, and he didn’t agree with some of the content it published. Every time he heard they were doing cartoons of Mohammed again, he thought, Whoa. That’s sensitive. It made him worry for French embassies and citizens overseas. But he still thought it was worth it. You couldn’t not do something because you were scared. That was like taking your pants off to get fucked.
J.R. didn’t read Charlie Hebdo, either. He was aware that it was political satire, of which he was generally a fan, watching France’s two nightly satire shows on TV. And he did have some thoughts about Charlie’s choices: It was a little bit dangerous, stepping in the things that they did. But French people could handle that kind of humor, viewed by some (ahem TOUCHY AMERICANS) as racist and indefensible. The French said what they thought, not pretending to hold everything and everyone sacred with political correctness and empty sensitivities.
In the aftermath of the Charlie attack, they were saying it only even more explicitly.
One prominent journalist took to the radio to declare baldly that France’s problem was its Muslims. Le Monde announced in a headline that young students in a suburb called St. Denis were not Charlie. (“Suburbs,” in France, are neighborhoods on the city fringes filled primarily with poor brown and black people and often not accessible by regular Metro but with a more complicated collection of trains and buses.) The paper had dispatched reporters to find Muslim children there who didn’t participate in the national moment of silence. Some of the children suggested that the cartoonists may have had it coming for disrespecting Mohammed. Many outlets reported that people from the suburbs didn’t show up at the unity rally that the millions of ostensibly all-white French marched in. One reporter who sat down with a spokeswoman for S.O.S. Racisme, one of France’s largest and oldest anti-racism orgs, started an interview by asking the spokeswoman if she was a Jew.
The tension had always been there. The French may not have been big on nationalism, but many still had an idea of what their republic should look like. Secular, probably. French-speaking, definitely. White, well, not necessarily — if the non-white and non-secular populations would only integrate with the larger fabric of French society. There had long been complaints that they weren’t trying hard enough to do so. Maybe the white majority was feeling the tension more now. But French cops, they had already been walking testimonials that relations between the races were not good.
J.R. wouldn’t hesitate to describe his interactions with white versus non-white criminals as completely different. Take the warrant he was out executing the day the hostages were taken at the grocery store. It was to search the house of a guy, white like J.R., older — most white criminals J.R. dealt with, it seemed, were older. And though cops were in general far from beloved in France, white criminals seemed to him decently respectful of them. They said they were sorry. They used vous, said please and thank you. Things were different in the suburbs. Recently, when he went there to pick up a group of African immigrants’ kids responsible for a string of break-ins, a 15-year-old called one of the female officers a big whore. As J.R. was apprehending him, the kid got in his face, asking him if he wanted to fight. What can you do? J.R. thought about situations like this. You can’t fight. You wouldn’t win anything. You would lose everything. This is how the interactions are with people in the suburbs. He preferred his villains inexplicably gentle and old-timey. Not people who got pissed that they were getting arrested.
His experience was mild compared to some others’. Luc, a towering gendarme who regularly works in Paris — a young, big slab of a white man — was on vacation when the Charlie Hebdo attack happened, and he was not exactly sorry to miss it. He hated working in the suburbs, and wouldn’t have wanted to get called in to duty there, where he could have ended up on mosque security in St. Denis. He personally had never run into trouble in that neighborhood, but some cop friends of his had been assaulted on the train once when they were leaving the barracks there, a gendarmerie post ringed by stone walls with razor wire and hedged on one side by housing projects and by a Gypsy encampment on the other. To Luc, it was crazy to have a gendarmerie post, storing sensitive material like grenades, next to an honest-to-Christ Gypsy camp. You didn’t want to be having a bunch of Gypsies around stockpiles of grenades.
One time, in another suburb, Luc approached a guy in a parked car — he approached this guy because the guy looked shady, and who can quantify whether or how Luc’s socialization made the non-white driver look shady to him? He found that the car’s safety-inspection sticker was no good. When Luc started to write a ticket, the driver made a phone call, and within minutes, four other cars pulled up, four guys to a car. What the fuck are you doing? they asked Luc and his partner, the chief of the patrol, as they got out. You’re writing a ticket? Why? If you want to play, we can play. We have everything we need in the trunks.
The chief of the patrol said: Never mind! They instead wrote the driver an order to come to the station later and show he passed the test. Luc, while furious, couldn’t help but be impressed by the speed and strength with which the threat had manifested. French police really felt they were public servants, who didn’t have the power to escalate situations even when people were refusing to let them enforce laws. No one was afraid of French police. It wasn’t infrequent that they backed down. In the ethos of French police, these situations did not — so little did! — warrant drawing weapons. After all, one-third of the republic’s founding and operating principle was: Liberté. Plenty of other guys in the unit had stories of being intimidated by rough crowds. At the very least, they’d all gotten catcalls and middle fingers. As a matter of course, gendarmes rolled up their windows when they drove through suburbs, because sometimes people threw rocks. When they did, they bounced loudly off the roof.
Overall, these communities just felt so lawless to Luc. (Though one guy in his unit also once approached a group of suburbanites standing around listening to music, the kind of people you could be afraid of, to ask where the nearest doctor was, and they were fucking helpful.) J.R., too, when he hears that a white person is going to Barbès, a bad neighborhood in Paris — which almost never happens; why would a white person go there? — he tells them to take off all their jewelry, and not to talk to anyone.
A lot of gendarmes are racist, is how Youcef, a former gendarme, sees it. Not all. But a lot. He does not balk from saying this aloud, in front of even current gendarmes. When he does say it, it is with all the outrage of a person reading off a recipe for apple galette. Because: He is very French. And the French can be very blasé. And because racism was everywhere, just a part of life, which had nothing to do with cops in particular. Youcef is ethnically Algerian, in part, but it’s the part that determined his names. He spent a decade on the force, and his name caused him trouble from the outset. (I talked with two other, active-duty cops from minority communities in France, but neither was willing to comment on the record.)
Consider when Youcef arrived in his first job out of gendarmerie school. Every new unit member is given an older, more experienced “godfather” within the unit, and the first time Youcef saw his, the man was pouting. He looked actively sullen and angry. When Youcef went to his chief to ask if there was a problem, the chief said: Yeah. He’s racist. The chief elaborated, When we got your name, we were waiting for someone who looks like an Arab.
But Youcef is white-skinned, and though he’s culturally Muslim — not eating pork out of respect for his roots and his devout grandfather — he’s not practicing. He had to go through the same situation again when he switched jobs a few years later. New unit, new godfather; this one, though, got over Youcef’s family origin as soon as he saw him, embracing him and saying, When I heard your name, I was like, What the fuck? I have an Arabic guy?
Youcef hadn’t been particularly bothered by these events. He’d been encountering them since he was little, growing up in France. He’d lost a lot of girlfriends that way, because of his name.
Excepting one other time, when Youcef was on a team guarding the American embassy in Paris and everyone, including him, was brought pork for dinner (they just forgot, but fuck them, they forgot because they didn’t really care), he hadn’t personally experienced other discriminations on the force (he did in lots of other jobs). But he’d witnessed them perpetrated on civilians, and that did make him mad. It was the usual stuff: coworkers pulling over a brown person in a Mercedes and saying, He’s obviously a dealer, or, He has a Mercedes but probably doesn’t work, so I’m giving him a ticket. If a white person was driving a Mercedes, Youcef knew, his coworkers would assume he had a job or that his parents had bought it for him.
(When my husband read this story and I asked him if, in a Frenchman’s estimation, I made French cops sound racist, he said: Not really. I’d suspected he would say this, knowing how different his culture is — even S.O.S. Racisme was vehemently defending Charlie Hebdo’s content as not racist to American reporters. But I also know I will likely never understand how.)
The events that started on January 7, 2015, by Youcef’s count, weren’t going to change the relationship between cops and Muslim or secular non-whites. The relationship sucked, already. Non-whites felt unfairly targeted for stops, ID checks, and searches — an accusation formally leveled against French police by Human Rights Watch. One report by an anti-authoritarian organization listed 127 people killed by French police between 2000 and 2014, and while it’s illegal in France to keep statistics about a person’s ethnic or religious status — Egalité — and while the report stretches the limits of the phrase “killed by,” including not just shootings but accidents incurred by suspects fleeing or hiding from police, most of the names are awfully non-white sounding. Meanwhile, cops were working with the stance that if your suspect was named Abdullah Something-or-Other, you weren’t going to stop white guys looking for him. Youcef didn’t consider police racism entirely the fault of police. He didn’t like the amount of crime in minority communities, either. No luck, he thought, when something bad happens, it’s always Moroccans or Algerians who did it.
Integration was crucial to the stability and security of the country (FRATERNITÉ). But, Youcef thought, France will never achieve it. The government had torn down some massive projects in some suburbs, constructing some smaller, cuter ones here and there, but what was a few apartments against an imam with extremist ideas embedding in a community that was cut off by culture and transit from larger French society? Or in a prison, where he could preach to people who were even more isolated? It could be easy for Youcef’s fellow Algerians to be seduced by zealotry, much less the criminal life and easy money, he thought, in a republic they had so little faith in. S.O.S. Racisme and the International Labour Office published studies that showed where Muslims, Jews, and immigrants were categorically denied job and housing opportunities.
J.R. was only half buying it. Maybe they had fewer opportunities, but if they wanted to work, they could. We have examples — people who come from suburbs who’ve done it.
Luc believed that the unemployment rate in the suburbs—40 percent in some—made everything there terrible. But honestly the economy was awful for everyone currently, and he didn’t feel like most immigrants, even second- and third-generation ones, even wanted to integrate.
Youcef knew it was time to leave his job when he’d been on a mission supplementing a local police force in another city and had gone to arrest a man accused of assaulting a woman. When Youcef’s team arrived in the (black) neighborhood, the whole neighborhood, it seemed, came out and surrounded them. One of the civilians went for Youcef’s gun, and Youcef got kicked hard in the stomach in the scuffle. He ended up in the hospital having surgery for a hernia that could have killed him. That’s when he thought, Enough. Watching the news about the cops who’d died in the terrorist attacks only reinforced his feeling that he’d done the right thing. This is exactly why I left, he thought. I don’t want to die on my family.
Now Youcef was most concerned about the relationship between Muslims and French civilians. On January 8, Youcef had gone out for coffee with his dad, who was more obviously Algerian in appearance, and when they walked in the owner griped loudly, Oh, again, these Arabic people.
Youcef had taken it in stride. This wasn’t the United States, where there’d be media outrage and celebrity boycotts if an African-American walked into Starbucks and the barista yelled: Ugh, BLACKS. But his father was upset. That people put everyone in the same bag. That people weren’t smart enough to distinguish origins from religion, and religion from extremism. And Muslim extremism from all terrorism. Far and away most terrorist attacks in Europe (98 percent) were committed by separatists or nationalists who were not Muslim, and were in some cases anti-Muslim.
In 2012, Islamophobic incidents in France were already up more than 20 percent, along with other racist incidents over the year before. And that was before 2013, when the French government and media were panicking over the number of people leaving the country to become rebels or jihadists in Syria. Even way before that you had Nicolas Sarkozy, when he was minister of the interior and before he was elected president, saying he’d clean the scum out of the slums with a big hose.
In those suburbs, Youcef thought, there’s not just bad people. But when a guy like this uses this sentence — then among everyone there, there’s rage.
The ethnically Algerian Kouachi brothers grew up, and were orphaned, in a suburb. After their deaths, a former classmate at the boarding school where social workers deposited them recounted in an interview that even at a young age, they really hated white people.
After the countrywide unity march, a half-Cameroonian French comedian posted on Facebook that he felt like a cross between Charlie Hebdo and hostage-taker Amedy Coulibaly.
He was arrested.
Over the next few days, so were more than 50 others, on the same hate-speech charge. A student was arrested for pretending to be a jihadist on Facebook. Even a year ago, it would have been harder to charge him, but in late 2014 France passed a series of new laws that criminalized even searching certain kinds of “terrorist” content on the internet, as well as saying anything terrorist-sympathetic. On January 21, two weeks after the Charlie Hebdo massacre, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls announced a proposal to create thousands of new military and intelligence positions for surveilling thousands of citizens. A week later, an eight-year-old boy was questioned by police for allegedly expressing “solidarity” with the Kouachi brothers. A drunk guy was sentenced to four years in prison for telling some police he hoped they’d be killed next.
We NEED to not pass a Patriot Act in our panic, many French journalists were insisting — though at least one called the Patriot Act the answer. Another readily admitted that no one in France had any idea what the Patriot Act really did, or was.
At J.R.’s station, there was no sign of the heightened security measures abating. He and his colleagues were told they were allowed to take their guns home, a new concept — but he refused to worry. He wouldn’t live that way. Still, he had no choice but to be armed and bulletproof-vested at work, and he expected that wouldn’t change for a long time, if ever. What guy in charge would be the one to roll these protocols back? he wondered.
A week after the attack, police shot and killed two suspected terrorists in neighboring Belgium. Two weeks later, the mayor of a city in the south of France announced that its municipal police would start carrying guns for the first time. Posters picturing a big handgun and the words “NOW THE MUNICIPAL POLICE HAVE A NEW FRIEND” were pasted up around town. “Armed 24 hours a day and 7 days a week,” the bottom caption specified. That same week, three officers protecting a Jewish community center in nearby Nice were stabbed. Eleven days later, a 22-year-old gunman attacked a synagogue and a free-speech symposium in Copenhagen, killing two.
At Theo’s work, everyone took their guns everywhere now. They took them to eat lunch. They took them to the onsite gym. They took guns to the bathroom. After an official email went around that French intelligence was picking up chatter that cops might be the next targets of an attack, some of them took their guns to their homes, too. Theo was one of these. He didn’t have a personal handgun, though he’d long wanted one; even as a police officer, he was on a minimum yearlong waitlist for a permit.
Not that he was getting crazy. He didn’t take his gun to a bar when he went out drinking with two gendarme friends two weekends after the cops and journalists were killed together. And he didn’t worry that he could or would get in trouble for doing interviews for this story. It had been illegal in his country to try to track down the anonymous sources of a journalist since 1881, excepting extraordinary circumstances, and he was confident that wouldn’t change, national crisis or no.
The national attitudes that had informed the content of Charlie Hebdo didn’t seem to be changing, either.
Theo and his friends, collectively three sets of sculpted shoulders crowding each other across the table from me at the wine bar, talked enthusiastically about Les Guignols de l’info. It was one of the weeknight satire shows, wildly popular — far more so than Charlie Hebdo had been. The prophet Mohammed had made his share of appearances there, in the embodiment of a puppet. In one skit after the attacks, he rested on a cloud with Jesus and Christian God, taunting them, to the melody of the children’s song-tease “You’re not wearing underwear,” that he was the one getting the magazine covers, while doing a loopy little dance.
As we drank, a pair of soldiers from Chasseurs Alpins strolled past the windows. Chasseurs Alpins: Alpine Hunters, the mountain infantry corps of the French Army. For special operations, they had white uniforms that rendered them invisible in the snow. They were out of place here in this city, wearing camouflage, but still recognizable by their exclusive berets. The two soldiers were on patrol — possibly bored, as they couldn’t help peeking into the cozy alcove, lined to the ceiling with wine-bottle shelves, that we were sitting in. Ten thousand soldiers had been dispatched around France in what the defense ministry was calling “an unprecedented domestic operation.” In Paris, where there were always some soldiers around important landmarks carrying guns and ammo — but separately — their magazines were all loaded, now.
Inside the bar, there was a loud pop, and the three gendarmes tensed immediately and shot looks around them, ready to leap from their chairs. But it was just a champagne cork. The owner of the establishment brought over a tray of complimentary glasses, the first of these policemen’s careers. As they dug into the charcuterie plate they’d ordered, a vast array of cured hams and salami, the one to Theo’s left realized there was a joke to be made about the way the cork had sounded like a gun and startled them. “It’s okay,” he said, smiling, as the other two got ready to laugh. “If it’s terrorists, we can just throw pork.”
This story was written by Mac McClelland, edited by Michael Benoist, fact-checked by Julia Greenberg, and copy-edited by Lawrence Levi. Illustrations by Devin Washburn.