The recent events in France have generated a lot of passion, comments and controversy on top of the legitimate grief after the death of several people. Many comments I read in the international press or on Internet miss a number of points that I would like to develop in the lines below.
Where is Charlie Hebdo coming from?
Charlie Hebdo was created in 1970 (two years after the famous 1968 revolution in France) after the closing by a legal decision of a satirical journal called Hara-Kiri. Hara-Kiri was founded in 1960 and added a weekly edition in 1969 and called itself the “Journal bête et méchant" ("Stupid and nasty magazine”) and had regular problems with the press control active at that time in France.
I know well the content of that magazine, as I was at that time buying it on regular basis. Hara-Kiri was basically using simple and trivial humor, often of very bad taste and close to jokes you can hear in students’ parties. All was about sex and nudity (pretty much banned at that time in the media), scatological jokes and the like, mostly using pictures in fotonovela style (roman photo). Obviously such Hara-Kiri humor was perceived by readers as a thrilling infringement to the laws and traditions of that time, and would be quite boring today, when bad taste and sex can be found in far larger amount on Internet or watching a reality show on prime time public TV…
Left: Ideas of games for the summer
Middle: Rich guys on holidays
Right: June 1940.. good old time!
Charlie Hebdo’s team included from the start a number of ex members of Hara-Kiri, for example Cabu and Wolinski who both got killed this month in the attack. No pictures where used but only drawings, with star caricaturists like Reiser and the famous writer and editor Cavanna.
It is hard to say that Hara-Kiri or Charlie Hebdo had a strong political line or agenda at that time. They both reflected a traditional French anarchist sentiment, mocking the authority in general through representative bodies like religion and the police. Although the redaction committee was mostly left oriented, they were critical of the socialists and communists as well. All religions got mocked, but Islam rather less than others, catholisism being the main target, as the majority religion.
In 2005, the sad story about the caricatures of Mohammed published by a Danish magazine contributed to a shift in Charlie Hebdo content and more and more drawings appeared targeting Islam and its Prophet, all this of course fueled by the increasing presence in the news of Islamist extremists, from the Talibans to the 9/11 events. Reacting like typical anarchists and anti-authority advocates, the people at Charlie Hebdo made a point at mocking Islamism as strongly as possible. Did they miss in the process the fundamental difference between the majority of Muslims and the islamist groups they wanted to target? May be, but this is the subject for another discussion.
The result is that additional thread from islamist groups, the exasperation to be obliged to get protection from the police (after all one of the main target of the journal in the 70’s) probably made things even worst. A more recent shift of the political party-line, with new people in the management team closer to the ruling party (Socialist Party), combined with the fact that such bad taste humor is not so exceptional and attractive as 20 or 30 years ago lead to quasi bankruptcy of the journal over the past couple of years, and a limited printing of around 60,000.
Charlie Hebdo was victim of an arson attack in 2011, and indeed some people in the redaction team – including Wolinski - advocated for a less provocative line, avoiding to produce pictures of the Prophet, but the majority of the team lead by Charb did not want to give up and continued in that line, making fun of Muslims much more than any other group, giving the journal – although probably not on purpose – a quite anti-Muslim flavor.
Was Charlie Hebdo right to persist and resist to what they perceived as an attack against the freedom of speech? I do not want to discuss this point, as this is now history. What happened on January 7th (by the way Christmas day in Russia) is of course a crime that cannot be justified, and like most criminal acts, did not work, as the journal again published a caricature of Mohammed a few days later. More efficient have been legal actions taken against the journal over the years by offended defenders of other religions, who managed to limit the enthusiasm of Charlie Hebdo to mock them. Or did Charlie Hebdo limit its mockery against women, Jews or gays more than they did for Muslim related topics, just to be in harmony with its Parisian clientele?
To be Charlie or not to be Charlie – One more fracture that nobody needed
The planners of the attack could not imagine a better target. First it made it difficult for French moderate Muslims to join the “Je suis Charlie” movement, being themselves upset by the drawings. Second, putting the controversial journal right in the middle of the social and political discussion creates new fractures within an already quite fragile society. People defending the right to publish drawings without self-limitation can be found in all political, social and cultural groups of the French society, and the same for people thinking that Charlie Hebdo should not have published drawings of the Prophet. Groups working together, families, friends have realized they did not agree on that, adding some more stress to an already much stressed society.
In addition, the second attack against a Kosher super market added one more component – the anti-Semite one. One more way to create even more stress and tension within the French society.
People in the street on the 11th had indeed different agendas. Some were fighting to have the right to buy irreverent drawings of anything including the Prophet, others wanted to protect the right of speech (in fact not really related to drawings that were essentially designed to shock, and not to defend an idea or an opinion), some others wanted to express their support to the killed policemen, while others wanted to protest against anti-Semite crimes.
But all reacted against an external aggression
The slogan “Je suis Charlie” was put on-line very fast and became what is fashionable to call “viral” on the internet and later in the streets. Although it has a different meaning for the people, I believe the real reason why so many people of all age, origin and opinions hit the street on that day is that the French population at large had the feeling that what happened was an aggression from outside. A foreign aggression. Of course the killers were French citizens, but the fact that they were Muslims did not make them foreign or outsiders. What made the attack alien was the fact that those guys had been trained in foreign countries like Syria by groups closed to the infamous ISIL or Daech. The French public realized that the horrors of Daech seen on TV had been sent to them from the Caliphate, using desperate and manipulated children of the emigration to perpetrate the act itself. People understood that the ones pulling the strings are not living in Paris suburbs, but sit somewhere in the Middle East and want to destabilize France and Europe.
In that respect, France feels attacked from outsiders, the way Chechnya was destabilized by Middle-East Wahhabi fanatics in the 90’s, or Syria a few years ago. In that respect the discussion about the possibility of a false flag attack loses its criticality. False flag or not, the attack is alien and perceived as an aggression against the country, by people having interest in starting chaos in France and Europe.
Shall the French republican spirit that many times saved the country from desaster once again be strong enough to avoid what is on the publicly announced agenda of Daech: to spread the fight to Europe, to bring European society to collapse and replace it by an islamic rule? Honestly I do not know, but this is something responsible people in France should work on and cultivate in the next months and years.
January 11th brough another strong illustration of the terrible split between the population and the political leaders. The invitation by Hollande of most world leaders to demonstrate with the people of France in the streets of Paris lead to one of the most ridiculous situation ever. The view of that bunch of so called leaders, isolated far from the actual demonstration, in a district probably completely closed by special services, walking hand in hand, while most of them actually never have seen the drawings, and if they did probably hated them.
They walked in the compamy of body guards, looking to buildings and waving to people, although I am pretty sure nobody was allowed on balconies, and had faces showing less distress about the events than fear to see the shadow of a sniper on the roof of the next building.
The fracture between leaders and the population was never clearer than on January 11th.
Left: Better shoot the small guy, next to the black one, please!
Right: Bibi : WTF are we doing here?!
And as usual, Sergey Lavrov played it brilliantly, avoiding to be seen on the pictures (at the opposite of Sarkozy who elbowed its way to the front line) and left early to visit the Russian cathedral and light a candle.
The feeling of unity and almost enthousiasm of the 11th January can easily be forgotten, new spying and controlling laws be implemented and a French Partriot Act be implemented by the elite. More anti-semite and anti-muslim attacks can happen, more emotion pushing different groups against each other. Daech can see its projects flourish, in clear a state of emergency or civil war in France and probably in a number of other European countries, leading to an Islamic regime. I think however that Deach, even if it can start a civil war, has almost no chance to win it for demographical reasons, but this could rather lead to military regimes in those countries, with a severe repression against Muslims and against opponents in favour of democracy.
The earthquake in January can also produce some changes in the role the French population can play in the democratic game, evolving to a more active involvement of people in politics and the emergence of new ideas and may be political parties, as the present format is no longer adapted to society. But the lack of a new leader able to federate frustrations and hopes is a major obstacle today.
On my views, a revival of the political life can be constructed and should take concrete actions in such areas as the ones listed below. This is however a long term work, and many years have been lost already.
- of course fight against Daech. But throwing bombs is not the way to operate. More interesting would be to stop supporting so called “moderate” Syrian opposition and recognize that the plan to topple Hassad was not a good idea. It also means targeting the ones financing and training Daech, in particular salafist countries and probably the US. Throwing bombs is easy for politicians, only a few soldiers may be killed, but no real risk. Attacking the ones behind Daech requires solid convictions and a lot of political courage. Of course present leaders are not the right ones for that!
- address the real problem in French suburbs, that I would call a social problem rather than a racial one. French society has transformed itself over the past 30 years into a pure materialistic society when the elite thought it could solve all social problems by paying money to the poorest groups in the population (or give them generous consumer credits), while in parallel cutting on all social support and development at the level of the district. In clear, local police services, schools, environment for youth like sport clubs, activity circles for children etc. In 2015, most of those functions have been taken over by islamic organizations financed by other countries. We should remember that the Sarkozy government, followed by the Hollande government, launched an investment plan to the benefit of poor suburbs in France co-financed.. with Qatar, an open supporter of islamism in many middle-east countries! Why not do it again with the Talibans?
- society should understand that cultural and social ultra-liberalism is as criminal as economic ultra-liberalism. Respect and duties are not dirty words and should be maintained at school and at all levels of social life. Young people in suburbs (muslims are just a part of them) have been left alone by the “Republic” and fed with subsidies under the form of too numerous financial contributions. But just like children pampered by rich parents but left without any guidance or authority, the result is generally a psychological desaster.
The ideas above may be condemned as very conservative or old fashioned by the moral ayatolas of Parisian salons, always ready to condemn and exclude the ones not in-line with their own conceptions, trying to eliminate them from prime time media, like Zemmour, Dieudonne, Soral, Todd, Chevenement and many others. I by far do not caution all people above, but they show that the French elite has a flexible understanding of freedom of speech and is highly intolerant for ideas not fitting in their small universe…
The odds for a positive development and the avoiding of a brutal confrontation are not very good. But this is precisely the time when the unexpected happens and when the forces that kept France together so long can start working again. The “world of Tomorrow” is being defined under our eyes and all the ones supporting the change should unite, like the 4 millions people in France on January 11th. What is at stake is by far more important than the right or the interdiction to mock Mohammed, Jews or gays. The debate should not be limited to that precise issue, although many would like you not to think further than that.
The choice is for a new type of society and economy and the battle has started. We all should understand that what is under attack is not really the freedom to mock everything. What is under attack is an independent and free Europe, the peace within our countries, the peace with Russia and China, as well as the future of the Muslim countries. Only Muslims can get rid of the salafist madness, like they did in Chechnya, but they shall not be able to win if Europe drops to its knees and dies in the last spams of ultra-liberalism!