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Why Kill Charlie?

Max McGuinness

Nearly three months after the deadly attacks on Charlie Hebdo, on a police officer in Montrouge and the Hyper Cacher supermarket, things seem to have returned to normal in France. The Paris region officially remains on a state of high alert and the army continues to guard synagogues, mosques, Jewish schools, the offices of media organisations and other possible targets. Shrines to the victims, festooned with cartoons and flowers slowly disintegrating in the rain, still mark the scenes of the atrocities. But the quasi-euphoric spirit of solidarity that emerged in the wake of the attacks, along with excited talk about revitalising republican values, has clearly faded.

Following a brief display of unity, the country’s political class soon resumed its habitual squabbling amid a perennially bleak economic backdrop. At the end of February, the prime minister, Manuel Valls, was even forced to resort to a little used constitutional loophole in order to ram a set of minor neo-liberal reforms through the National Assembly. Rebels from his own Socialist Party were unimpressed by the government’s argument that extending business opening hours and deregulating long-distance buses would somehow be in keeping with the memory of the slain cartoonists. A more pertinent gesture was Valls’s earlier denunciation of “territorial, ethnic, and social apartheid” in the nation’s suburban blackspots. But budgetary austerity remains sacrosanct and there will thus be no significant new investment in the banlieues. If apartheid there is, then it appears to be here to stay.

Having been excluded from the January 11th march, which brought an estimated four million people onto the streets, Front National leader Marine Le Pen continues to lead in the polls, with up to thirty percent of respondents saying they will vote for her in the next presidential election. And just over a month after the first shootings, the FN came within eight hundred votes of winning a by-election in a Socialist-held constituency. The party then obtained a record score in March’s departmental elections, narrowly failing to take control of an entire département for the first time. That the FN was seen as having underperformed relative to expectations just shows how much its influence has grown. Initial hopes that the attacks might stem the political system’s steady drift towards the far right have proved illusory.

There is some evidence of a nationwide spike in bigoted behaviour following the attacks. According to the French Council of the Muslim Faith, an umbrella group of Muslim organisations that serves as the state’s semi-official interlocutor, there were 147 anti-Muslim acts recorded between January 7th (the date of the Charlie Hebdo shootings) and the end of that month, as opposed to 133 during the whole of 2014 (and 226 in 2013). In mid-February a Jewish cemetery in Alsace was desecrated – allegedly by five local teenagers. The Representative Council of French Jewish Institutions, an umbrella group of Jewish organisations, also recorded a doubling of anti-Semitic acts during 2014 but is yet to release any figures for the current year.

However, neither set of statistics is necessarily reliable and feared large-scale inter-ethnic violence has not occurred. The only subsequent killings that may have been directly motivated by the attacks occurred not in France but in Copenhagen. Overall crime has in fact declined significantly as a result of the enhanced police and military presence. Whether or not the attacks presage a further long-term deterioration in relations between French Muslims, Jews, and the wider population thus remains to be seen. (All these labels naturally distort reality by classifying millions of complex individuals as if they were ants. President François Hollande has ruled out the gathering of official statistics about race, religion, and ethnicity but the insidious habits of the sectarian headcount are nonetheless becoming inescapable. As a friend of Algerian descent recently exclaimed to me in frustration: “I’m not a Muslim! I’m a Marxist feminist!”)

Charlie Hebdo is also trying to get back to normal. After heroically putting out a “survivors’ edition” exactly one week after eight of its staff had been gunned down, the magazine resumed regular publication at the end of February. “C’est reparti!” (Off we go again!) reads the front page of the February 25th edition alongside a cartoon of a small dog, Charlie Hebdo clutched between its jaws, being hotly pursued by the magazine’s various foes: jihadists, Marine Le Pen, Nicolas Sarkozy, and the pope (who remarked à propos the attacks that he too would punch anyone that dared offend his mother). The suggestion is that Charlie Hebdo has reverted to its classic position of cocking a snook at bores and reactionaries of all stripes. Yet the magazine now finds itself in the uncomfortable position of being completely dependent on the protection of a state and police force whose authoritarian tendencies it has long opposed. Its journalists are also discovering the limits of professional solidarity in the face of continuing threats. For despite becoming the best-selling satirical magazine in journalistic history, Charlie Hebdo has found it difficult to recruit new contributors (with the remarkable exception of Belfast-born novelist Robert McLiam Wilson, who has lived in Paris for many years).

Contrary to well-worn political bluster, terrorists usually succeed in getting at least some of what they want (just ask Gerry Adams). There was safety in numbers immediately after the attacks but few others will now dare to mock Islam in print, let alone portray Muhammad as a porn star. On that miserable point, it can be assumed the Kouachi brothers have got their way. Fear is ultimately a more powerful force than fun and we should not be afraid of admitting that.

A blow has thus been struck for self-censorship but otherwise the status quo ante largely prevails. In some respects, this is a relief. For in contrast to the Bush administration after 9/11, the official response has been restrained and dignified. There has been no French Patriot Act, no retaliatory hit on Al-Qaeda in Yemen and the attackers’ presumed accomplices and confederates have not been dispatched hugger mugger for some “enhanced interrogation” on Devil’s Island.

What measures have been announced largely concern the country’s schools, which were engulfed by widespread disobedience during a minute’s silence decreed for the day after the Charlie Hebdo massacre – a fact that has shocked French people almost as much as the murders themselves. A thousand specialists will thus be dispatched to train teachers how to explain the concept of laïcité – a word misleadingly translated as “secularism” in Anglophone media but which actually denotes official neutrality in religious affairs rather than outright rejection of religious belief. December 9th will also henceforward be “laïcité day”. The aim is clearly to try and resuscitate the missionary zeal of the late nineteenth century when a generation of teachers later dubbed the “black hussars” (in reference to their uniforms) were dispatched to spread the republican gospel across France.

But that message of liberty, equality, and fraternity no longer carries the same idealistic promise it had prior to the First World War when it attracted the passionate advocacy of sincere and gifted tribunes such as Émile Zola and Socialist leader Jean Jaurès. They viewed the Republic as a permanent work-in-progress which was destined, amid steadily rising literacy, prosperity, and working class militancy, to culminate in a radiant socialist future. “I have loyally served socialism and the Republic, which are inseparable,” as Jaurès put it, “for without the Republic, socialism is powerless and without socialism, the Republic is empty.” Similarly exalted rhetoric continues to saturate French political life (even Sarkozy and Le Pen like to quote Jaurès) but it now rings hollow. For “la République” may boast many considerable achievements – excellent infrastructure and public services, a still thriving cultural sphere, and an enviable quality of life for most of its citizens – but the heroic sense of mission extolled by Jaurès has clearly vanished.

France today is simply a normal western democracy which tends to lie firmly in the middle of relevant international indices: It is economically weaker than Germany but stronger than Italy or Spain; less egalitarian than the Nordic countries but more so than Britain or the US; and, for what it’s worth, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Better Life Index, French people’s “general life satisfaction” (6.7 out of 10) corresponds almost exactly to the OECD average (6.6). Despite much indigenous chatter about national decline and hysterical bouts of “French bashing” in the international media, the country does not appear to be going downhill so much as drifting along a plateau.

January’s attacks underline France’s failure to integrate a large immigrant population but there is nothing to suggest that Britain or Germany has been any more successful on this front. The ghettos of Bradford or Neukölln are just as deprived and marginalised as those of Aubervilliers or Clichy-sous-Bois. Anti-Semitism and Islamic extremism as well as anti-Muslim prejudice are all similarly Europe-wide phenomena.

In this context, there is nothing exceptional about the Charlie Hebdo and Hyper Cacher attacks, which are consistent with an alarming pattern of atrocities carried out by mostly second-generation Muslim immigrants that has developed since the Iraq War. While the bloodiest of these “home-grown” atrocities – the 7/7 London bombings – amounted to indiscriminate slaughter, three groups have been specifically targeted in other attacks: artists and writers deemed to have offended Islam, individuals of Muslim or North African origin viewed as apostates, and Jews. The quagmire in the Middle East clearly lurks in the background to all these murders but there is no inherent link between the individual foreign policy positions adopted by a country’s government and its vulnerability to attack. France led opposition to the Iraq War and its National Assembly voted to recognise the Palestinian state last December, thereby reaffirming the country’s long-term pro-Palestinian stance. Even pacific Belgium and Sweden have been the scene of Islamist terrorist attacks in recent years. Periodic jihadist spectaculars have effectively become the norm across twenty-first century Europe irrespective of local political conditions.

White supremacist attacks, such as the 2011 massacres in Norway carried out by Anders Breivik, have been less numerous. But here too there are signs of a developing pattern. Five German neo-Nazis are currently on trial in Munich for their alleged role in the murders of ten people, including eight men of Turkish origin, between 2000 and 2007. Two of the defendants are also accused of involvement in two bombings in a Turkish area of Cologne in 2001 and 2004, which left dozens wounded. In 2009, an Egyptian woman was murdered in Dresden by a man who had previously verbally abused her for wearing a headscarf. Over the past year, the anti-Muslim group PEGIDA has organised a series of mass demonstrations in German cities, as well as one in Newcastle. Amid such burgeoning hatred, who would rule out a future descent into regular tit-for-tat atrocities carried out by Islamic extremists and far-right thugs?

The paradox of this surge in obscurantist violence is that, with the exception of its eastern-most fringe, the continent has never known such a sustained period of peace. War in western and central Europe has become inconceivable and, in spite of stern lectures from Washington, the continent’s overall military might seems set to dwindle ever further. Long-running internal conflicts in Northern Ireland and the Basque country have largely petered out as have the urban terrorist and paramilitary movements of the Sixties and Seventies. Though attacks like those on Charlie Hebdo or the Jewish school in Toulouse seem to be defined by unprecedented callousness and gut-wrenching symbolism, the overall numbers killed in terrorist incidents have declined substantially. The bacilli may be increasingly virulent but they are attacking a body which is, on the whole, less and less prone to violent infections.

And yet the rhetoric in the days after the Charlie Hebdo attack was freighted with echoes of a more bellicose past. Hollande’s immediate response was to call on the French people to faire bloc (stand together) – a phrase that has its origins in Georges Clemenceau’s justification of revolutionary violence. The French Revolution, declared Clemenceau in 1891, is a “bloc” that must be defended unconditionally without any hand-wringing over the excesses of the Jacobin terror (whence the word terrorisme – originally seen as the epitome of republican virtue). Others quickly invoked the spirit of l’union sacrée – the name given to the coalition, eventually led by Clemenceau himself, which brought together left and right in defence of the Republic during the First World War. This is in keeping with the tenor of centenary commemorations throughout the past year which often seem to look wistfully upon that rare moment of national unity – one which ultimately delivered victory, albeit at staggering cost.

Such historically charged language illustrates the fact that the terrorists’ fanaticism and suicidal bloodlust, which seem so perverse in contemporary Europe, formerly occupied a central position in our culture. Prior to 1914, war was widely viewed as an essentially heroic endeavour which could but have a positive effect on the nation’s manhood. Some even nonchalantly spoke of combat as a mildly more vigorous form of boxing or rugby.

The epic slaughter of the Western Front, as we are all taught in school, duly put paid to the “old Lie: Dulce et Decorum est / Pro patria mori”. Yet not all who served in what was ambiguously dubbed “the Great War” were so uniformly disillusioned by their experiences. Figures as diverse as Ernst Jünger, TE Lawrence and Guillaume Apollinaire all portrayed a conflict in which old-fashioned heroism, patriotism, and hunger for glory remained authentic virtues. And while Britain and France turned towards pacifism during the Twenties and Thirties, Germany, Italy and Russia, in spite of their own appalling losses, embraced militarism with renewed catastrophic fervour. Such enthusiasm for self-sacrifice remained undimmed among ordinary German soldiers throughout the Second World War, making the Wehrmacht the most formidable fighting force in military history. Even when they knew they were doomed, as in Stalingrad in January 1943, their letters home frequently continued to profess their readiness to die for Führer and Fatherland.

All this is still in living memory. Is it plausible that such pathologies should have entirely vanished from modern-day Europe? Or that that the material comforts of our society should have definitively banished darker thoughts of death, conquest, and martial glory that used not long ago to be actively celebrated? And is it any surprise that these atavistic urges today find an outlet in Islamic extremism – the only form of religious belief which currently embraces apocalyptic violence with such relentless prominence?

Though principally concerned with the appeal of more moderate versions of Islamism, Michel Houellebecq’s new novel, Soumission, also offers some clues to the mentality underlying these desperate desires. The book was published on the very same day as the Charlie Hebdo attack, having already been satirised on the cover of that week’s issue of the magazine. Survivors reported that there had been a lively debate about it at the editorial meeting interrupted by the attack. Among the dead was Charlie Hebdo’s economics commentator, Bernard Maris, one of Houellebecq’s closest friends, who had published a book about his work last year. The following morning prime minister Valls even declared that “France is not submission, it’s not Michel Houellebecq. It’s not intolerance and hatred.” This is not the first time fact and fiction have gotten tangled up in Houellebecq’s world – his third novel, Plateforme, which ends with an Islamist terrorist attack, was published two weeks before 9/11.

Soumission imagines that a candidate representing the “Fraternité musulmane” manages to win the 2022 presidential election and then embarks on a wholesale Islamist transformation of French life. It is not a serious prophecy but a thought experiment about the likely reactions of different individuals in the face of moral upheaval, which can be compared to Albert Camus’s The Plague or the allegorical novels of Portuguese Nobel Prize-winner José Saramago. Houellebecq’s typically bleak conclusion is that the overwhelming majority of the existing political and intellectual elite would enthusiastically collaborate with the new order, partly out of self-interest but also because of admiration for the Islamists’ sense of world-historical purpose. In the latter vein, a secondary character takes to reciting the most famous verse from Charles Péguy’s epic poem Ève:

Heureux ceux qui sont morts dans les grandes batailles,
Couchés dessus le sol à la face de Dieu.
Heureux ceux qui sont morts sur un dernier haut lieu,
Parmi tout l’appareil des grandes funérailles.

Happy those who perish in great battles,
Stretched out on the ground in the face of God.
Happy those who perish on top of a final peak,
Amid all the pomp of great funerals.

In Soumission, the “grande bataille” waged by the “Fraternité musulmane” culminates in a reconstruction of the Roman Empire under Islamist hegemony, achieved entirely through negotiation and without violence. But the concept of a “grande bataille” is not just an exalted metaphor. For like Houellebecq, Péguy had an uncanny sense of timing. Ève was published in early 1914. On September 5th of that year, its author was killed while leading his men during the First Battle of the Marne, which turned back the German advance on Paris, thus avoiding defeat in a war that Péguy, a veteran reserve lieutenant, had long foreseen. This was five weeks after his old comrade Jaurès, whose pacifism Péguy now bitterly scorned, had been assassinated in central Paris as he desperately sought to halt the drift towards war. Both died in a “grande bataille” – one in defence of peace, the other in defence of his country.

Unlike Houellebecq and like Jaurès, Péguy was an idealist who believed passionately in the Republic which had lifted him from dire poverty to the École Normale Supérieure (the most prestigious of France’s elite grandes écoles). Indeed, it was he who first named the “black hussars” of republican legend. But Péguy was also the Republic’s fiercest critic, bitterly lamenting its failure to cultivate a sense of mystique and revolutionary purpose that would rival Christianity’s spiritual grandeur. The Dreyfus Affair of the 1890s had, as he saw it, been not just a matter of correcting a miscarriage of justice but a transcendent religious cause which gave meaning to the abstract idea of republicanism. So when the affair concluded in a grubby political compromise that let the French army off the hook, he felt the very ideas of Truth and Justice (always capitalised) had been betrayed. By allowing expediency to triumph over its foundational principles, the Republic had forfeited its vital aura of moral purpose and a corrupt, oligarchic bureaucracy had arisen in its place.

What Péguy understood was the deep human need to aspire to something greater than one’s self, the need to fight a “grande bataille” – be it moral, intellectual, or military. In a twisted form, the Charlie Hebdo and Hyper Cacher murderers shared a similar urge. They too sought an exalted purpose beyond the uninspiring lives the Republic had offered them.

Uninspiring but not, in the material sense, impoverished. Having spent most of their childhood in a well-appointed rural orphanage which, according to Le Monde, used to take them on three holidays a year, Saïd Kouachi obtained a technical qualification in cookery while his brother Chérif failed to complete a similar diploma in electronics. After moving to Paris in the early 2000s, they combined odd jobs with petty crime and an increasing attachment to the jihadist cause as part of a covert network based around the Buttes-Chaumont park. In 2005, Chérif was arrested as he prepared to go to fight the Americans in Iraq and was then jailed for twenty months (telling his court-appointed lawyer at the time that he was relieved to have been stopped). Shortly after his brother’s release from prison, Saïd was recruited by the city of Paris on a minimum wage “youth contract” to be a “waste separation ambassador” – the only semi-permanent job either appear to have ever held, from which he was fired in July 2009 after multiple complaints concerning his refusal to conform to laïc principles.

For his part, the Montrouge and Hyper Cacher murderer, Amedy Coulibaly, had multiple convictions for armed robbery and drug-dealing. However, he too managed to obtain a professional diploma in hi-fi installation and was, through a state-supported scheme, ultimately hired to work in a Coca-Cola factory at a decent salary which afforded him and his bikini-wearing wife holidays in Crete, the Dominican Republic, and Malaysia. In 2009, Coulibaly even received an invitation as part of a group of young workers to meet Sarkozy at the Élysée Palace, where the future terrorist snapped photos of the then president on his mobile phone.

Theirs was a mediocre world cluttered with all the alienating junk of modern life: fast food, rap music, internet poker, pornography (including child pornography in Coulibaly and Chérif Kouachi’s case), package holidays and tedious jobs. It was also marked at every step by multiple interactions with the state in its overlapping function as enforcer and carer. What we glimpse through their short and brutish lives is an active French welfare state struggling, at vast expense, to deal with the fallout from globalisation and neo-liberalism by doling out training courses and subsidised employment, with limited success. It would be hard to conclude that the Republic had abandoned them; nor is it obvious what else could have been done to help their case. (Had they grown up in the United States, clearly no such economic palliatives would have been on offer.) Far from being a revolt against their exclusion from French society (real though such exclusion may often be), their turn towards jihad seems to have been a reaction against the culture of faltering social democratic normality which had attempted to find a place for them. And the same surely goes for the estimated one thousand four hundred French people (a quarter of them converts to Islam) who have gone to fight with the Islamic State and other jihadi groups in Syria and Iraq. As Yeats put it: “In balance with this life, this death”.

The most widely reproduced photographs of Charlie Hebdo’s slain editor, Stéphane Charbonnier (“Charb”), show him clutching a copy of the magazine with a drawing of a Jewish man pushing a Muslim in a wheelchair (“Intouchables 2” reads the headline, punning on the title of a wildly successful French film). Charb’s right arm is held aloft and bent at the elbow with fist clenched. This gesture could formerly be seen at political rallies across Europe but now presumably means little to most people. It is the Popular Front salute – a symbol of the anti-fascist coalitions which took power in France and Spain in 1936 (and not to be confused with the more recent Black Power salute where the arm is held straight up). Charb was also quoted as having said he “would prefer to die on his feet than to live on his knees”. The phrase originates with the Mexican revolutionary Zapata but it was transformed into a rousing slogan by the Spanish Communist Dolores Ibárruri, aka “La Pasionaria”, during the civil war that followed the fleeting triumph of the Popular Front. Such talk would usually sound like pure bravado. But who could accuse Charb of bravado now?

Charb’s choice of symbolism and rhetoric marked him out as a distinctly old-fashioned leftist – of the kind which has no hang-ups about hurting other people’s feelings and whose instinctive reaction to fascism is to oppose it without equivocation. It also shows that he too had a sense of being embroiled in a “grande bataille” – one that transcended the everyday mediocrity which he scorned in his weekly column entitled “Charb n’aime pas les gens” (Charb doesn’t like people). For Charb the freedom to ridicule was a higher value, beyond normal practical considerations. It was a quasi-religious cause for which he was overtly prepared to sacrifice himself – a show of defiance that is at once inspiring and unnerving.

Did he overdo it? Of course he overdid it. Did they have to publish the caricatures? Of course they did not have to publish them. They chose to do so. That is the whole point. Freedom of speech only becomes an issue when others decide to shut you up. No one is obliged to involve themselves in that struggle and few in fact do so. It will always be more convenient to avoid such acrimony altogether, just as many at the time of the Dreyfus Affair, including most of the French Left, felt there was no point in getting worked up about the fate of a single Jewish army officer. Like Péguy, Jaurès, and Zola, Charb and his colleagues were viscerally opposed to that sort of quietism. They were heroes in otherwise unheroic age. And their mordant stubbornness was the virtuous counterpart to their murderers’ pathetic dreams of martyrdom. Neither won their “grande bataille”. No one ever does. But the cartoonists died for a just cause. And they have not killed Charlie.

1/4/2015

Max McGuinness is a PhD student in French at Columbia University in New York. His translation of André Bernold’s memoir of Samuel Beckett, Beckett’s Friendship 1979-89, will be published by the Lilliput Press this summer.

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