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Letter from Paris

Michael O’Loughlin writes: Last month, to mark the start of the trial of people involved in the Charlie Hebdo attack five years ago, the magazine decided to publish a special issue reprinting the cartoons of Muhammad which were supposedly the cause of that savage attack by the radicalised Kouachi brothers. Being in Paris, I set out to buy a copy. After asking at twenty or so news kiosks, I was left empty-handed. All sold out, they said. I finally tracked down a copy in a shop off the Rue St Denis. The owner retrieved it from under a pile of newspapers, and as I paid I remarked on how hard it had been to find, being sold out. He gave me a look which spoke volumes. There is a sub-set of newsagents in Paris who seem to be left-wing intellectuals left over from the ’68 generation, and this man clearly belonged to that group: on the counter lay the book he was reading, a hefty volume by the philosopher Paul Ricoeur.

Surely, with his classic Gallic shrug, he couldn’t be implying that some newsagents were simply not stocking and selling the issue with the cartoons on the cover? But that may not be surprising. Support for Charlie Hebdo is by no means universal among Paris’s intelligentsia and media. There were people, including some of my own friends and acquaintances (and their teenage children) who were proud to say, after the attacks, that they were definitely not Charlie. I found this disturbing at the time, as I was aware that some of them had known the victims; Paris, after all, is as much a big village as Dublin. Typically, in its special issue reprinting the cartoons, Charlie Hebdo devotes some pages to these views, the people who said it was shocking what happened, but... It’s easy to dismiss these people as useful idiots, but it’s worth looking at what they say. For example, the writer and filmmaker Virginie Despentes, on the brothers Kouachi: “I was also those lads who went in with their guns ... who bought a Kalashnikov on the black market and decided, in their way, that the only thing open to them was to die standing rather than live on their knees.” Or Edwy Plenel, a leading digital publisher and former editor of Le Monde: “Freedom of expression ... does not imply that our public life should lower itself to ... hatred of a section of our people because of their origin, culture or religion. Hatred cannot be excused by humour.” In general, there were many on the left who felt that the cartoons led to Islamophobia and were an elitist insult to an oppressed and powerless minority.

These arguments had gone back and forth over the last five years. President Macron seemed to be taking the issue seriously when last month he launched a new carrot-and-stick policy for dealing with radical Islam, but an attack by a lone extremist on the former Charlie Hebdo offices was an ominous sign. Then the schoolteacher Samuel Paty was decapitated as he walked home from work:  his crime that he had shown students the cartoons in the context of a civics class on freedom of speech, after politely asking those students who might be offended to look away.

What happened next is well-documented, and profoundly disturbing, because it shows how the battlefield has shifted. Conflans-Sainte-Honorine, where Samuel Paty’s school is located, is not a deprived ghetto but an affluent, middle class suburb. It has been noted in recent weeks in the context of the terrorism trials how the profiles of the Islamic extremists have changed. Isis often used semi-literate and deprived petty criminals like the Kouachis who were easy to radicalise, particularly in prison, but some recent extremists have been highly educated and seemingly integrated into society. What makes the murder of Samuel Paty different is how it was preceded by more or less legitimate-seeming complaints, made publicly by some of the parents, and involving above-ground advocacy groups like the Anti-Islamophobia Collective. The fact that this ended in horrific violence, enabled no doubt by social media, should not obscure the fact that it started as an open attempt to limit the teaching of free speech. The battle against Islamic extremism, it seems, will now be fought out in the courts, the editorial suites, the parent-teacher meetings and the constituency offices.

On the week of the attack in January 2015, the cover of Charlie Hebdo featured Michel Houellebecq, whose novel Submission seemed to suggest that the real danger came not from Isis but from apparent moderates like the Muslim Brotherhood, an organisation which is legal in many jurisdictions.

In his moving speech delivered in the presence of Samuel Paty’s coffin in the Sorbonne, President Macron called him, rightly, “a quiet hero”. He was just a good teacher doing his job, which circumstances have made heroic. The danger is that from now on not all teachers or newsagents will also be heroes, and it is probably unfair to expect them to be. The battle to defend free speech is now moving onto another level, but is as vital as ever – both in France, and perhaps even in Ireland, where for complex legal and cultural reasons, the limits of free speech have rarely been tested.

16/11/2020