It’s 8 January 2015. I’ve got lots of thoughts swirling around in my head with respect to the attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris yesterday. I want to make sense of my thoughts and come to some clarity on the issue.
When I first heard the news that Charlie Hebdo had been hit by terrorists and that twelve people were killed, my first reaction was of shock. New Zealand isn’t a country where terrorist attacks happen…. well, at least not in my conscious memory, nor by religious fanatics. Ironically enough, the only terrorist attack I know of was ordered by Francois Mitterrand, France’s President and it was designed to hit the heart of our nuclear free campaign against testing in French Polynesia, our backyard.
But I was shocked, as I came to the realisation that I am now living in a country where terrorist attacks are a reality and not just something abstract. Shits getting real.
On listening to the outpouring of grief that’s been expressed by France and her people, I’ve been overwhelmed with emotion. Particularly on seeing the faces of the people who were killed. Or when I hear people speaking with such anger, such passion, such pain. I even came close to tearing up, which surprised. I don’t really know why? Maybe because I’m not French, so I didn’t expect to be affected to the same extent that the French are. But its upsetting to hear. It’s upsetting to watch (various videos have gone viral, including one video of the policeman being shot in the head. He died doing his job protecting others, and that’s how he should be remembered by his family and nation – not by his death going viral!).
When you think about the symbolism of Charlie Hebdo as a target, it’s even more devastating with respect to the wider implications. It wasn’t just that they were any old target. Charlie Hebdo represent…. no, they ARE the ‘freedom of expression’. It’s what the occident and western democracies value above all else. But honestly, I don’t think any of us hold it as dearly as the French do. They have made an art form of it. Moreover, ‘liberte’ (freedom) is one of the 5th Republic’s founding principles. And that is why it hurts. Because it goes to the heart of French society and what they hold most dear. I have heard several people and assume there are many, many more, who sense that this attack was not just on Charlie Hebdo, but as a personal and most vicious attack on themselves.
It’s also important to recognise how precious the French hold the principle of laicite (secularism). I understand that the church and state were officially separated sometime in the early 20th century. What this means is that there is absolutely no connection whatsoever with the way the state conducts the nation’s affairs, and the affairs of the Catholic church (first and foremost). Beyond this and in modern times, is the expectation that all religions and beliefs are equal to one another and are subordinate to the law, to the state and to the Republic as a whole. While religion is respected, it is strictly relegated to the private sphere, to the extent that religious symbols, a cross necklace for example, should be worn discretely (If you are an employee of the state) and if it is considered too ostentatious, you will be accused of not respecting the principle of secularism and asked to remove or hide it. So in understanding this, one can appreciate that religious fanaticism is just, it’s just unthinkable to the French.
With all of this in mind, it is much, much easier to comprehend why the French are so absolutely devastated by the attack. Because it wasn’t just a senseless act on French soil. It was an attack on some of the principle foundations of the nation. It was an attack on the right to freedom of expression, it was an attack on the principle of secularism. All of which bind French people as a nation and what they each, as individuals, expect from one another in return.
In the last 24 hours, I have heard many people asking such questions as, “Have they killed freedom of expression”, “Have they killed democracy?”, and even “Have they killed the Republique”. That is the strength behind the symbolism of the attack to Charlie Hebdo. That some people would even dare to suggest that the terrorists have killed the Republique, shows just how hard the country has been hit. Though I wonder why on earth are you would even consider asking such a question when it is simply playing into their game? They will win if you believe there is any truth to the statement, so it’s better left unsaid.
France is in mourning, rightly so, and justice absoloutly should prevail. The perpetrators should be held accountable for their acts and punished accordingly. But I am also very, very cautious of getting caught up in the whirlwind and hope like hell that France keeps her head about her. Because I am hugely concerned about the backlash. And I have no doubt there will be one. I’m just really, really worried about the extent of it. I’ve already heard that there have been hate attacks against various muslim communities. Emotions are heightened and prior to this incident tensions were already brewing between France and it’s various and diverse Muslim populations. These tensions have grown, in part, from the sizeable number of France’s sons and daughters who have joint and are continuing to turn their backs against their homeland and join the jihad in Syria (I’m currently reading a book ‘Allah est grand et la republique aussi/Allah is great and the republic as well which speaks about this situation).
Prior to this week, France was asking a lot of questions about how this situation even exists. They just can’t fathom why these kids would turn against their own. But something that confounds me is how the people asking these questions don’t seem to recognise that these situations don’t exist in a vacuum. There are a complexity of issues which provide the conditions that lead to people making decisions like this. But until these conditions are thoroughly and sincerely examined, which includes a lot of soul searching on the part of France, it’s people and their place in the 21st century, I’m unsure how successful any attempts to ameliorate the situation will be.
Well, at least that’s how I was feeling before yesterday. Now, today, I’m even more fearful of the likelihood, or not, of this happening. The National Front, a right-wing political party (in the conservative sense, as opposed to liberal economic sense), who are well-known for espousing racial rhetoric, had already been capitalizing on the tough economic situation and using migrants as scape goats for all of France’s problems (*yawn*. Oldest trick in the book). I’m concerned that this incident will lighten a fuse that they were just waiting to light. I am anticipating that Marine Le Pen will take full advantage of the situation, using it as a rallying call for the Francais de souche (French-born French peeps) to unite against the ‘other’, mistakingly grouping radical Islamists and muslims as one in the same. That is my fear.
When you see an incident like this as a personal affront, at a time when employment is at historical highs and the economy is in a pretty dire situation; at a time when migrants are already being used as scapegoats for the ills of society; and at a time when numerous French-born muslims are turning toward radical islam and joining the war in Syria, I think it will take very strong people to rise above any divisive tactics, and to stand united alongside their muslim compatriots.
My hope is that instead of losing their cool, the French will keep calm and follow the example set forth by our Australian neighbours and their #illridewithyou campaign.