Wednesday 14th January 2015. Exactly a week after tragic events that rocked and shocked France.
January 7th 2015. 6.30am.
Just a typical early January day. A slight chill in the early morning wind as I walk down to the post box to get the morning paper – The main preoccupation seems to be the Greek economy. My daily broadsheet bears the headline « Will Greece leave the Euro zone » - and then several pages of analysis on the repercussions if far left-wing parties win the up and coming Greek elections. On the inside pages, the results of a national poll – 57% of French people say they are optimistic about 2015. Br it opinion polls or the plight of the Hellenic economic plight, most French people are still struggling with the hard crawl back to work after the Christmas break. Dark, dismal, dreary January – national teaching unions and parents’ organisations are asking for a week’s extra holiday – the kids are too tired after Christmas, they can’t concentrate and the teachers haven’t had sufficient time to prepare new lessons – an extra week’s holiday. I’ll support that. Of course, it’s not all dull, this is Epiphany week an as such the French will be celebrating by gorging themselves on a few slices of Epiphany cake. It’s traditional, with colleagues at work or family friends and neighbours at home, this is the time to uncork a bottle of bubbly, share the Epiphany cake and wish everyone a happy new year.
Come 11am, it’s clear that 2015 won’t be so happy. First reports are coming in of a « shooting incident » at the Paris offices of the satirical magazine « Charlie Hebdo ». At lunchtime the horrific figures are confirmed – 11 dead and 5 seriously wounded. In the afternoon, the death toll climbs to 12. At work, all work seems to have stopped; we stand round in the corridors looking at footage of the attack taken by CCTV cameras. It hasn’t taken long for the images to make their way on to the Web. Masked gunmen, calmly climbing into their car and « making their getaway » after the attack with all the nonchalance of a Sunday afternoon drive. A couple of minutes previously, one of the attackers has, executed a wounded policeman by shooting him through the head. The footage of the execution has also made its way on to Internet. We can see the policeman, prostrate, one arm in the air waving off the attacker. The policeman is pleading for Mercy and then …
The rolling news coverage continues well into the night. The following day, in what the authorities qualify as an « unrelated incident » a member of the Paris municipal police force is gunned down by a man »of African origin » in the Montrouge area in the south of the capital.
Throughout the rest of the week, 90,000 police, troops and Gendarmes are mobilised in the hunt for the Charlie Hebdo killers, who are eventually tracked down to a print works on an industrial estate just 25 kilometres to the north of Charles De Gaulle international airport. Come Friday the powers-that-be have established a firm link between the Charlie Hebdo Killers and the Montrouge killer who is holed up in a Jewish supermarket in the Vincennes area of Paris, he has ten hostages.
Around 5pm on Friday, in simultaneous assaults on the Jewish supermarket and the print works, all the terrorists are « definitively neutralised » (a direct translation of the French term). In the Vincennes supermarket four hostages also lie dead, though they have been murdered during the siege by their hostage taker.
The week in France when France changed forever. The slogan « Je suis Charlie went nationwide and then worldwide. Shops, offices, public buildings … everywhere you looked, the « Je Suis Charlie » slogan had appeared. On Friday and Saturday nights there were impromptu candlelit vigils for the week’s victims. On Sunday four million people took to the Streets in France’s towns and cities. They were not there to condemn terrorism, they were there to celebrate freedom, they were there to celebrate the values of the French Republic – Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité – even in the smallest farthest-flung village, locals gathered around their village war memorial to say « Je suis Charlie » - for once, everything was not confined to Paris. And in this nation where patriotism is often associated with the far right, out came the tricolour flags – the nation was a sea of red white and blue. Even the most virulent of critics who associate patriotism with nationalism, were out on the Streets, flying the flag and say « je suis Charlie » and « Je suis Français » and proud to be French, because being French is not just a question of culture, it is also a question of accepting those three most basic of republican values – liberty, equality and fraternity. This week too, the nation has been taking up the national anthem in spontaneous chorus – the good old Marseillaise, once almost considered as an embarrassment by some – has become the hit of the day
What has changed in France this week – our normally fractious nation has found its own unique sense of republican national identity – it feels good to be French because France stands for freedom. For sure, this, the greatest expression of national cohesion since France won the football World Cup in 1998 won’t last. We will soon be back to our old ways – ever cynical, ever complaining, ever divided – but then this too is an essential part of the French character – we are a nation of complainers and pessimists – this is what makes us happy.
What has changed? I don’t think anything has changed however the tragic events of the last week have awoken the latent republican that slumbers deep within the soul of every French person. There is a new national conscience about what it means to be French regardless of race, creed or colour.
Surprising images from this week though – People in the street applauding police officers and Gendarmes. People in the Paris Métro actually talking to each other and at the beginning of a debate in the French Parliament – all the members, regardless of political allegiance, standing together for a hearty rendition of the French national anthem – not seen in living memory. This hasn’t happened since the end of World War One.
And finally, just one week after the fatal editorial meeting, Charlie Hebdo, the iconoclastic, satirical magazine that was on its last legs – just 13000 subscribers, just 60,000 readers – has now gone worldwide. This week’s edition has gone from a print run of 60,000 to five million and already most of the shops have sold out. The irony is, had the terrorists not “killed” Charlie, it would probably have died a protracted financial death in relative national indifference – perhaps just a few minutes on the evening news to mark the passing of this institution. Tnaks to the terrorists though, Charlie Hebdo will now live on, greater than ever.
Sunday January 11th 2015-01-14
Events of recent days have left me confused and pensive. There was no point in giving a day-by-day blog account of the events in the heat of the moment. I waited until it was all over before I penned my usual unchecked, rambling thoughts on what has happened.
In future years, as we look back on the tragic and barbaric events in Paris this week, we will recall the journalists and cartoonists who were murdered, but what about Frederic Boisseau? – Not a cartoonist or a journalist, but a humble building maintenance engineer and the first victim of the ensuing carnage.
15 years of loyal service to his employers, SODEXO, on Wednesday January 7th, the 42 year-old father of two is told to report to 10 Rue Nicolas Appert in the 11th arrondissement of Paris to carry out maintenance for a Sodexo client. Just another routine day, though this being Epiphany week, there might be a drink at work later on. We celebrate Epiphany in France, at home or in the workplace it is traditional to get together, uncork a bottle of bubbly and eat a few slices of New Year cake – what we call the Galette des Rois. I daresay if he hadn’t done it already Frederic had planned to celebrate with his wife and kids, or friends, and neighbours or colleagues.
To Frederic, 10 Rue Nicolas Appert was just another of these faceless office blocks he was so used to working in. He had no idea of the companies working out the building. At around 10.30 as he was sitting at the reception desk, chatting with a colleague, the unthinkable happened. Surreal and frightening and ultimately deadly. I just wonder if Frederic didn’t look round for the hidden TV cameras. In burst two masked and heavily armed gunmen asking for the offices of Charlie Hebdo. Frederic looked at the building plan and told them they were on the second floor. He was promptly shot and died in his colleague’s arms. His last words before he died « phone my wife and tell her I love her. »
The tearful and heart wrenching account of what happened during the last minutes of Frederic’s life, was given by his widow on a national radio station.
VICTIMS OF THE WAR
« What about all the innocent victims of America’s war on terror? » thundered one irate caller to a radio phone in programme on the day following the attack. « Iraqi and Afghan women and children killed in American drone attacks! » Yes, spare a thought for them and spare a thought for all those innocent victims from New York, to London, to Madrid – all those innocent everyday heroes who thought they were just headed off for another normal day: taking the kids to school, going to the supermarket – fighting your way through the morning rush hour mayhem. The ritual daily grind, the everyday hassle of just getting up, getting on and getting through. Just another reassuringly lousy day. It will be better tomorrow. We never think that there won’t be a tomorrow. We never think that someone is going to shoot us down. When we get on the bus or the subway we probably never give a second thought about suicide bombers. « What do you mean; someone is going to crash a 747 Jumbo jet into my office block! Are you mad? »
Each to his job. Frederic doing his building maintenance, whilst the policemen assigned to protect the Charlie Hebdo building and its staff, stand guard on the pavement outside.
One of the policemen killed was Ahmed Merabet. 11 years on the force, the 42 year-old of Algerian origin had just passed his exams to become an officer. A few more months, he would have been off the streets and studying hard at Police Academy. « An honest person and a good Muslim » his Brother-in-law told reporters at a press conference. Mr Merabet’s Partner along with his three brothers and two sisters were too upset to speak. Mr Merabet’s murder is all the more shocking – at first wounded by the assailants, as he pleaded for his life, one of the gunmen executed Ahmed with a bullet through the head.
JUST ANOTHER DAY AT CHARLIE HEBDO
Each to his job. At the editorial meeting, the leading lights of Charlie Hebdo are working on a special « Shariah » edition. The satirical magazine is about to take another swipe at radical Islam. It’s not the first time. In February 2006, the magazine ran a caricature of the prophet Mohamed on its front cover. There was outrage across the Muslim world and the offices of Charlie Hebdo at the time were burned to the ground as a reprisal In February 2014, the magazine ran another front cover « insulting » the Koran. Over the years though, Charlie Hebdo has taken a swipe at everyone who is anyone in public life, De Gaulle, Mitterrand; Sarkozy, Le Pen, were all targets for the magazine. Numerous religious leaders and quite simply religions themselves have also been mocked, satirised, criticised, debunked – until Tuesday 6th January 2015 though, no one had taken up arms against the magazine.
THE STORY OF CHARLIE AND THE SPIRIT OF 1968
To understand the ethos of Charlie Hebdo, you have to go back to May 1968. Those heady May days when…
In the Quartier Latin in Paris, students have erected barricades, they are fighting running battles in the street with French riot police. Cars burn, paving stones and Molotov cocktails fly, the air is thick with teargas. There are similar scenes in all major French towns and cities. At the same time, there is a general strike. Workers all over France down tools and declare an indefinite strike for better pay and conditions. In one heady moment, union leaders espouse the student cause – freedom. Intellectuals of the day visit striking workers in their factories – Jean Paul Sartre himself goes to « lecture » striking Renault workers at their factory on the edge of Paris. Workers attend debates in the nation’s major universities where students are staging massive sit-ins, and at one point, General De Gaulle himself – president of the day is forced to leave Paris for Baden Baden in Germany – rumour has it that he will rally French troops stationed in Germany and come crashing across the Franco German border to « pacify » France. The May 1968 « Revolution » lasted 6 weeks, and finally collapsed when the workers went back to work after new deals on pay and conditions were stuck with the government and employers – yes, the revolution finished just in time for the French to go on holiday.
Charlie Hebdo was founded in the wake of the « revolution », it’s job – to strike a blow for freedom, not that France wasn’t « free » in 1968. Freedom (or liberty at least) is written into the French republican contract « Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité. » However the students of 1968 wanted a little more freedom in what was quite a constrained society. It’ was only 20 years since French women had been granted the vote. Abortion was illegal and contraception had only been legal since late December 1967, but the Pill was only available with parental consent. The age of majority was still 21 (though this was the case in the UK too at the time). Obligatory Military service for young men lasted two years. Then there was the question of censorship – the powers-that-be censored books, comics, films that were considered « unsuitable », especially those for the younger generation. Most American comic books had been banned since 1949 – an initiative from Madame De Gaulle. In music terms, anything coming out of the US or Britain took about three months to cross the Atlantic or the Channel. Enterprising French music producers would procure copies of British or American records and record a homegrown French version of the song before it became commercially available in France. Boys and girls were still educated separately. The youngsters of 1968 just wanted one thing – a little more freedom in a society that was pretty much still living along pre-war lines.
IT’S FORBIDDEN TO FORBID
The 1968 student « revolutionaries » had their fair share of slogans « Let’s be realistic and ask for the impossible » (Soyons réalistes. Demandons l’impossible) was one. By far the most famous « Il est Interdit d’interdire » (literally meaning « forbidding is forbidden » or « It is forbidden to forbid ») Charlie Hebdo was founded on this idea. Total freedom, no taboos and no subject was taboo. Charlie Hebdo (then known just as « Charlie ») was actually founded when its forerunner - a magazine called Hara Kiri was shut down and banned by the public censor.
Three of the cartoonists murdered in the Charlie Hebdo attack, Wolinski, Cabu and Honoré were firmly of the 1968-generation. They cut their satirical teeth in the heady days of May 1968 and years afterwards continued to criticise, and satirise very much in the spirit of the period.
Talking to those people (the baby boomers) who grew up in 1960’s France, it was a pretty dour place for a teenager. The country was enjoying an unprecedented economic boom, there was full employment. The generation that had lived through the dark days of the Second World War and the Nazi occupation, were enjoying the « fruits of victory. » but they weren’t ready for « teenagers ».
Though the War may have ended in 1945, fighting did not stop for the French. From 1948 until 1954, French forces fought a bloody colonial war in Indo China (Vietnam) finally losing not only the colony, but also 70,000 lives. Hot on the heals of the French Vietnam War, came the complicated, protracted and bloody colonial conflict in Algeria (reports say that up to a million Algerians were killed in the conflict along with 30,000 French soldiers.) The Algerian conflict brought terrorist attacks and riots to the streets of Paris – at one point there was even a revolt within the ranks of the French army and the very real threat of a Putsch.
Charlie Hebdo was born on the back of all this. A generation of youngsters fed up with their parents wars and an older generation still trying desperately to hang on to their ideal of « la France Eternelle »
Throughout its existence, Charlie Hebdo always fought against all those of any political hue threatened freedom of expression. Extremists from all sides of the political and religious spectrum.
NO BRAIN MURDERERS ?
Just a personal opinion – those behind extremist organisations, who can manipulate the weak-minded into becoming the foot soldiers of their cause – they have the brains, but those rank and file killers, suicide bombers, street fighters – they actually have pretty scant knowledge of the cause they espouse and an equally rudimentary knowledge of the enemy, other than the fact that they are the enemy.
Results of recent research by the Department of War Studies at King’s College University, London – researchers who had spent months questioning convicted Islamic terrorists in prison, found that they actually had only the most rudimentary knowledge about their religion or about the Koran. I suppose it was the same for the Brownshirts in Nazi Germany – no matter about the ins and outs of Judaism or Communism – all the foot soldiers have to know is that Jews and Communists are better off dead. The foot soldiers of extremism only understand violence and how to mete it out.
I suppose the real question I’m asking is, who were the brains behind this attack? Did orders from the attack come from a higher source, or was it genuinely two indoctrinated and seasoned terrorists who decided to wipe out Charlie Hebdo. What supposedly provoked the attack – the caricatures of the Prophet Mohamed – appeared on the front cover of the magazine back in 2006. They caused uproar throughout the Muslim world. Why didn’t gun toting Islamic extremists wipe out Charlie Hebdo back in 2006?
A FEW QUESTIONS AND RÉPERCUSSIONS
France is united. « On est tous Charlie ». Ordinary French men and women of all origins and all confessions have taken to the street in their millions in peaceful marches and vigils, firstly to condemn the massacre and also show the France is united. The irony is, that even those on the right and the far right who certainly did not hold Charlie Hebdo in their hearts – they are all Charlie too. Even Marine Le Pen – leader of France’s far right, populist, anti immigration party « Le Front National » has taken to the Streets. She too is Charlie. For sure here are s those riding on the back of the current Charlie wave for pure political and electoral capital.
The thorny question of freedom, religion and multiculturalism. France (as I often point out) is a secular republic. Faith is purely a private matter and exterior signs of faith are banned in public places – no matter the dress, the headgear or the accoutrements worn by the believers, they cannot be worn in public places such as hospitals, employment offices, tax offices etc. Yet religion is a major part of culture and we want to encourage each person to express his or her culture – the French constitution guarantees people this freedom. Where are we now though? Critics are point to years of flawed immigration policy, the failure of the nation and the Republic to assimilate immigrants as a couple of the reasons for the rise of Islamic extremism. These attacks were carried out by Frenchmen – yes they had North African family roots, but they were second or third generation, so not Algerian, but French – born and bred in France – and so the same question that was posed in Britain after the July 7th 2005 attacks in London – where did we go wrong? Or were the attacks simply the work of a couple of ex-delinquents with a history of Petty crime and drug use, who just absolutely felt the need to « exist »? Are we dealing with true soldiers of the faith or were these killers of the Columbine or Dumblaine ilk? There are those questions we need to ask. Provably what we don’t need right now is yet another debate on national identity and what it is to be French.
On this last point, as I start on the long administrative road in my demand for French nationality, I would say that being French is speaking the language, assimilating the culture and history and subscribing to that full set of Republican values, which are also very human values Liberty, equality and fraternity – and you can pretty much do that wearing a burqa, a kippa or a crucifix. And no matter what faith inspired garb you choose to wear is it so hard to accept someone else’s religion or point of view. In common with many others, I am starting to think that if you can’t accept France and her values of freedom and tolerance – you don’t have to take to the streets and kill innocent people, just go and live somewhere else. Where people get sentenced to ten years prison and 1000 lashes for writing a blog – if that’s your idea of heaven …
A final thought – soccer.
One of those strange repercussions. January 10th 2015. The Parisian soccer team – Paris St Germain (PSG) are playing against their Premier league rivals Bastia at the Bastia stadium in Corsica. Before the game, Bastia fans unfurl a huge banner bearing the words « Quatar finance the PSG and terrorism » - which as we say in French – « is not untrue. » In 2012 a Qatari investment fund « Qatar Sports Investments » bought the PSG. An investment, just like the other 10 billion Euros that Qatar has invested in major French companies, including Total, Vinci, Vivendi Veolia.
For sure the Qataris are also buying up vast chunks of Paris (and London) – Wise investments. When the oil finally does run out, they’ll be needing the money. Buying a French football team or supporting terrorism – I think the Bastia supporters have a point, but their action serves only to trivialise and politicise the debate at a moment when France is enjoying an unprecedented spell of national unity. And what about Western regimes, haven’t e supported terrorist movement in the past? Or were they just freedom fighters.
IRONY IN CONCLUSION
The irony in this. In those heady days of May 1968, the Charlie cartoonists were railing against De Gaulle and the French establishment. Students were fighting running battles with riot police in the Streets of Paris. All in the name of liberty – and then those anti-establishment cartoonists became part of the anti-establishment « establishment » - revered iconoclasts, living legends – in the Charlie massacre though, they were « the enemy » - as much of an enemy as those French politicians who order French military intervention in Iraq and Mali and the Central African Republic – all to fight against extremist Islamic terrorists. The anti-establishment became the Establishment, and in their turn, the killers were tracked and killed by those very forces of law and order that the 1968 students fought against. We’ve come full circle, I think we have all become Charles, and there is the irony, we have all become anti-establishment .