Before and after Charlie Hebdo

By Marina Chanderot

I can’t help but feel uncertain about what the future holds

charlie-hebdo-cover-paris-shooting-012Wednesday morning , January 7th, a regular day begins, I get up, prepare my daughter’s breakfast, have a shower, and while she watches her traditional breakfast cartoons I take a sneak peek at my Facebook news feed where I see a friend posting: “Charlie Hebdo wtf???”

Quickly I type the newspaper’s name into Google and there it is, the horrid, appalling, shocking news: two gunmen walked into Charlie Hebdo and killed amongst others, the crème de la crème of French satire cartoonists : Charb, Cabu, Wolinski, Tignous… The list of victims gets longer as the day goes by, the rest, as you all know, marks the start of a horrid end of week for the French nation as the events unfold on Thursday and into the week-end.

To be honest, I have never been an assiduous reader of the paper. I mainly came across it now and then when I went to my parents’ in law house in the countryside, a true mine of ancient newspaper and magazine issues that I enjoyed going through while sipping on some” thé à la menthe” in the garden. I remember though that back in 2006, when Charlie Hebdo published the controversial caricatures of the Prophet, I had mixed feelings about it. On one hand, I thought that they were merely pouring oil onto the fire, given the violence that these caricatures provoked all over the world. On the other, I felt, like a vast majority of the French population, that Charlie Hebdo had the absolute right to publish any caricatures they wanted, whether they be of Muhammad, God, the Pope, the French president, the police etc., in the name of freedom of expression and speech. As Evelyn Hall puts it in her biography of Voltaire: « I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to death your right to say it »

France has a long lasting tradition of satire. Sarcasm and humour are for many French people a cornerstone of the way in which the French look at current events. Charlie Hebdo, le Canard Enchaîné, les Guignols de l’Info (in a softer way) are all dear to the French nation because laughing and making jokes about anyone and anything is truly part of the French identity. Not seldom, as it happened to my husband when coming to live in the UK, the French are often warned when moving abroad: “Take it easy on the humour, or you could end up in trouble!!!”.

Then I agree there is a fine line as to the extent to which humour remains within the limits of decency, and as Charlie Hebdo describe themselves, they are an “irresponsible paper” and their very trademark is, as mentioned above pouring oil onto the fire.

Je-suis-CharlieWhat hurts the most, regardless of whether we judge Charlie Hebdo as disrespectful is the fact that there are people out there who think death is the only way to “punish” Charlie Hebdo for its cheek. That in the name of religion, it would be right to kill someone with cold blood for making drawings and jokes. The entire world was in shock, people came out on the streets, caricatures and tributes to Charlie Hebdo fused on the social media, in offices nobody was able to work as they had constantly their eyes riveted on the news channels. Quickly the movement gained momentum and spread across the whole globe, with “Je suis Charlie” displayed in Times Square, on motorways, in trains, in the streets, babies were wearing “Je suis Charlie” on their name tags as they were born in hospitals, even Hollywood was Charlie at the Golden Globes! It was moving and beautiful to see the whole world stand up and express their determination to stand by the right of freedom of speech. The whole world was elated by the “Je suis Charlie” fever.

But on the other side, in the aftermath of the events, while millions united to show their support to Charlie Hebdo and the principle itself of freedom of speech, in a number of schools across France, many were the students who refused to respect the minute of silence in honour of Charlie Hebdo, as they felt that they got what they deserved. Students of Islamic confession of various ages felt that they would not identify themselves with Charlie Hebdo, and to them the massacre was a logic consequence after having insulted the name of the Prophet Muhammad. What happened to this world?? Where are we going? Why do children believe it’s ok to kill for a drawing?

To me, even though I felt moved to tears by the enormous crowds gathering in Paris, marching in the name of freedom of speech, I feel like this is only the beginning of some difficult times ahead and the apparent unity in today’s French society is only the tip of an iceberg that is slowly cracking under the dark waters.

I can’t help but wonder what Cabu, Wolinski, Charb, Honoré, Tignous, Wolinski think of all this up there, I wonder if they are laughing at the government officials and presidents who marched in Paris last week-end while ignoring any right to freedom of speech in their own countries. I wonder how they felt when media chains like BFM TV were talking live to the hostage takers, in a chase of who will make breaking news, while jeopardising the chances to survive of the hostages in Vincennes. I also wonder why the 2000 people massacred in Nigeria by Boko Haram got about 30 seconds of airtime on the French national news… Beyond the horror of the attacks, followed by the beauty of the tribute and the world focus on freedom of speech, I can’t help but feeling uncertain about what the future holds and my gut is telling me that, just like 9/11, there will be a before and after Charlie Hebdo.

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