I happened to have been in Paris with my son, Will, the week before the massacre at Charlie Hebdo’s office. We enjoyed early Spring weather, large but not overwhelming crowds, and good food at nearly every meal. We managed several bucket list tours, from Versailles to the Musee D’Orsay, and stayed largely within the city’s popular tourist zones.
Walking the paths of history — even if surrounded by pushy tourists — gives Paris special meaning. The something that became Paris was growing back in the year 600 or so, and subsequent events offer a tapestry of human achievement and failure : the excesses of monarchy and revolution, splendor and waste, greatness and collaboration, courage and cowardice, all playing out on the streets of the city. We Americans love to belittle the French as hopeless romantics who’ve lost every war they’ve ever fought and can’t govern themselves. Yet their fierce devotion to individual freedom, forged by generations of class divisions and failed, revolving door governments, has long been an essential characteristic of the nation’s culture.
Which brings me back to Charlie Hebdo. By now, this obscure (outside of Paris) publication is well known in the world. It is vain, childish, satirical, and a thorn in the side of all that is self-important, autocratic and blustery. It is especially revered (or reviled) for its constant pokes at religion — all religions — a heritage, perhaps, of France’s age-old hostility towards clerical authority. It was this animus that apparently led to the tragic slaughter of editors and writers on an otherwise peaceful mid-week morning, and the killing of four innocent shoppers at a Jewish market the next day.
A little more than a week later, the world’s media is moving on to the next big story, leaving many, myself included, still trying to figure out what the assault on a satirical weekly publication says about religion, radical Islam, but mostly what it says about France, a country that to most Americans remains an inscrutable puzzle. In this comment, I’m trying to fit some of the pieces together to create a coherent view of this most intriguing nation.
With 66 million people, France is the second largest European country, behind only Germany. Roughtly 10 percent of its population identify themselves as Muslims. There are more Muslims, and Jews, in France than any other country in western Europe. The Muslim population is largely from North Africa — Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia — and live largely in suburban rings (called banlieues) around large cities far away and out of sight of tourists and other residents.
Charlie Hebdo is peculiar to France. It continues a long tradition, dating back at least as far as Voltaire, of the estrangement of ordinary people to all forms of authority, but especially religious orthodoxy. It is decidely not Mad Magazine or the Onion, to which it has been compared; in fact, Charlie Hebdo in France is but one of several satirical publications that love to skewer pomposity and raise the hackles of those in power. It has existed on a shoestring budget and kept alive by a dedicated staff of malcontents — many now dead — who revel in controversy and hard-edged, often scatalogical humor.
The expansion of Muslim immigration into France, and the government’s efforts to force their integration into French society (by, for example, forbidding the wearing of hijab veils by Muslim school girls) appears in retrospect to be symptomatic of a smoldering fire that eventually consumed Charlie Hebdo. As the publication attacked Roman Catholicism, Judaism, and Islam, among many other targets, it infuriated disaffected French Muslims by publishing satirical images of the prophet Muhammed, which for many Muslims is the ultimate insult. We know the rest of the story. If disaffected Islam men and women continue to join or are recruited into terrorist cells that promote violence and nihilism under the banner of “faith,”what is the future for France, Europe, and America?
France itself is in for a period of uncertainty and fear. The government has beefed up security around the country, even as it confronts rising anger from within over what many believe is an incompetent failure to isolate the threat of radical-inspired terrorism. France’s dilemma is ours, and the world’s.
Surprisingly, given Charlie Hedbo‘s predilection to offend, its first cover after the bloodbath was remarkably restrained. The cover depicts a cartoonish Muhammed-like figure holding a Je suis Charlie sign. Above the drawing is a simple but profound statement: “All is Forgiven.”
According to the editor Gerald Biard, the cover is about Charlie Hebdo forgiving Muhammed. “We needed to figure out how to continue laughing and making others laugh. We wanted to analyze, say something about the events,” he said. “This drawing made us laugh.”
Added Zineb El Rhazoui, a Hebdo columnist: “I think that those who have been killed, if they were here, they would have been able to have a coffee today with the terrorists and just talk to them, ask them why they have done this. We feel, as Charlie Hebdo‘s team, that we need to forgive the two terrorists who have killed our colleagues.”
Remarkable. It would be understandable, of course, that anyone who has lost close friends and colleagues through a bloody attack, and who will now need armed security, would react with anger and lash out at the people and the beliefs that propelled the murderous rampage. Yet the new editors of Charlie Hebdo chose a surprisingly different and altogether uniquely French reaction: cheeky forgiveness.
Just back from France, I’m still trying to sort out the range of emotions I feel, in which the delights of a vacation with Will in the City of Light contend with the sorrow of yet another mass murder and the looming threat of more to come. Well, I know what I’m going to do, at least in the short term. Our family is soon going to get a Golden Retriever pup. We’ve gone through dozens of names. I think we’re going to name him Charlie.