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Understanding Charlie

Now almost a month after the Charlie Hebdo attacks here in France, things are settling down.  I personally didn't learn about the attacks until the night of Wednesday, 7th. Two Muslim extremists gunned down cartoonists from the Charlie Hedbo newspaper in Paris. The cartoonists targeted were known for controversial political drawings, some depicting the prophet Mohamed.  In total 12 people died, the most violent shooting France has known for over 50 years.

The reaction in France was immediate upon hearing the news. Rallies and vigils were held all over the country and the slogan 'Je suis Charlie' (I am Charlie) was and is still visible everywhere as the public tried to make sense of what happened. The news coverage and commentaries were non-stop.


There have been a lot of comparisons with Sept. 11, and I have to say, the feelings the event provoked were similar to what I felt after Sept. 11. Fear, worry, and unfortunately, a fatalism that also tells me there isn't really anything to do besides hope that we can all be better and kinder to one another in the midst of an event that causes confusion, anger and frustration.

And yet, as a foreigner I've also been able to maintain a certain distance from this event that allows me to look at and try to understand France's reaction.

This is not the first time Europe has seen a reaction to drawings of Mohamed (threats were made to a Danish newspaper in 2005, for example). But the violence and psychological damage of this protest is unique. In my opinion, this conflict is not only about French society reacting to the rise of extremism and terrorist threats. It's about protecting an integral part of French culture, that is, the right to debate.

France prides itself on its secular Republican values, one of which is free speech. But more specifically, based on what we know about the Charlie Hebdo newspaper and its controversial drawings, I think that what was the perceived attack was the right to debate.

The French excel, take pride in, and practice heavily and frequently the art of debate. Whenever there's a subject to be discussed, whether it's political reform or simply something controversial, debate is the means used to make sense of it. Similarly, in a country with a long history of controversial thinkers and writers, debate is woven into the fabric of France's past and present. No matter that this often leads to no particular result or end. It's the very process of debating that's important.

Charlie Hedbo excelled at launching topics for debate with its (sometimes borderline) cartoons.  And apparently the newspaper does not discriminate: Christianity, homosexuality, Judaism, all controversial topics are fair play.

Thus attacking this particular newspaper and these particular artists was an attack on the French right to debate. This is and was perceived as a direct threat to an integral part of French society and French psyche. Clearly people are taking this personally, as the turnout to Sunday Jan. 11 march demonstrates (almost 4 million people all over France).


It's hard to say where things will go from here. Sunday's march for the Republic is at least a hopeful sign that people are finding peaceful and powerful ways to react and express themselves in a time that has thrown confusion and fear into the national mindset. But one thing is clear: the French Republic stands clear in its values, and the right to discuss openly and freely one's opinion in debate or in any form. When this right is attacked, French people take it personally. 

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