A belgian national residing in France for the past 15 years, I thought it might be interesting to write about what is going on here from a personal viewpoint. This might even get read by my English-speaking friends on the social web, and it’s a good exercise anyway!
This is definitely not a digest of current french affairs, nor an exercise in french-bashing, and neither is it done in support of any political group or institution.
Let’s start this with the recent and hugely talked-about episode of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris on January 7th, and the mass-media hysteria and political breast-beating that ensued.
The famous french satirist Pierre Desproges once said: “one can laugh about anything, but not with anybody”. This I take as a cornerstone of humour in a country where there still exists some degree of freedom of speech (take a look at this article from the Middle East Monitor for a more sober view on french freedom of speech). Yes, here we can joke and make caricatures about a number of subjects that may hurt some peoples feelings, but if you try it with the wrong folks you should expect all kinds of troubles.
That is what happened on January 7th at the Charlie Hebdo HQ in Paris: according to what we are told, the Kouachi brothers avenged the caricatures of the Prophet. Everybody was scandalised, calling it an outrageous and vile attacks on the values of the Republic and on free speech… but wait: Islam forbids pictures of the Prophet, and Islamists are well-known for having zero sense of humour and scant little respect for human life, so what did they expect? In fact that is exactly what was expected, as the Charlie Hebdo building had police stationned full-time at its door and some caricaturists had bodyguards. Which didn’t help, unfortunately.
But what really unsettled everybody was the fact that the 3 killers were not infiltrated islamic kamikaze commandos but French nationals, raised here, schooled here. The ennemi within. And an apparent failure by french institutions to instill basic tolerance and freedom of speech values into those heads – of which there are probably a lot more around.
So with the resulting mass demonstrations of over 4 million people wearing “Je suis Charlie” T-shirts, pins or billboards, with the press going ballistic about “defending our values” and “freedom of speech”, and at the same time with the government jailing kids who dared say that the Charlie Hebdo caricaturists “had asked for it” (which also goes on to show how much of a myth french freedom of speech really is), and with politicians promoting Patriot Act- style reductions in public liberty, I got somewhat worried that this event was going to be abused the same way the US governement abused the 9/11 event to move big time towards a prison state. This was not lost on everybody, as this drawing shows:
“Over there! I see one that is not Charlie”
Add to that the invitations, to the grand January 11 march in Paris, of civil rights ennemies the likes of Ali Bongo and Viktor Orban, as well as representatives of Russia, Algeria, Turkey, Egypt and you have a serious event turn into a farce. A lot of the 4 million people who walked the streets of Paris and other towns that day in support of freedom of speech, strongly dissociated themselves from the hypocrisy of the official ceremony. To make things worse, Mr Netanyahou arrived in time to fuel the angst of French Jews in the context of – supposedly – rising antisemitism within the French population – and especially from the Muslim minority. As a result, Aliyah is currently a booming business! Wikipedia states that
In January 2015, events such as the Charlie Hebdo shooting and Porte de Vincennes hostage crisis created a shock wave of fear across the French Jewish community. As a result of these events, the Jewish Agency planned an aliyah plan for 120,000 French Jews who wish to make aliyah.
The Charlie Hebdo fallout has acted like a luminous probe into the French political and media system, and that is really the most interesting aspect of it for an observer. At this point there are three crucial concepts to understand:
One is the concept of “laïcité” or secularity, which comes down to the idea that everyone is entitled to follow any religion he/she wishes, but religious activity has to remain private and the State (and all its representatives and institutions) have to remain religion-neutral. This is a major heritage of the French Revolution and a pillar of French society – at least in theory.
The second is the concept of “assimilation”, which implies that migrants to France are supposed to become French-like over time: speak the language, integrate within French secular society, share basic values such as freedom of speech and gender equality, etc..
The third is that of freedom of speech, which basically means you can say anything that is not forbidden by law, including mockery that stays short of defamation.
All three of these basic tenets of French society have been seriously eroded by the political and media system over the past few decades, despite the deafening clamours to the contrary. The slow erosion process of these fundamental values (values to which I fully adhere) were put under the spotlight in the Charlie Hebdo aftermath, showing the extent of the damage.
On the media side, a first thing to note is that, according to the annual rating of press freedom by Reporters sans Frontières, the ranking for France in 2014 was 39 out of 180… Which is really bad in view of its incessant self-promotion as the cradle of human rights … The UK ranks at 33, the USA at 46, and Israël at 96… Within the EU, the only countries ranking below France are Italy (49) and Hungary (64). So much for France being the epitomy of freedom of speech. The media are, for the most part, owned by powerful corporate moguls and most benefit from state subsidies. The state-sponsored radio stations such as France Inter, whilst generally of good quality, have anchors such as Patrick Cohen and Nicolas Demorand who keep the game well within the politically-correct boundaries, ie: you can say anything you want as long as you stay within the frame set by the powers-that-be.
Question anything that lies outside “official truth” and you get labelled a “conspirationnist” or worse, and experience immediate media obliteration. Which has led to hilarious orwelian-speak with many an interviewee stating his or her full allegiance to freedom of speech but at the same time condemning any form of (even intellectual) support for the islamists, any form of critique against Jews, not “being Charlie” and so on. Swimming in hypocrisy.
The fact that some kids in Muslim environements were saying that they were not Charlie and that the guys at Charlie Hebdo had asked for it (punishment) was greeted with horror, as the failure of the school system to properly “educate” these kids, completely missing the point that the schools have little to do with it. It is in good part the hypocritical stance of the French government, in Libya and Syria in particular, that leads to such defiance. France destroyed Libya for the sake of protecting then-president Sarkozy from dammaging revelations (with evidence presented by on-line french journal Mediapart) about his election campaing being financed by then-leader Mouammar Kadhafi, who was summarily executed at the end of that short war. Syria’s Bachar el-Assad is labelled as some great Satan but people going to Syria to (presumably) fight him are arrested and jailed here. Add to this no real culture of their own, no real education, no real future, no trust in institutions for some thousands of Muslims and the surprising thing is that we’re not seeing a lot more violence.
On the political side, we have one big trouble-maker in the name of Prime Minister Manuel Valls whose specialties are dividing his own (supposedly socialist) ranks, and playing a dangerous game with the concepts of secularism and equality. I won’t get into the first aspect here as it is irrelevent to this story, but the second aspect is very relevant. A migrant himself from Spain, whose father fought against Franco, he presents himself as a stern defender of cherished values of Freedom, Equality and Fraternity. But at the same time he adds fuel to the fire of communautarism by promoting the Jews as being at the “forefront of the Republic” (Valls is married to a well-known Jewish musician and very close to the French Jewish community), which is just a polite way of saying that non Jews – and especially Muslims, given the current context – are nowhere near the forefront. He has also stated that anti-Zionism and antisemitism are one and the same thing, so that anti-Zionist statements should be considered under law the same way that antisemitic (or racist) statements are. They are definitely not the same, and the reknown linguist Noam Chomsky has said that to equate the two terms is just a way for Zionists to silence criticism of Israelian politics.
Last year Valls got into a personal vendetta against satirist Dieudionné for supposedly anti-semitic and racist allegations and calls to violence throughout his shows. These shows are not for the faint-harted but no violence has been reported during or after the shows, and one fails to see why Charlie Hebdo’s trash caricatures are “good” and Dieudonné’s trash jokes are “bad”. Hypocrisy, again, from a politician running on hype. Things changed recently as the State Counsel (France’s highest jurisdiction), which closed down Dieudonné’s show in January 2014 at Manuel Valls’s request, overturned that decision in February 2015. It just became impossible for the Counsel to maintain such a flagrant attack on freedom of speech againt one satirist when the whole country was marching for, and the State pledging money for, the preservation of a satirist journal…
I do not know whether Manuel Valls is doing all this on purpose or if he’s just plain stupid. The fact is that, after an initial rise in opinion polls following his strong-looking stance in the Charlie Hebdo aftermath (as also happened to François Hollande), his constant hyping and provocative attitude is starting to cost him dearly. And more generally, the initial good feelings of people, politicians and police comming together in some sort of sacred republican union after the shootings, is now fast flying out of the window just a few days before the first electoral contest since those events. A contest which the socialist party (represented by the likes of François Hollande and Manuel Valls) is set to loose to the (even more ridiculous) UMP conservative party headed by none other than Nicolas Sarkozy, recent winner of the Best Political Liar contest run by a grand jury of fact-checking specialists. Or they may lose to the far-right National Front party, in strong position but of which I’ll rant about another time.
To conclude this chronicle, what I think the Charlie Hebdo “probe” into french politics and media show is how much the intelligensia (those invited to speak and write in recognised media, from politicians to philosophers, journalists to writers, scientists to artists) is trapped between a cultural need to promote the likes of secularism, freedom of speech, respect of civil liberties on the one hand, and the barriers of political hypocrisy on the other. You cannot have freedom of speech if you are only allowed to defend the point of view of the establishment, or if you keep voting laws that constrain it. You cannot have secularism if you promote some communities over others. Unchecked hypocrisy by politicians, absurd foreign policies in the Middle East, add up as benefit to the establishment’s supposed ennemies.