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It’s Not Just About Charlie

Examining the broader context of the Paris attacks

By News

The Broader Context of the Paris Attacks


Illustration by Jordan Whitney Martin


[What happened anyway?]

On January 7, staff members of the French satirical weekly paper Charlie Hebdo were the target of a terrorist attack. Two armed men entered the headquarters of the publication and opened fire during an editorial meeting. Twelve people were killed: five cartoonists, an economist, a psychoanalyst and columnist, a protection services agent, a policeman outside, a maintenance worker, a journalist, and an editor.

Protests and solidarity marches quickly followed: on the day of the attacks, no less than 100,000 people flooded the streets of French cities. On Sunday, January 11, an unprecedented national march took place — the largest since the country’s liberation in 1945.

The day following the attacks, two simultaneous hostage crises took place: one at Porte de Vincennes, in Paris, in a Kosher supermarket where 12 people were taken hostage by Amedy Coulibaly, who had himself shot a policewoman to death the night before; the second occurred at Dammartin-en-Goële, not far from the Charles de Gaulle airport, in a printing shop where Saïd and Chérif Kouachi — the perpetrators of the Charlie Hebdo massacre — hid with one hostage. French police launched simultaneous attacks in both locations and killed the three terrorists. Four people from the kosher supermarket died.

The headquarters of Charlie Hebdo had already been attacked in 2011, leaving no casualties but causing severe property damage. Employees were not intimidated and kept on publishing the provocative cartoons for which they are famous. Charb, the editor-in-chief and a cartoonist for Charlie Hebdo, had not only received several death threats, he was under police protection and was targeted by Al Qaeda. In May 2013, he appeared in a list published in Inspire, a jihadist publication, alongside several other people who were all “wanted dead or alive for crimes committed against Islam.”

Several members of the team from Charlie Hebdo originally worked on Hara Kiri, another publication circulating in the 1960s. In 1970, when former French president Charles de Gaulle died, Hara Kiri, inspired by the headline “Tragic Dance in Saint Laurent du Pont: 146 deaths” (a fire in a nightclub had occurred just 10 days before the president’s death) published as their cover “Tragic Dance in Colombey : 1 death.” Their criticism, the weight given to a single man’s death compared to the deaths of more than one hundred others, did not please the government, which banned Hara Kiri. In response, Charlie Hebdo was created.

Charlie Hebdo’s mission was never to make friends; it was to provoke, laugh about everything, and sting harder those who tried to shoo them away.


Illustration by Jordan Whitney Martin


[France, Satire, and the Secular State]

Charlie Hebdo and the drawings published by its editorial team have been strongly criticized by some in America. I believe the authors of those condemnations have missed important elements of French history and humorist culture.

Satire in France tends to be more transgressive than it is in Britain and America, and Charlie Hebdo is not the only torchbearer of this genre. Growing up in France, I have watched Les Guignols de l’Info (The News Clowns or The News Puppets) for as long as I can remember. Broadcast on Canal + (a privately owned channel), Les Guignols de l’Info is a daily satirical news show staged with latex puppets ruthlessly mocking real political and popular figures. Past and present Guignols include Osama bin Laden, the CIA, Marine Le Pen (leader of the French extreme right party), Nicolas Sarkozy, François Hollande, Dominique Strauss Kahn (always represented half-naked with a robe and a cigar), George W.Bush, Kim Jong II, Bashar El-Assad, but also many French footballers, TV Hosts, singers, and actors. Les Guignols is all about satire, caricature, and mocking reports of news and French society. Since its creation in 1988, the show remains immensely popular, and many politicians ironically gained in popularity or at least recognition thanks to it.

Charlie Hebdo is one of the many elements that make up the satirical media landscape in France. Since the attacks of January 7, I have seen, read, and heard many American journalists (and non journalists) reacting negatively to some of the cartoons in Charlie Hebdo. I do
not defend all of the drawings, but I have found that American critics judge French affairs on the basis of American principles. As Andrew O’Hehir pointed out in Slaughter and Satire, an article published on, Charlie Hebdo’s “cartoons and gag lines don’t translate into English particularly well, and there is no precise American parallel.”

France is a secular state and has been since 1905. In France, unlike in the US, even the far right is secular. O’Hehir quipped that “if a devout Mormon tried to run for public office in France, he or she would be laughed off the stage.” Politics and religion do not mix in France. The idea of a president taking an oath on a bible is somewhere between ridiculous and horrifying to me. I went to school where ostentatious signs of religious affiliation were forbidden so as to avoid discrimination based on religion, a law applicable to all public places in France.

It has been argued in the US that Islam and the Muslim community have been targeted by Charlie Hebdo. I firmly believe that most people in the United States who have made such allegations against Charlie Hebdo have never actually read it. It is already difficult to get your hands on a Charlie Hebdo in France (only 45,000 copies are distributed each week), and I doubt that a majority of those self-righteous journalists had ever touched a copy of the paper before diving into their moralizing speeches. I haven’t bought an issue of Charlie Hebdo in years, but when I heard of allegations that it was racist I went through archives of its cover pages. Of 50 covers published between January 28, 2014 and January 7, 2015, five referred to jihad, while nine were about the National Front (a French extreme right party), 10 were about French politicians (Dominique Strauss Kahn, François Fillon), seven were about president François Hollande, seven about social phenomena (opponents to same sex marriage, the ebola virus), four were about Sarkozy, five about popular culture and celebrities (Houellebecq, Nabilla), two about international affairs (the Ukraine conflict), and one mocked the Catholic church.

News sources claiming that Charlie Hebdo is a racist and anti-Muslim publication have typically circulated issue 1166’s cover, which depicts sexual slaves of Boko Haram as welfare queens. Taken literally, this drawing is controversial, offensive, and clearly racist — except that Charlie Hebdo has always been about irony and never about the literal. The imagery implied — pregnant African women protesting against welfare cuts — is divisive because it references a widespread right-wing argument against North African immigrants in France: the idea that they profit from the French welfare system funded by French taxpayers but make no effort to find jobs. A lot of the people in France who start their sentences with “I am not racist, but…” will make this claim. Maybe the French government has been too generous, but the programs were one way to compensate for damages of a colonial past it did not have the courage to address or take responsibility for.

The Boko Haram cartoon also touched upon a sensitive world news event still in development today: the atrocities perpetrated by that terrorist group. With this drawing, Charlie Hebdo was not endorsing racism. It’s not the North African community they were satirizing, but the prejudice and stereotypes that French society ascribes to them.

This image is revelatory of a deep-rooted conflict in France, which is the most worrying issue today — that of the place of the Muslim community and of all the French citizens from North African descent in France. As a French citizen, I am not scared of terrorism, yet I fear its consequences on an already biased perception of Islam, its potential to divide us, and the extreme political discourses it fosters.

Illustration by Jordan Whitney Martin

Illustration by Jordan Whitney Martin

[Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité… almost]

After the attacks on Charlie Hebdo, the far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen, more demagogic than ever, hastened to call for a reestablishment of the death penalty (abolished in 1981). Wallerand de Saint-Just, the national treasurer of that same party, declared in an interview on Al Jazeera that Islam “doesn’t recognize the French principle of secular government” and that “Islam has a tendency to create fanatics more than any other religion. The facts on the ground prove this.” Although it seems to be gaining popularity, the National Front will never win French presidential elections. At least 39% of French people are left wing if we consider the result of the first round of the presidential elections in 2012. If Le Pen became one of the two final candidates in the second round of voting in the presidential elections in 2017, she would lose like her father did in 2002, when his opponent Jacques Chirac garnered 82.21% of votes. Still, as the team at Stratfor Global Intelligence pointed out, the rise of right-wing nationalism in Europe is a reality and is actually a reaction expected, if not hoped for, by the jihadist movements, whose objective is “to get the states to crack down harder on Muslim communities in order to further their narrative that the West is waging war on Islam and Muslims.” Le Pen — along with all the right-wing nationalist leaders — is walking hand-in-hand with the people she is claiming to be against.

I have been living outside of France for the past nine years. During all this time, I have remained involved civically and politically with my country: I vote at presidential elections and listen to France Info every morning. Living abroad has allowed me to take a step back and reflect on Islamophobia, racism, and prejudice against Muslims and/or French people of North African descent. The fact that de Saint-Just could make such a slanderous generalization about Islam without being criticized is distressing. Had he talked in this way about Judaism the consequences would surely have been different.

The night following the killings at Charlie Hebdo, mosques across France were targeted by explosions, gunshots, and racist slogans. Security forces deployed to protect mosques did not appear as extensive or organized as that deployed to protect Jewish citizens in synagogues and schools. In 2013, the Collectif contre l’Islamophobie en France (Collective Against Islamophobia in France) registered a 47 percent rise in islamophobic acts compared to the previous year. Many people criticized Charlie Hebdo claiming that it had double standards and was targeting the Muslim community more than other groups. This is debatable. The fact that France has a double standard when it comes to its own citizens seems more difficult to argue against. There is a banalization in French society of discourse against Muslim and French citizens of North African descent. It is worth noting that not all French citizens of North African descent are practicing Muslims or Muslims at all. Of the five million French people of Muslim heritage, less than two million say they are interested in religion, according to Juan Cole, a professor of Middle Eastern History at the University of Michigan.

Generalizations like de Saint-Just’s and comments like that of Zemmour — a French writer who implied in an interview that French Muslims should be sent back to “their country” — can go unpunished and even receive public approval. At the same time, slanderous comments and generalizations about Jews in France are immediately denounced. Yet I have seen people in France accused of anti-Semitism when they point out the fact that this is a double standard favoring the Jewish community over the Muslim community. This is not about anti-Semitism, it is about the fact that not all French citizens are equally protected against racial and religious prejudice — a prejudice which stems, in my opinion, from France’s strong feeling of guilt toward the Jewish community and its lack of recognition of the oppressive nature of its colonization of North African countries.

France’s role in the holocaust of World War II is recognized, acknowledged, and taught in schools at length and in details. At the age of 14, I learned that France, under Maréchal Pétain, offered assistance to the then-Nazi Germany in sending its Jewish citizens to concentration camps. I learned that we had not yet been defeated by the Nazi regime but decided to join it in a cowardly and horrifying move. As students, we were constantly reminded of what anti-Semitism leads to. I remember the emotion that knowledge provoked in me and thinking my country would do everything to not let something like this happen again.

What I don’t remember from my history classes is the French colonization of North Africa, the Algerian war, and the institutionalized discrimination against North African immigrants in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Nobody talked to me about discrimination in the French colonies or showed me traumatic videos of living conditions under colonial rule or mentioned the Paris massacre of 1961. The French government’s association with the Nazi regime and French decolonization are different, and in the case of the Algerian war, both sides committed atrocities. But as Muhammad el Kahoua, a French student, remarked on Democracy Now, France “refuses to recognize how this colonial legacy continues to shape its relation with Muslims and Islam. [France] is a very racialized society, which pretends to be colorblind and is really haunted by its colonial past.” Thanks to (or because of) Charlie Hebdo, I realize this was true. France needs to sit down with its citizens to talk about its past, or the divides between its people will continue to grow as both sides point to the other’s ambiguous privileges.



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