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Je ne suis pas Charlie : Charlie Hebdo Attacks, Media coverage and Postcolonial France

January 12, 2015

#JeNeSuisPasCharlie

Wednesday morning 2 gunmen with automatic weapons entered the headquarters of satirist weekly Charlie Hebdo in Paris, killing 9 employees and collaborators, injuring others and then shooting deadly 2 policemen before fleeing. They were finally being killed by police forces on Friday afternoon. Since then, the national and international press have been dealing extensively with this terrible attack, while Thursday and Friday a third armed individual killed a policewoman and took several hostages in a kosher supermarket of Paris (killing 4 customers), resulting in a total of 20 victims in 3 days (including the 3 assailants). The media coverage is still intensive, as throughout the last days spectacular police operations were launched and that an estimated 3.5 million people marched on Sunday. In the immediate aftermaths, the media has mainly dealt with these events in 3 directions: their “origins” (portraits of the alleged killers, of their supposed link to Al-Qaeda, and the so-called extremist islamists’ hatred of freedom), the tributes and hagiographic portrayals of some of the victims (the most famous journalists) and what to do next (from “national mourning” to “defending freedom”). Most opinion leaders, editors and politicians who took the floor since Wednesday noon have called and sometimes organised public gatherings in order to express solidarity with the victims and support of freedom of speech. Of dramatic importance is the on-going, continuous call to the French Muslim community to join these gatherings and publicly display their sadness and horror. What we can say about all these that is, as far as I can tell, rather absent from the mainstream media and that is crucial to understand, is how worrying the situation is not only in France, but also elsewhere in Western Europe, regarding islamophobia and racism.

In Germany for a few weeks, thousands anti-Muslims protesters have been gathering in Dresden and other cities. The xenophobic and islamophobic movement Pegida is gaining support. In Italy, in addition to the well-known hatred rhetoric of the Northern League, asylum seekers and refugees had been recently targeted in Florence or in Rome. In Greece, the Golden Dawn and its supporters still enjoy a high level of sympathies, even if they do not make the headlines of the European press anymore. And in France, the extreme right under Marine Le Pen’s tutelage have largely won the 2014 elections, both emerging as a local force (more than 11 cities have now National Front or affiliates mayors) and reaching high scores in the European Parliament elections. Racial tensions are palpable and, the French Muslim community is under constant scrutiny, if not accusation. From questioning how patriotic the football players from the national team are to the coverage of the demonstration in solidarity with the attacks on Gaza last summer, to the last days’ media coverage of the shootings and attack at Charlie Hebdo and of a kosher grocery store which ended up in bloodbaths on Friday. I would like here to analyse in more details this media coverage and what is expected now from “good French citizens”, because sadness and grief should not prevent us from thinking critically about whose, and how, allegiance to the French Republic and its flag is asked for.

Less than one hour after the attacks started on Wednesday morning at Charlie Hebdo, President François Hollande came to the weekly headquarters, displaying his presidential strength and virile power by condemning vehemently what he framed as “terrorist acts”. Although parts of the shootings had been recorded with a witness’ cellphone, the police had not been able to identify any suspects before the middle of the night. Yet Hollande and his government seemed to already know, and the journalists from the main French newspapers followed their words: they immediately attributed, without a lot of cautionary precautions, the attacks to “extreme islamists”, although no claim were being made. Reporters explicitly linked them to the threats received by some of the cartoonists and to their on-going publications of (offensive) caricatures, within minutes after the attacks. The government was unable, as the attackers were fleeing, to determine if they were 2 or 3, yet they appeared to know the attackers’ motives well enough to go public. On Thursday already, the names, photographs and “criminal curriculum” of the labeled terrorists, the Kouachi brothers, were all over the news. Inflation of words in the media and on the social networks assimilated these attacks to the most violent actions carried out in Europe, forgetting conveniently that white-supremacists and Non-Muslims are actually responsible for the most tragic terrorist actions led in Europe these last years -in terms of death tolls-, such as the shootings of Anders Breivik, in which 77 people died and the 85 victims of the bombings in Bologna in 1980 by the Italian extreme right. My point here is not to engage in a ranking of horrors and killings, but it is important to keep the facts.

Also in a very rapid way, within hours after the first shootings, all mainstream newspapers started to pay an emotional tribute to the courage of the brave French journalists, killed in defence of freedom of speech. That they never worked outside Paris was somehow forgotten into them turning into martyrs of secularism and of free speech: journalists been killed overseas while doing their jobs to relay information in places torn out by war are being subject to a lesser emotion sympathy. As some of the victims were veteran cartoonists (three among them were in their 70’s), older portrayals were republished, along with their best works. It was not until late at night and the following morning that the media started to be slightly interested in the other employees of Charlie Hebdo killed that morning. Class, race and gender appeared again to exert influence here as among these unspoken-for dead were a male janitor, a male guest contributor, a female contributor and the foreign-born language editor, to be contrasted with the 70+ white heterosexual bourgeois male and Parisian residents whose faces were all over the news. Before Wednesday night, even the names of these “lesser important” victims had remained unknown. The two male policemen shot by the attackers on Wednesday were also spoken about on the social network, but it took the main newspapers half a day to publish their names. On Thursday and Friday, two other attacks were led in the South of Paris, by an individual who allegedly claimed links with the Charlie Hebdo killings, resulting in 6 new deaths (the assailant, a policewoman and four customers of the Kosher supermarket attacked). The names of the other “civilian” victims were until Saturday morning not mentioned.

These last days, the main French newspapers have compared the events to a “French 9/11” (Le Monde), headlining on the “Murdered Freedom” (Le Figaro) and are now calling to “Resist” (Libération), making of the last days the “3 days of unmatched violence” (Libération). On Libération, gloomy research was made to determine to when the most deadly bombings before these attacks dated back. In between factual approximations (yes, in recent history there have been more violent events in France : such as the more than 200 Algerian workers been drowned in the Seine River in Paris on October the 17th 1961) and the over-reaching call to “resistance” (against what? Against who?), the traditional media are competing with Twitter users to find the most catchy sentence. The level of emotional stress is also visible on the social networks, where the hashtags “Charlie Hebdo” and “Je suis Charlie” (I am Charlie) are going viral. Politicians are fuelling the newsreel with catching sentences and symbolic actions such as the making of “Charlie Hebdo” honorary citizen of the city of Paris (unanimous decision voted on the Paris city council as early as Friday morning). Although Charlie Hebdo is a private corporation, whose aim is to make money, the weekly has now been adopted as a “person”, a nice and funny human being killed by monsters from the dark ages. Here it is interesting to see how beyond the murdered individuals, what is being celebrated is an economic and ideological entity. Comments on online newspapers and on the social networks are filled with senior French respectable citizens who expressing how “Charlie” is going to be missing in their lives. If grieving dead people is perfectly understandable, this rise in the personification raises serious issues on one’s identification with a satirist newspaper, all the sudden representing French culture and art-de-vivre. The current praise for its provocative and often offensive tone shows how deeply patriotic feelings are connected to the self-identification with fellow nationals, and same race-members, at an extremely large extent. Curiously, no one seems to recall that “Charlie”’s drawing were often deeply misogynist and homophobic, displaying the fact of being sexually penetrated/sodomised as the most humiliating act possible. Charlie Hebdo’s religious irreverence was often surfing on-for the sakes of sales- and contributing to- the French climate of deep islamophobia. This of course does not mean the attacks were anyhow legitimate, but that self-identification should be questioned. Therefore, some voices are starting to dissent, with the more critical “I am not Charlie” message, while, of course, still condemning the murders.

First interrogation revolves around the weight and dramatisation of these events. 20 losses of lives are always tragic, therefore there is no need to dramatise the attacks more than they already are. For instance, is there a point in comparing the recent events with the 2992 losses of 9/11 as the French media does? The question came only Saturday night, and not from any mainstream newspapers. Again, without entering a sickening competition, the point is also very well raised by researcher and blogger Mathias Delori. Does it even make sense to then completely forget to report the Nigerian bombings (around 200 casualties), occurring at the same time, on the very same day? Not to mention, summarising Delori’s point, that non-Western deaths (in Syria, in Mali, where the French military has been actively engaged for more than a year, for instance) are just not part of the equation. Again, it seems that White men, especially living in supposedly safe Paris, are triggering more empathy: 148 women died from domestic violence in 2012 on French territory, without much of public outcry. The dozens victims of police violence, whose names were put forward by grass-roots activists following the Ferguson mobilisation in the United States have been largely forgotten by the mainstream media and do not seem to deserve collective mourning. Unlike what many have written, the attack on journalists is not alone responsible for the emotional wave: around 15 news reporters have died in Syria in 2014, again without such a collective morning. I think here the location of the killings, in the city-center of a Western country, actually explains a lot, because as it is/was a supposed “safe place” (again, even more so for French nationals, straight and white men). Even among the 20 lives lost in the last days, some seem to be more valuable than others, as the uneven media coverage show. There would not be many to publicly mourn the death of the 3 assailants, although, in spite of their alleged terrible acts, they would have deserved a fair trial.

How and why has this specific series of violent and tragic actions triggered such an emotional reaction? How come that the French citizens reached so quickly that state of emotional involvement and are answering the call for national unity by governing parties that were fiercely disliked a few days ago? As Delori reminds us, the works of Judith Butler on selective mourning, based on her experience in post 9/11 United States, help us to understand how years of patriotic discourses have shaped our sense of identification and what the gender, class, race and religion, and sexuality components of these selective mourning and compassion are.

The second sets of issues to discuss is directly linked to the patriotic unleash described above and revolves around the unasked question of the failure of the French State. The French government and its police seemed to have failed to protect what they are supposed to stand for, in spite of a heavy arsenal of regulations and surveillance policies. Many politicians are also in addition paying tributes to the armed forces that killed the attackers. Numerous questions are left aside though. No earlier than January the 1st of this year, a decree has been passed by the services of the French Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, that severely reduced possibilities of anonymity on the web. All our electronic communications can now be checked by the police forces, on a mere suspicion basis. The same Prime Minister has also declared as early as Friday that probably new security measures would be necessary, paving the way for even more repressing policies. Until now, no voice has questioned a potential mishandling of the situation by police officials. It is not asked how come a newspaper, already under police protection, could be attacked. No one questions that the police forces had hearings and pictures of the alleged killers, yet raided the wrong apartment in Gennevilliers, near Paris, on Wednesday night because that (poor) person in Gennevilliers had by misfortune the same name but no link whatsoever with the suspects. On Friday, when the police forces told the journalists, via Twitter, to relay only the information they were giving them and to stop covering their operations, they (almost) all obeyed, without anyone crying out to defend “freedom of speech or freedom of press”. To a wider extent, the question of how policies carried on both inside and outside the French territory by the French government are responsible for the systemic racism, islamophobia, antisemitism within France, and for the world’s instability and armed violence is also not part of any editorials of the mainstream press.

Third, and most important, is how the situation presents itself for Muslims living in France. To mark people’s solidarity with the victims of these recent attacks, gatherings and marches are organised throughout the French Territory, most of them by the officials of the currently in office Socialist Party. The National Front, received at the Presidential Palace, is participating (albeit without flags) in these marches. Discourses are flourishing on how France needs a radical solution to protect its “values”. The messages on the need to defend so-called “French/Western values” extends of course beyond National Front affiliates. Let us be reminded briefly that the “French values” were under attack way before Wednesday morning with a few facts regarding the current standards, starting with the + 50 % rising of homeless people since 2011 (égalité), the more than 30 000 per year deportations of so-called “illegal” immigrants (fraternité) and the fact that more than 1% of the French population has enjoyed at least one day of preventive detention in 2012 (liberté).

Opinion leaders and politicians are now explicitly asking French Muslims to join these marches, to mourn with them, to support freedom of speech, even if it means walking side by side with National Front members and other radicalised groups that attacked, in an almost complete media silence, 3 mosques on Thursday alone (a dozen of other “incidents”, from physical abuse to threats to racist graffiti on other mosques, were reported since throughout French territory). Some torn exemplars of the Koran at the massive gathering in Paris on Wednesday. Even if it means walking at the side of the politicians and governing bodies that are responsible for fuelling anti-Muslim hatred and for anti-Muslim laws (such as the very strictly applied 2004 ban on the veil in schools), insulting, despising their believes, their parents, their kin. Even if it means marching with editors from the left who titled the “barbarians” (L’Humanité, Saturday), drawing on a colonial imaginary of the fight between Civilization and Barbary. Even if it means marching with a larger group of white, respectable French citizens, constantly scrutinising how sincere their mourning is, how deeply hurt they are feeling, and how good and loyal they are going to be now. Could they anyhow display enough grief as to be sure to erase suspicion that they are not accomplices of these attacks? Matteo Renzi, Angela Merkel and François Hollande announced that are going to march together in Paris on Sunday. They were joined by more than 40 other heads of State, sometimes from country where freedom of press is simply a joke. As for me, marching with these three (Renzi, Merkel, Hollande), who are imposing austerity politics that are actually crippling and ending the lives of millions of people (for instance by degrading massively public health care) and enforcing border polices that also kill thousands of refugees every year, is too much to ask.

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