A dozen victims at a French newspaper, plus four hostages killed in a kosher grocery store: In France, it feels like the world is coming to an end. This was not just an attack on a small magazine and on Jewish people shopping before Shabbat, but an attack on a way of life that a billion people believe in from the bottom of their hearts: democracy. The attack came as France was suffering from an economic crisis, from the inefficiency of its institutions, from the conservatism of its population and from the presence among its population of a few thousand people who are closer to Al Qaeda than to the values of the republic.
Charlie Hebdo, in whose offices the first killings occurred, is a small satirical weekly in perpetual financial crisis that has as its mission to publish cartoons violently critical of everything and anybody. Muslims are not the only targets of its cartoonists’ derision; far from it. Jews, Christians, Jesus, French presidents — everybody has taken their share of ridicule. Charlie is not anti-Islam, but rather pro-freedom. In France, its humor falls fairly flat, yet nobody in their right mind would complain. The only people who take the cartoons seriously are, precisely, the Islamists. In 2011, Charlie’s staff produced an issue titled “Charia Hebdo” (after the name of the Islamic law), about the Islamists winning the Tunisian elections. This was, according to Charlie, a failure. Opposed to any kind of religious belief, Charlie asserted that the only good future must be secular. For expressing this opinion, its offices were burned down by Islamists, and, since then, its journalists have lived under constant threat.
Jeannette Bougrab, a French lawyer and politician and the longtime companion of Charlie’s editor, Stephane Charbonnier — who was among those killed on Jan. 7 — declared on the French television channel BFMTV: “He foresaw that his fate would be the same as Theo Van Gogh’s.” Van Gogh, a Dutch filmmaker, was assassinated in 2004 in the most horrible way by a Muslim network because his movie “Submission” dealt with the violence against women in some Islamist societies.
“Without its Jews, France would not be France.”
– French Prime Minister Manuel Valls
In response to the killings and those at the kosher market, massive demonstrations were held on Jan. 11 throughout Europe and in Canada (for a story on a Los Angeles rally, see P. 29). Some 3.7 million people in France turned out for peaceful shows of solidarity, of which an estimated 1.2 million to 1.5 million were in Paris. They held up flags and banners stating, “I am Charlie.” The families of the victims walked first, followed by French President Francois Hollande and then heads of state and institutions. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was there, as was Mahmoud Abbas, chairman of the Palestinian Liberation Organization — both men in the front row, but separated by four people. King Abdullah II of Jordan was present with his wife, Rania, as was Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, who supports the Palestinians. No U.S. officials were present.
Many former presidents and personalities of the French administration were there, regardless of their party affiliation. Nicolas Sarkozy came with his wife, Carla Bruni. Just one person of note did not get an official invitation: Marine Le Pen, president of the extreme right party the National Front (NF). She held a separate meeting.
Also on Sunday, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls declared that “without its Jews, France would not be France.” Valls has been particularly outspoken on the anti-racist front. The son of an immigrant Spanish couple, he is married to a Jewish violinist, Anne Gravoin. Following the demonstration, a memorial service took place at La Victoire, the main synagogue of Paris, attended by Jewish personalities; as well as Hollande, Netanyahu and Sarkozy; and by Cardinal André Vingt-Trois, the archbishop of Paris; and Muslim leaders.
The attack on Charlie Hebdo occurred on a Wednesday morning during the journal’s weekly staff meeting. Two men wearing hoods burst in, asking by name for Charbonnier, using his nickname “Charb,” then killed him and all the others. The gunmen shouted, “Allahu Akbar” (God is great) and announced: “You will pay, because you insulted the prophet.” Among French citizens, there are believed to be many more such young Muslims ready to kill.
Is it reasonable to publish cartoons that cause so much trouble? The problem got its start in late 2005, when a dozen cartoons criticizing the prophet Muhammad were published by the Danish daily newspaper Jyllands-Posten. Conceived by the cartoonist Kurt Westergaard, they provoked an uproar in the Islamic world. One of the cartoons showed the prophet wearing a turban in the shape of a bomb. In 2010, Muhudiin Mohamed Geeles, a 29-year-old Danish-Somali man, armed with an ax, tried to murder Westergaard. He was sentenced to nine years in jail in 2011. Those same cartoons were republished in France by Charlie Hebdo.
The fact is, though, that most Europeans follow the sentiments of the famous quote often questionably attributed to Voltaire: “I hate what you are saying, but I shall fight so that you are able to say it.” The ability of the readers to choose what they should view should be trusted, they believe. In the case of Charlie, their verdict was clear, yet, it is a fact that Charlie’s readers were so few that without this crime, the paper might well have died amid general indifference.
How many Muslims live in France? It is unclear. According to statistics, maybe 4.2 million or maybe 6 million — in terrified Jewish circles, people speak of the unrealistic figure of 10 million — amid a total French population of 66 million. Most of these Muslims wish only to live in peace and integrate into the general population. But in spite of billions of francs and euros poured into helping them, it is a well-known fact that their integration has not been very successful. Ought it have been doable? You do not write history twice. The French Republic was generous to them, allowing them over time to bring, as well, their wives and children, who could live off Social Security if they didn’t have a job. What must be understood is that some of these immigrants were brought to France initially in the 1960s, during “The Glorious Thirty” years, the prosperous three decades following World War II, to do low-paying jobs that the French did not want; the Arab immigrants never felt at home, never belonged, lived isolated in ghettos, and accumulated handicaps and hate.
France has assimilated many populations over the last century: the Jews from Eastern Europe, Italians, Russians, Spaniards running away from political persecution and/or poverty. But the Arabs were different. They came later, and most came from countries that had been under French colonial rule for 150 years. Some of them were parked in the outskirts of Paris, in Nanterre, living on the streets in miserable conditions, in tiny tents made of bits of metal and canvas. But above those indecent shelters, they were, nevertheless, connected to the rest of the world via a forest of television and telephone antennas. The French did not comprehend, in those early days, how much these immigrants resented the French domination, including attending schools where the French flag was raised each morning, and they were taught all about “our ancestors the Gallics” — who were, of course, ancestors of the French, not their own. True, much of this population had no schools at all before these. But honor, it is well known, is more important than bread, and probably also more than schooling.
This immigrant population was finally moved to more decent housing. But some never learned proper French; they failed in school, belonged nowhere. When the economic crisis came, and there was not the slightest hope of employment, many turned to crime. Or not, but they became religious. Islam was their banner. They traveled to Mecca in droves. Even when the parents were able to get by, the children weren’t always. Twenty years ago, there was a peaceful Muslim man in the neighborhood of Montparnasse who sold newspapers. Everybody loved him. Suddenly, he disappeared. His son, age 20, the eldest of seven children, had convinced the housekeeper of France’s minister of justice, who lived around the corner, to conspire with him in an assassination plot.
France is also home to the largest Jewish population in Europe. “As happy as God in France,” a Yiddish saying goes. But God, at least the Jewish God, might not be so happy anymore. There were 600,000 Jews 30 years ago; today there may be as few as 500,000. Some of the Jewish community has dissolved by conversion and assimilation, but many people have also left, going to Israel or to other countries, Canada and the United States being the favorites. The problem is not the French government, which is impeccably anti-anti-Semitic. The problem is the growing Muslim presence, and their hatred, largely focused on Israel. The Muslims of this generation don’t speak Arabic anymore, hardly know their countries of origin, don’t have a real Islamic culture, don’t understand what is hitting them; all they know is that Israel is their arch enemy.
France has experienced the largest number of hate crimes in Europe. Everybody recalls the story of Ilan Halimi, the 23-year-old Jewish man tortured to death in 2006, and of the killings in 2012 at a Jewish school in Toulouse. Racism occurs in France all the time, and the police do not always make the incidents public so as not to encourage more.
Of course, Islamic terrorism exists throughout Europe, and, every single day, experts on Muslim questions publish papers about the extremists, young people who often have European citizenship and yet join Islamic groups to wage the jihad (holy war). Thousands have left to enlist with the Islamic State and various rebel groups in Syria.
According to experts, those who join the jihad generally fall into one of two categories: the romantics, who see war and sacrifice as something that might put panache into their gloomy lives; and those who simply want to kill, and find in jihad a rationale and opportunity to do so.
Yet, some of these aspiring warriors quickly discover that war is uncomfortable, or that the terrorist groups don’t treat them well enough, or don’t give them responsibilities — and they return to France to lie low. Others have come back to wage jihad in their countries of origin. “Never have the European democracies been faced with such a diffuse and massive phenomenon,” an article in the French newspaper Le Monde reported in its coverage following the recent terror. The police fear these returners and seem to be able to keep track of them. It took very little time to identify the murderers of Charlie Hebdo: Said Kouachi, 34, who was also known by the American police, and his brother Cherif, 32.
Each time a crime is committed by a Muslim in France, it reinforces the conviction among many French that Islam is the origin of most evil. And it reinforces the standing of FN leader Le Pen. On the day of the killings, she, like everyone else, appeared on France’s TV news: “We have to feel free to talk about the Islamist terrorists,” she said. “We must know to differentiate between them and the law-abiding French Muslim citizens who want to belong, but that should not lead us to inertia.” She was the only politician to directly address the problem, as the issue of racism is considered absolutely politically incorrect among French politicians. Following Le Pen’s remarks, Francoise Atlan, a longtime member of the Jewish religious organization the Consistoire, called her “presidential.”
Most members of the Jewish community, however, fear the possibility of Le Pen winning in France’s next presidential elections. When she succeeded her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, as the head of their party, she made efforts to clean up its act in order to gain respect and credibility. Anti-Semitism was banned. When this reporter asked a number of French-Jewish intellectuals whether they believe the FN has sincerely changed, the answer was, superficially, yes, but most of the party remains attached to the spirit of Jean-Marie Le Pen, who once called the Nazi gas chambers “a mere detail” of history.
The chances of Marine Le Pen winning the 2017 presidential elections are still fairly slim. On one hand, her economic proposal to leave the euro zone would ruin the country, and most of her potential constituency is aware of that. On the other hand, she is not yet quite so prim and proper that she has attracted enough people to form a cabinet. But she is on track, and she is the only new entry into the political landscape: The Socialist Party has been mired in such economic disaster that their successes, such as legalizing gay marriage, go unnoticed or are highly disapproved of by a large part of the population. For their part, the chiefs of the right-wing Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) are permanently at war. Sarkozy, the former president of France and now head of the UMP, is dealing with 10 different lawsuits, including for corruption.
In the wake of 9/11, the United States knows better than any other country about Islamist jihad waged on the Western word. This world, our world, believes collectively in democracy, in freedom of expression, in the rule of law. Everything that is not unlawful is permitted, including things such as gay rights, free sex and disrespectful words. It is even more true in the U.S., where everything is permitted except the burning of the American flag, whereas in France, any expression of racism and/or anti-Semitism is illegal and can be prosecuted.
We tend to forget that this freedom is a fairly recent phenomenon. Not such a long time ago, not everybody was equal in front of the law. Jews were non-citizens, with no legal rights, until the end of the 18th century, and much later in other parts of Europe. The consequences for not belonging to the official religion were serious, even deadly. Homosexuality was severely repressed, at least for the have-nots. Jean Valjean, the hero of “Les Misérables,” is based on a real person who, in 1801, was sentenced to five years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread.
But our civilization has made great progress, and the Western world now preaches peace, human rights, tolerance and all sorts of nice things. This reversal can appear ironic, maybe not among the general public, but certainly in the minds of people who view us with some objective distance. Among those is Regis Debray, a philosopher who once supported Che Guevara and Salvador Allende, and who writes in a melancholy essay called “What Is Left of the Western World”: “Even if the late conversion of the colonizers — long in favor of napalm, of torture and of forced workmanship — to the religion of law brings a smile on the face of many of the colonized, there is a unanimous acceptance of the attitude.”
From within the U.S., it is difficult to appreciate how much the Western way of life is seen with disapproval by large sections of the world — by the Islamists, of course, but also much of Russia, of whose population of 142 million only 12 percent are Westernized peoples. The Western world dominated large parts of the world for 500 years. For a brief moment, after the fall of the Soviets, it was most of the world. This gave the West the opportunity to make many enemies, and of those, the most bitter and relentless currently are the Islamists, who trace the origin of their enmity all the way back to the Crusades.
In human memory, some things last forever.
Francoise Skurman is a French-Jewish journalist who lived and worked in Paris until 15 years ago, when she moved to San Francisco.