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Artillery Row

Where all the brave words went after #JeSuisCharlie

Charlie Hebdo has not brought out the best in anyone

It was a gloomy, frosty day, that 8th of January 2015. At the gate of the lycée where I was then teaching, the blue, white and red flag is lowered on the mast. A heavy, awkward silence weighed upon my students’ faces. Eight members of Charlie Hebdo had been killed the day before. One of my students, aged sixteen, wrote on his forearm, with a pen, the blue ink fading on the reddened skin: ‘Je Suis Charlie’. This was soon to be the year’s motto.

The Charlie Hebdo attacks marked a twist in France’s attitude towards free speech. It did not come from nowhere. Since 2006 and the publication of caricatures representing Mohamed, Charlie Hebdo was frequently taken to task for its anticlericalism and islamophobia. In 2011, an arson attack damaged Charlie Hebdo’s headquarters. 20 people, among whom was the intersectional-afro-feminist Rokhaya Diallo, signed a collective opinion column entitled: ‘In favour of Free Speech, Against supporting Charlie Hebdo.’ Diallo retracted her words after the more murderous attacks.

To be or not to be Charlie, that was the question then, and in many ways strangely foreshadows where we are now. Take what Roxane Gay wrote in The Guardian, for example, on 12th January 2012: ‘If ‘Je ne suis pas Charlie’, am I a bad person? Nuance gets lost in groupthink.’ That was something a respectable person could ask after the slaughter of Charlie Hebdo’s journalists then: it is not, one suspects, a respectable question which could be voiced about Black Lives Matter, for instance, in that paper today.

The libertarian writer Virginie Despentes wrote about her feelings towards the murderers in an open letter for Liberation : ‘Je les ai aimés dans leur maladresse – quand je les ai vus armes à la main semer la terreur en hurlant “on a vengé le prophète.” [‘I have loved them in their clumsiness, when I saw them, weapons in hand, spreading terror and screaming “we have avenged the prophet”.]

Needless to say the January 2015 attacks turned a few tables. There was a striking feeling of community in fear and victimhood. People who never opened the satirical newspaper hashtagged #JeSuisCharlie; some others – Muslims and Catholics alike – put aside their dislike of the newspaper’s trademark bad taste and offensiveness. On the 10th and 11th of January 2015, 4.4 million people in France and more than 100 000 worldwide marched down the streets. All were, for a moment, Charlie. Anyone who did not partake in the national mourning was an outcast; or rather, words of dissent only came from people who were already, by 2015 standards, cancelled. Names of the outcast included: Dieudonné, the polemical humorist who stands consistently in favour of all the minorities – except the Jews; his former ally Alain Soral, spokesman of a radical anarchist right-wing; and later, after the Bataclan attacks, Gabriel Matzneff, whose name has been erased from library catalogues and from the public space when he was outed for his relationships with teenage girls in the end of 2019.

Five years – and the #metoo and #balancetonporc wave – have now passed. George Floyd’s death kindled a new indignation, that sparked brighter on the streets of Paris after three months of lockdown.  Was it the language barrier? Floyd’s death needed to be translated into French pain. It reminded many French people of the death of the Malian-French man, Adama Traoré, who had died on the 19th of July 2016. One of the striking parallels between Adama Traoré and George Floyd, aside from their skin colour, is that both were far from being irreproachable before their death. Yet, each on one side of the Atlantic now stand as the epitome of ethnic victimhood, a victimhood embraced and imitated by an entire generation. Just as in the US and the UK, the feeling of injustice allowed disruptive protests that went against the lockdown laws. The urgency justified everything.

The Traoré protests took place on 2nd June, gathering 20,000 participants. Virginie Despentes wrote an open letter published the day after entitled, ‘To my white friends who do not see that there is a problem.’ Assa Traoré – Adama Traoré’s sister and leader of the protests – appeared to Despentes during the protest as a modern Antigone. Rokhaya Diallo stood by Traoré’s partisans. On 4th June, Diallo said: ‘Adama Traoré was killed because he was black.’ Diallo firmly believes that only white people can be racists, and that the Western culture is systemically discriminative. Naturally, no one said a word about the white victims of police violence during the Gilets Jaunes protests a year ago.

Free speech could be the ground on which politically correct intersectional discourse bites its own tail

As for Charlie Hebdo, one of their cartoonists, Biche, sketched bitter scenes of a racist’s daily life, wearing a KuKluxKlan hood, under the caption: ‘L’histoire d’une vie devient parfois de l’Histoire collective. C’est ce qu’il se passe en ce moment depuis le meurtre de George Floyd aux États-Unis, qui a déclenché une prise de conscience mondiale des inégalités et violences auxquelles sont soumis les Noirs.‘ [‘The story of a single life sometimes becomes part of collective History. It is what has been happening since the murdering of George Floyd in the United States, which triggered a worldwide collective awareness about inequalities and violences Black people are subjected to.’]

Social networks make ideas as contagious as a virus. Ideas fly along retweets and get adapted, not taking into account the specificities of each ground they reach. France and the United Kingdom do not have the same racism problem as the United States. No official segregation was ever institutionalised in the old world as it was in the new.

Free speech could be the ground on which politically correct intersectional discourse bites its own tail. Is Charlie Hebdo’s editorial line bendy enough to suddenly stand against hate speech, its own signature tone since its birth on the ashes of satirical magazine Hara Kiri in 1986? Is the double-standard allowing hate speech on muslims and jews and forbidding it against black people now an unwritten law? Would Virginie Despentes agree to see her books judged by the standards of the ethnic minorities she defends? The awkward bond between libertarianism and liberalism has turned rancid now that liberalism comes with a whole set of rules on who can and who cannot decide who can say what in the public sphere.

One would easily forget that in Sophocles’s play, and its modern rewriting by Jean Anouilh in 1944, Antigone is a figure of free speech, but not in the sense we might understand it today. Antigone stood against her uncle Creon when he refused to give one of her brothers a funeral that could trigger the mob’s wrath. Antigone stood against the mob and against the bullying of her uncle, and she stood in favour of piety and of the religious keeping of tradition.

In the meantime, as social media are teaming with indignant yelling, knee-taking and statue-toppling, Twitter, Google and YouTube have started enforcing a censorship policy, ‘with no consideration for French law and the First Amendment to the American Constitution’ – as Elisabeth Levy reminds in her Sud Radio chronicle on the 30th of June. Everyone is of course free to say whatever one wants, provided it does not go against the owners of the modern marketplace of ideas and their financial self-interests.

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