What Je Suis Charlie Has Become

"A newspaper can't insult a segment of the population and be the symbol of France," one Muslim leader says.

Charles Platiau/Reuters

PARIS—In March of 2012, three off-duty French soldiers were assassinated in southern France, the first in Toulouse, the others, four days later, as they withdrew money from an ATM outside their base in Montauban. All were Arabs; a black soldier was paralyzed in the second attack. A weekend passed, and on the following Monday, a man armed with two automatic handguns parked his motor scooter outside a Jewish primary school and began to fire. He killed a young rabbi and the man's two sons, aged 3 and 6. In the courtyard of the school, he held an eight-year-old girl by her hair while he changed his Uzi pistol, which had jammed, for a Colt .45. Her name was Myriam Monsonégo, and he shot her in the head.

These killings, carried out by a young Franco-Algerian who claimed to be an al-Qaeda operative, outraged and terrorized France, as they were meant to. And yet the scale of the response they provoked was quite distinct from the national lamentation and horror that have followed the killings in Paris in January—the civic "arousing" applauded and urged on by the press and political class. No millions marched, and no one at the time thought to declare, for instance, "Je Suis Myriam."

The context was different, of course. These seven dead were the victims of the first such attack by a young, alienated Muslim Frenchman, not the third in as many years; the killings were far from Paris, the seat of French political and cultural power; they surprised the country, rather than confirming the fears of local violence, committed by French citizens on French soil, that have since taken root. And the country's sense of vulnerability—the worry of a once-great, still-proud nation as it finds its new place in a changed world—was perhaps less acute.

Pierre Nora, the esteemed historian of French "national sentiment," has suggested an additional explanation for the emotion around these latest killings, one linked to the identity of some of the 17 victims. "This attack was targeted" he said of the shooting at Charlie Hebdo, speaking to the newspaper Libération. In prior killings in France, as with the medieval butchery of the Islamic State, "terrorism seemed blind," Nora said. "Here," by contrast, "there has been a sort of individual rallying, as if suddenly the collective was awakened in the individual. One has been able to identify: 'Je Suis Charlie.'"

Of course, the killings in Toulouse and Montauban, as well as the killings this month in the kosher supermarket in Paris, were targeted as well. But, as Nora implies, the populace in its majority did not "identify" with minority soldiers or practicing Jews. It has identified, instead, with the staff of Charlie Hebdo, mostly white men and women devoted to an unstinting indictment of religion, made martyrs more specifically for their mockery of Islam and their strident promotion of laïcité, France's rigid and illiberal official secularism. President François Hollande has called their murder an attack on the "very identity" of France and has pledged an even firmer application of laïcité. It was, Nora's analysis suggests, to vindicate these particular men and women, and these particular ideas—to defend this identity—that nearly 4 million French were in the street on January 11, declaring, "Je Suis Charlie."

Very quickly, the march, the slogan, and the ideology they celebrated have been sacralized, posited as the fundaments of a new national unity, a renewed patriotic self-confidence. "We are one people," Libération proudly declared on the front page of an edition devoted to the march. The government, invoking the "spirit of January 11" and the memory of Charlie Hebdo's dead, has announced a series of new measures to stiffen the teaching of laïcité in schools.

Officials and well-meaning citizens intone, "We Are All Charlie." These words may be understood as an aspiration, or perhaps a moral injunction, but they are not true. France in its entirety is not Charlie, just as France in its entirety was not represented at the march on January 11. Missing were the Arabs, the blacks, the young people from the poor banlieues, and the Muslims, many of whom see in Charlie not themselves but the majority's self-righteous bully, and who see in laïcité not a principle of equal treatment but a device of discrimination and hypocrisy. From the perspective of many Muslims, who constitute less than 10 percent of the population, to declare oneself "Charlie" is to affirm a national identity of exclusion.

"They're making Charlie Hebdo into the symbol of France and of freedom of speech," M'hammed Henniche, the secretary general of the Union of Muslim Associations of Seine-Saint-Denis, the poor district that borders Paris to the north, told me. "A newspaper can't insult a segment of the population and be the symbol of France."

Three Muslim children of the Republic—Saïd and Chérif Kouachi, and Amedy Coulibaly—have committed terrible crimes against their countrymen in the name of their faith, but there seems to be little interest, at least among the political and media elite, in attempting to understand the sources of their fanatical hate or the grievances of their coreligionists. The current moment in France is one not of mournful reflection but of intransigence—of the drawing of lines, of questions of allegiance.

* * *

On the cover of its most recent issue, the first since the killings, Charlie Hebdo opted once again to depict the Prophet Muhammad. ("They could not not do it," a former journalist for the magazine rightly remarked to me.) Top editor Gérard Biard, who was away at the time of the shooting, wrote in an editorial of his hope that, now, "the firm defense of laïcité will go without saying for everyone, that we will finally cease, out of posturing, electoral calculus, or cowardice, to legitimate or even tolerate communitarianism and cultural relativism, which open the way to only one thing: religious totalitarianism."

Charlie Hebdo's defense of laïcité may be particularly vigorous, but the siege mentality and assimilationist logic that underlie it—the notion that religion is a threat to France's egalitarian project, and that French citizenship demands the abandonment of all other values and identities for those of the Republic—are in fact, today, the norm.

At its introduction into law, in 1905, laïcité was understood to be a liberal construction, affirming worship rights for all religions. In recent decades, however, with the growth of a visible, practicing Muslim population, it has been interpreted as dictating that religious preferences remain hidden from public view and as requiring that the state refuse accommodations to the religions of its citizens. In practice, laïcité is now invoked to justify restrictions on specifically Muslim practices such as bans on headscarves in public primary schools and among state employees, or the refusal to offer halal meals in schools and prisons. (Defenders of the veil ban in schools note that yarmulkes or crosses of "manifestly excessive dimension" are also prohibited, for equity's sake, but to claim that the law was not written to address the specific phenomenon of Muslim girls wearing headscarves is disingenuous and historically false.)

The social scientist Didier Fassin noted recently in Le Monde that, like all other inhabitants of nominally secular France, Muslims are granted Christmas, Easter, Ascension Thursday, Pentecost Monday, the feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, and All Saints' Day as public holidays. And yet, Fassin wrote, "we call them to the order of laïcité if they miss school or work on the day of Eid," as several Muslim holidays are known. Laïcité prohibits the state from directly funding the construction of any places of worship; still, the French state owns and maintains 39,000 churches, which became state property upon the adoption of laïcité a century ago. (The Catholic Church owns an additional 5,000, built since 1905.) The country counts only about 2,500 Muslim prayer sites and mosques, all of them established or constructed in the 20th or 21st century, most after the mass arrival in the 1960s and 1970s of immigrant workers from the former French colonies of North Africa; none of these mosques are owned or maintained by the state. Though France's self-declared Catholic population is perhaps only six times the size of the country's Muslim population, Catholic churches are about 20 times as numerous as mosques. These are discrepancies that laïcité legitimates; Muslims, and other critics of the system, speak of a "double standard" within the law.

"The community is for laïcité, but with fairness,"  said Hassan Farsadou, who runs the Union of Muslim Associations of Seine-Saint-Denis with Henniche.

Farsadou’s organization arranged the religious funeral of Ahmed Merabet, one of the two policemen killed at the offices of Charlie Hebdo, and led a delegation in the Paris march. They did not hold "Je Suis Charlie" signs.

* * *

Shortly after the killings at Charlie Hebdo, the government decreed that an honorary minute of silence would be held in all French schools. In 100 separate "incidents," students, many of them presumably Muslim, protested or refused to be silent, according to Education Minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem. Though France is currently home to 64,000 schools and over 12 million students, this number was considered troublingly high; the incidents were related by Le Monde beneath an alarmist banner headline warning of "THE FRANCE THAT IS NOT 'CHARLIE.'" The notion that Muslim schoolchildren might not wish to honor a publication that has routinely mocked what they and their families hold sacred had not apparently occurred to France's political leadership. (Nor, it seems, had the possibility that some teenagers might, in the fashion of Charlie Hebdo, find it amusing to contest authority or insult the sacrosanct.)

The response, Vallaud-Belkacem said, would be punishment for those involved, with police investigating the worst cases. Last week, she announced further measures to reinforce "laïcité and the transmission of republican values" in schools, including changes in recruitment standards for teachers, such that a candidate's ability to "explain and spread the values of the Republic" be taken into account, and an obligation that all students and their parents sign a "Laïcité Charter." In addition, an annual "Laïcité Day" commemoration will be held in all schools. To respect the rules and virtues of the Republic is not enough; these rules and virtues are to be celebrated, too.

Luke Macgregor/Reuters

"Even where there were not incidents, there was too much questioning from students," Vallaud-Belkacem told parliamentarians earlier in the month. “And we all heard the ‘Yes, I support Charlie, but–s,’ the ‘Double standard! Why defend freedom of speech in this case and not another's.”

In evoking these charges of a double standard, the minister was referring to the anti-Semitic humorist Dieudonné, who, on the very day that Charlie Hebdo published its newest issue, was arrested and charged with "praising terrorism," a misdemeanor voted into law last year and reinforced in January by a government circular. (Since the killings, several dozen people have been charged with the offense; a number have already been sentenced to jail time.)

A few hours after the "Je Suis Charlie" demonstration, Dieudonné had posted a message to his Facebook account mocking "this historic march–what am I saying...Legendary! A magical instant equal to the Big Bang that made the Universe!" He concluded a bit cryptically, but with clear intent to shock the "Je Suis Charlie" crowd: "Know that tonight, for my part, I feel like Charlie Coulibaly."

For all his spite, Dieudonné, whose full name is Dieudonné M'Bala M'Bala, does possess a talent for sensing points of weakness and hypocrisy in the beliefs of the ‘right-thinking’ establishment. In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo killings, the seeming contradictions of French law—which has long banned racist and discriminatory speech of various kinds—have become an additional source of contestation and mistrust between French Muslims and the state. Why, the question goes, is Charlie Hebdo deemed heroic for its mockery of Muslims and Islam while Dieudonné, among others, is sent to court for mocking terror victims and Jews? The response from the government and the media, delivered with a twitchy defensiveness and a nativist tone, has in essence been to say: Because, in France, it is the law.

In a recent editorial, Laurent Joffrin, the top editor at Libération, argued that while Charlie Hebdo's cartoons "make us laugh" and "carry on a republican tradition," Dieudonné's "praise of terrorism" and anti-Semitism "cause fear" and stir hatred. Aline Le Bail-Kremer, the spokeswoman for SOS Racisme, a major anti-racism organization, argued that the magazine, unlike Dieudonné, was not "spreading an ideology of hate" or "putting anyone's life in danger." (It bears noting that when Charlie Hebdo published caricatures of Muhammad in 2012, security at French embassies across the Muslim world was increased and French expatriates were urged to remain at home.) In defense of the prohibition on anti-Semitic or racist speech, Le Bail-Kremer told me, "Words can be a form of suffering." Asked why, by that standard, Muslim French offended by the depiction of their prophet did not deserve protection under the law, she said they simply misunderstood Charlie Hebdo's caricatures. The magazine does not attack Muslims, "per se," she said. "They're talking about an idea."

Of course, this distinction does little to lessen the hurt of the offense or to correct the impression that the pain of French Muslims might be considered less important than that of other groups, especially those that are better integrated into the national community. It would indeed be within the power of the French state to alter the law, as it did in 1990, for instance, when Holocaust-denial became illegal.

"This is a debate about the respective place of different communities in French society," Benjamin Stora, France's most prominent historian of the Algerian War and a top official at the country's national museum of immigration, told me. The post-colonial North African Arabs and sub-Saharan blacks who constitute the country's urban underclass are, in their majority, French citizens, second- or third-generation inhabitants of France. But their cultures and histories have not been made part of the nation's vision of itself, Stora noted, nor are they taught in schools; to acknowledge a need to revise the national narrative, or the law, in order to include them would be to violate the uncompromising Republican myth, which holds that the Republic, by its very nature, is just.

That the "Je Suis Charlie" march in Paris, which he attended, had been presented as representing all of society "also goes to show just how much this country's elites are disconnected from reality," he said. "They don't want to see it, this other France."

* * *

The day after Dieudonné's arrest, his talented young lawyer, Sanjay Mirabeau, was invited to attempt to defend his client on a popular television and radio talk show. The host, Jean-Jacques Bourdin, appeared aggressive and slightly menacing, as if struggling to contain a nervous sort of patriotic contempt. Having verified that, yes, Mirabeau had participated in the "Je Suis Charlie" march—a willingness to declare oneself "Charlie" having become a litmus test for social acceptability—he asked whether Dieudonné regretted his words about "Charlie Coulibaly."

"He's said very clearly that he regretted if his words had been misunderstood," Mirabeau said, noting that Dieudonné had quickly removed the message from Facebook. "He was saying, 'I share the values of Charlie, but I'm treated like a Coulibaly.'"

"Let's remember the law," Bourdin interjected. "Freedom of expression is not absolute. It's not absolute!" He asked if, from a legal standpoint, Charlie Hebdo and Dieudonné were engaged in similar activities.

Yes, Mirabeau replied, both work at the "limits of freedom of speech, in the name of humor."

Apparently unsatisfied with this answer, Bourdin then reminded his interlocutor that blasphemy, Charlie Hebdo's favored form of misbehavior, is not illegal.

"Perhaps," Mirabeau replied, with a slight laugh, "except for Dieudonné."

"No! No, don't say that, because—yes, well, Dieudonné is not doing blasphemy," said Bourdin, suddenly thrown off course.

"It depends what is considered sacred, at a given moment and period," his guest said calmly.

Here Bourdin showed his outrage. "What is sacred is the death of men who fell beneath the bullets of terrorists! That is sacred, I'm sorry, Maître Mirabeau!"

Mirabeau agreed. But then of course, as Bourdin himself had noted, and as those who preach laïcité and proclaim themselves "Charlie" now celebrate, French law has nothing against blasphemy.