The Je Suis Charlie Movement Ends Wednesday

Michael Katims is a screenwriter and translator.

Sunday morning I went to the supermarket around the corner from my apartment in the 11th arrondissement of Paris, where I have lived for the past 18 years. Near the turnstiles at the entrance, and at every checkout register, were signs saying “JE SUIS CHARLIE”. Printed in white over black on standard letter-size printer paper with a crappy inkjet printer like the one I have in my office, the signs must have used up practically a whole cartridge of black.

On line, I ran into a neighbor. A speech therapist who lives in my building, Laurence is someone I have known and liked for a long time. She said she thought the signs were kind of nice – it shows that the supermarket manager has some humanity. Knowing how poorly the cashiers at this supermarket are often treated, I wasn’t sure how to respond to that. Still, I never doubted that the manager of my local supermarket was capable of genuine human emotion, even a social consciousness, and explaining my discomfort at seeing those signs would take longer than the wait time at the checkout counter and – who knows? – I might just wind up getting into an uncomfortable argument with a neighbor I really like. Instead, we changed the subject. (And had a nice teasing argument about what each of us had in the grocery basket. How biodegradable, local, healthy, tasty, inexpensive, recyclable each of our items was. Great fun.)

But that nagging feeling about the signs followed me home. Here it is in a nutshell: Although I have no evidence to support this, I have a sneaking suspicion the supermarket manager (or whoever took the initiative to print up the signs and scotch tape them all around) wasn’t really even thinking about Charlie Hebdo at all.

It isn’t only about the signs. It’s a feeling that has been growing since last Wednesday night or Thursday morning. Politicians like John Kerry and François Hollande have stepped gingerly around the actual content of the satirical newspaper and focused their statements on issues of “free speech” (as though the authors of the Droits de L’Homme or the first amendment to the U.S. constitution sought to protect speech against gangs of marauding religious fanatics rather than government repression and official censorship). Media of every stripe have joined the party, of course, never really speaking much about the actual newspaper and the particular satirists who died there.

The universality of the message dismisses the content of Charlie Hebdo with the famous line, often attributed to Voltaire but actually authored by his biographer, Evelyn Beatrice Hall: “I disapprove of what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Clap, clap. Wipe your hands on your pant legs and it’s on to the next sound bite, the next spontaneous outpouring of grief, the next solemn vow never to give in to those who would threaten our free society with violence.

And it is, in many cases if not all, genuine grief and sincere solemnity. And I share it. I feel it. The more so because, in this particular instance, the terror strikes very close to home for me. Close enough that I myself was terrified.

The Charlie Hebdo offices where the attack took place are only a few blocks from my house. The bicycle lane visible in the amateur video, moments after a policeman was killed in the street outside, is a bicycle lane I use four or five times a week. I might have been pedaling by, right at that moment.  When the police officer was shot in Montrouge she was less than a half mile from a subtitling lab where I often work. It’s also down the block from where my brother-in-law works and he had to wait a couple of hours before he could get into his office last Thursday morning. Before the Dammartin standoff on Friday, the Kouachi brothers reportedly drove very close to the house of a friend in mine in the northern suburbs. Finally, the kosher grocery store at the Porte de Vincennes is around the corner from the high school from which my daughter graduated last June. The daughter of a good friend was one of the students who were kept inside for the whole afternoon, while the neighborhood was cordoned off and authorities worked to free the hostages inside the grocery.

I heard rumors of other incidents which turned out to be false alerts. Some nut on the Métro suddenly shouting “I am Jihad!” Police clearing Trocadéro square after another non-event.

I told my daughters to stay home that evening, even though they had plans to go out. My only thought right then was, “Better safe than sorry.”

The gym where I work out is at the Place de la République, so I joined the more or less spontaneous demonstration last Wednesday night, then saw the media trucks set up there Thursday and Friday, heard the whir of their generators, saw the orange glow of their lights, noticed how the top of the media tents mirrored the top of the children’s merry-go-round (illustrating, it occurred to me, the variable meaning of the French word manège).

Saturday night, I tooled my Vélib over to the Charlie Hebdo offices and saw the bouquets of flowers left at the police barricades at the end of the street. More media tents. TV journalists, each doing a stand-up in another language, all wore the same grave expressions. A German with earbuds crouched on the pavement and talked to his laptop. There were people just like me, milling around, staring a little dumbstruck at the walls and windows of the non-descript building where the initial attack took place, not sure why they had come.

Yesterday, Sunday, January 11 was the apotheosis of the “Je Suis Charlie” moment, what some have dubbed the French 9/11, a sudden realization of core “democratic” values. Nearly four million people marched in France. I was one of them. Among the demonstrators, there was a real sense of unity. And wonder. And um, what-would-you-call-it… pride.

The thing is, the universality and sanctitude of the message is precisely the kind of thing that Charlie Hebdo mocked.

As surviving Charlie Hebdo cartoonist Luz put it in an interview with Sud-Ouest, “It’s great that people support us, but it’s the opposite of what Charlie’s drawings are all about.”

One thing the members of Charlie Hebdo’s editorial desk agreed about was not to be unanimous and consensual. That’s why it’s been fun to read (and probably why it’s been fun to work on). Cabu and Wollinski didn’t have to agree with one another about everything – or even about most things – in order to support each other’s work and get the publication out every week. But it’s a reasonable guess that another thing they would have all agreed about is that making Charlie Hebdo into a symbol of free speech, turning the drama into an international rallying cry for core democratic values, is precisely the opposite of what that publication has always been about.

One of France’s largest national dailies, Libération, has reportedly made space available for the surviving staff of Charlie Hebdo, who are planning a print run of one million for their January 14th issue. (It’s usual print run is 60,000.)

It remains to be seen if the editorial content will change, of course. But if it doesn’t, on the off chance that Charlie Hebdo has lost many of its key creative minds but not its soul, then they will be mercilessly blowing raspberries at many of the people demonstrating their support, especially the most powerful ones. Netanyahu, Hollande, Marine Le Pen, Sarkozy, Merkel, Cameron, Obama, Kerry, should all expect to be lampooned to the rafters and caught in their contradictions.

“The current symbolic cargo is what Charlie has always worked against,” says Luz. Charlie is about “destroying symbols, lifting taboos, and deconstructing fantasies.”

If they do that, then Hollande and the others will soon be clearing their throats and searching with desperate eyes for the exit from the “Je Suis Charlie” big tent. I bet my supermarket manager will quickly and quietly take down his “Je Suis Charlie” signs and feed them to the shredder.

And if Charlie Hebdo doesn’t live up to the culture Luz describes, then it is well and truly dead and the “Je Suis Charlie” movement is hollow, meaningless, anything and anyone but Charlie.

8 thoughts on “The Je Suis Charlie Movement Ends Wednesday

  1. Charlie Hebdo was many things to many people and the French people know that their march was not a statement of any unity or conformism other than for freedom of expression. Most French citizens are well aware of the sometimes vicious and violent satirical bent of the magazine’s contents which gored the ox of many a politician and religion. It must not be forgotten that Charlie Hebdo won a major legal battle in defense of free speech precisely when attacked in the courts by Muslim groups about eight years ago (cf. the documentary “C’est dur d’etre aime par des cons” released in 2008,

    Here is former editor Philippe Val, who led the defense in that legal battle, interviewed right after the massacre, in effect directly calling for a “Je suis Charlie” expression:

    Peut-être que cela serait bien que demain les journaux s’appellent Charlie Hebdo. Si on titrait tous Charlie Hebdo. Si toute la France était Charlie Hebdo. Ça montrerait qu’on n’est pas d’accord avec ça. Que jamais on ne laissera le rire s’éteindre. Jamais on ne laissera la liberté s’éteindre.
    [Perhaps it would be good if tomorrow newspapers call themselves Charlie Hebdo. If all were named Charlie Hebdo. If all of France was Charlie Hebdo. That would show that we are not in agreement with that. That never will we let laughter be extinguished. Never will we let liberty be extinguished.]

    See also the BBC interview at (in English)

    In short, being in agreement that freedom of expression is the sine qua non of liberty was the founding principle of “Je suis Charlie.” An excerpted comment from one or another staff member of the magazine, invoked as seemingly denying that, does not erase the simple fact that such agreement is the sine qua non for the very existence of satire and of laughter — and of Charlie Hebdo..

    • As an addendum to the above:

      Philippe Val, one of the founders of the reiteration of Charlie Hebdo in the earlier nineties, it editor and its director until 2009 and the defendant in the free speech trial, has been director of France Inter, a French national public radio station, since he left Charlie Hebdo.

      Just try to imagine that happening in the United States.

  2. Thank you for your comments. I don’t think (and I’m quite sure Luz wouldn’t agree) that Charlie Hebdo is opposed to free speech, nor even that their editorial policy isn’t founded on the principle of free speech. I’m talking about the consensual lip service given to speech issues and the arm’s length attitude about deigning to look at what is actually in the magazine and deciding for yourself whether you agree, whether it makes you laugh and, in some cases, whether you can stomach it. Val, incidentally, is the only Charlie Hebdo director to have dismissed a staff member for going too far – when he fired Siné for what he thought was a veiled antisemitic reference. Siné, incidentally, sued the paper from “abusive dismissal” and won. Val was thought by many Charlie Hebdo fans (and some staff) to be a traitor to the paper’s founding principles and for cozying up to Sarkozy, which they say earned him the top spot at France Inter.

  3. Charlie Hebdo’s Luz (cited in the blog posting) is now quoted as reinforcing the free speech emphasis:

    “Defending his caricature of Muhammad on the cover, Charlie Hebdo cartoonist Renald Luzier, also known as Luz, argued that no exceptions should be made when it comes to freedom of expression.

    “He said that when Charlie Hebdo drew threats and attacks in the past, the reaction was often: “Yes, but you shouldn’t do that (publish cartoons of Muhammad). Yes, but you deserved that.”

    “There should be no more ‘yes, but,” he insisted.

    However, that same article describes what should now be the object of our collective reflection: the French government’s response is analogous in many ways to the American government’s response to 9/11: a crackdown on civil liberties and speech appears in the making a la Patriot Act…..

    The headline of today’s Charlie Hebdo, “Tout est pardonne” in response to an apologetic Muhammad cartooned as carrying a “Je suis Charlie” sign, may become high irony in the actual political aftermath where state censorship appears likely to become both sanctioned and aggressive:

    “The attacks that left 17 people dead are prompting France to tighten security measures but none of the 54 people detained have been linked by authorities to the attacks. That is raising questions about whether the government is impinging on the freedom of speech that Charlie Hebdo so vigorously defends.
    “The Justice Ministry said 54 people — including four minors — have been detained for defending or verbally threatening terrorism since the Charlie Hebdo attack. Several have already been convicted under special measures for immediate sentencing.

    “The government is also working on new phone-tapping and other intelligence efforts against terrorism that it wants nailed down by next week, government spokesman Stephane Le Foll said Wednesday.”

    “Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose” or, as Sartre wrote in “Le Diable et le bon Dieu”: “Le monde est foutu.”

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