The hypocritical distance between the idea of France and the reality of France the Nation creates the dangerous illusion that French ideals of liberty and equality and French Nationalism can be one and the same.
I learned about the massacre at Charlie Hebdo in Paris just 24 minutes after it occurred – when in media terms it was still just a “Breaking News Headline”, and not yet a “story.” The vague word “casualties” had not yet been replaced with the more detailed and horribly final “12 confirmed dead, more injured.”
By the early evening, photos were flooding my twitter and facebook feed of people meeting in towns and cities all over France to show solidarity against the killings. At first it didn’t occur to me that I could go take part; I have grown so used to seeing pictures from various protests – whether it was Occupy awhile back, or more recently protests against police violence that I could only take part in spirit as they were half a world away. It took me a moment to realize that I could leave my home and head to the center of town to join in.
I learned the Mayor of Bayonne planned a small ceremony at 6:30 PM in front of the Hotel de Ville. It already was 6:45 PM, but I rushed out of the house anyway, feeling like it was important for some reason be there.
In truth I admit that I was propelled to the center of town for several reasons, some more noble, some just very human. On the one hand, as a writer and a journalist and a Californian, I deeply cherish the idea of freedom of speech, the idea that we should feel at least physically safe to express our ideas and opinions even if they are controversial, tendentious, or offensive. Satire is such a fundamental part of this freedom – the right to joke about society, politics, culture, religion – to knock the powerful down a bit via the amazingly undermining power of laughter. Criticism of the expressed opinion of others is also an essential ingredient to that freedom, I might add, but criticism should of course never, ever be violent. These ideals were embodied for me in the phrase spreading around France and the world, “Je suis Charlie.”
On the other hand, there was some ego-driven section of me that wanted to feel close to something shocking. That part of me enjoyed knowing that I had been around the neighborhood of the shooting just days earlier (although of course that means absolutely nothing… but that kind of knowledge gives one the feeling of living close to the edge, of somehow having experienced a close shave, etc.). It’s the same part of me that still feels a bit disgustingly self-important when somehow 9/11 gets brought up and I have to reveal that I was in Manhattan at the time.
So as I walked towards the center of town, I felt academically if not quite emotionally moved by the idea of freedom of expression, and somber about the murder of writers, artists, and thinkers. I headed over the beautiful bridge that spans the Adour that is lined with the flags of the European Union, and entered Petit Bayonne. I could see the Nive, and across it the Hotel de Ville perched close to the banks, but I could not see people.
I felt an increasing bizarre fear that I would miss or had already missed whatever was happening, that the moment would pass, and whatever feeling of unity that had been there would swiftly disperse. I imagined that by the time I arrived at the plaza it would be sad and empty, and everything, all that unity, would feel hollow and I would feel alone and disconnected, separate from everything and everybody. It was one of those classic moments of my subtle creeping fear of the gaping maw of nothingness represented by the potential failure of all human effort to connect with one another, or at the very least the failure of my own effort.
But as I approached step by step, the shapes of people began to form themselves from the shadow, and it soon became clear that the entire plaza was full of people.
It was in this moment that I finally felt the emotion I’d been tentatively poking around for all day. Up to that point I’d felt a kind of empty sickness, but it felt more like that uncomfortable ache just past hunger than like grief. I felt that numbed sort of thudding of horrible things, shocked but not surprised, because we are used to horrible things. Appalled, disgusted and disturbed, but feeling these things more in my head than in my heart.
That changed when I saw the people gathered by City Hall.
Hundreds of locals from our town standing in the cold night air, just to be together and share in the collective shock and outrage, and to express solidarity with the victims and their families, with one another, with all those around the country and the world who feel the same, who condemn this disgusting act of cowardice and brutality. I felt this intense wave of a joyful sadness.
I was overcome in that moment by the beauty of the act of congregation, and both the amazing power and vulnerability it represents. I couldn’t help but acknowledge how easy it would be to hurt so many so quickly in space like that (how could one not at least fleetingly consider that possibility on a day like this), our squishy unprotected bodies, nothing blocking our organs but one another. And yet the power of a crowd with an idea is one of the biggest forces in the world, for good or ill.
I wandered around, listening in on conversations. It was not a particularly emotional crowd per se, but one gathered for the sake of an ideal – some there believing in that ideal passionately, others more out of habit. At some point a group of people in their early 20’s holding signs that said “Liberté” and “Democratie” started to sing the French National Anthem, the Marseillaise. I was immediately struck by how out-of-place it sounded in this moment, like the singers were at a sporting event rather than a gathering acknowledging the recently murdered.
I was surprised but impressed that crowd at large did not pick it up the tune, and the anthem almost petered out and died altogether, only held aloft in the end by a few embarrassed looking young people singing softly, aware that they’d gaffed somehow but probably not quite sure why, and one particularly tone-deaf man (in two senses of the word) who defiantly sang louder, no doubt feeling superior to the rest of the crowd, sure he was one of the only true patriots present.
I felt like this moment perfectly encapsulated the crux of a problem here in France – the chasm between France the Nation, and France the Idea.
France is one of the countries that holds its thinkers and artists in the greatest esteem, and Charlie Hebdo is a French institution, a standard-bearer for French secular culture. The magazine represents some of the very things that the French hold dearest – wry humor, anti-establishment intellectualism, defiance against institutions, government, religion, the right to thumb your nose at the powers that be, the right to be irreverent, etc.
This concept was iterated in a speech made by the French President Francois Hollande yesterday evening.
In this brief speech Hollande both lauds the influence, irreverence and courage of those killed at the paper, and reiterates the concept that France IS liberty. Liberty IS French culture. That the very idea of France and the concept of liberty and freedom are inseparable, and in fact is the true meaning and definition of the nation itself. He implied that therefore in attacking a representation of French culture, this attack was on the very beating heart of France itself.
Hollande suggested in this speech that France is not so much a country, but an idea.
The problem is that France is not just an idea, France is also a real place – a country full of citizens of varying levels of education, varying political beliefs, varying religions, but who on average according to polls and voting records are increasingly fearful, protectionist and xenophobic. France the Idea is defined by liberty, while France the reality is a country that is mostly afraid of change, is gloomy about the future and its waning global influence, and resentful of a past that brought it to this point where change is being foisted upon it. As opposed to France the Idea, the concept of liberty in France the Nation is slowly being watered down by many who would prefer to keep liberty for white French people(those immigrants, the rest of Europe and the world be damned).
The French incapacity to SEE the real France behind the fiction is one of the things at the heart of Islamic extremism taking root within the country; many French people’s individualism, their fear, their casual racism, and their COMPLETE lack of awareness about the effects of this racism is helping to create deep wounds, and backlash that bubbles up occasionally in violence.
While the attack on Charlie Hebdo WAS an attack on freedom of speech, an important component of the Idea of France, it was also an attack on the behavior of France the nation – a country that pretends at equality and fraternity while holding its own citizens at a distance, the France that only sends troops to fight for global justice and liberty where there are resources or beneficial relationships to be gained to make it worth the effort, the France that is in part starting to hear the siren song of separatists and xenophobes who say they want “France for the French.”
The far right party, the Front National, is steadily gaining popularity, feeding on the fears of people who believe that most immigrants, Muslims in particular, are dangerous and do not belong in their country because they aren’t really “French” and won’t ever assimilate to the culture, to French values, to the Idea of France. These same people cherish the high ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity as their own. They believe France the nation and France the idea are one and the same – and therefore believe that in the act of defending France the nation against the enemy and keeping it for themselves, they are upholding the virtues of France the Idea.
People all over the world were horrified by the news yesterday, not just because it was a vicious massacre of innocent people, but because it was an attack on that which so many of us hold dear – the right to express our thoughts and opinions. This I believe is what most people in the square were there for – to stand up against oppression, terrorism, and to stand up for writers, artists, thinkers, journalists, and the freedom of thought and of opinion. To stand up for France the Idea.
But a few were there to stand up for France the Nation, and that had a very different sound to it, the sound of a very awkward, pitifully sung national anthem.
After the Marseillaise trickled to an end, I heard a woman remark to her friends that it was “a poor choice, in bad taste.” So it’s in bad taste to sing the national anthem when your country has been attacked? Really, why’s that?
Oh right… because your national anthem is in fact a war song about killing the enemy, the barbarians that threaten to invade your land. Because your national anthem contains a resounding chorus that entreats young soldiers to spill the “impure” blood of their enemies into the furrows of French soil. Yes, on second thought that song in particular might have been a rather insensitive choice.
In 1992, and again a few years ago, the idea to change some of the words in the anthem to make it less bloodthirsty and racist while maintaining the admittedly rousing tune was floated around, but ultimately rejected. It would seem France still at heart loves to sing its war song, and beat its war drums, and think of the world in terms of enemies and fighting to protect the fatherland, despite how much the Idea of France might deny or try explain its way around this.
The Marseillaise reminds us of a different idea of France, a France from not all that long ago, a France of battles, of blood, of nationalism. A France for whom liberty meant defiance, not fairness. It reminds us of the violence of French history, a history where the very idea of liberty itself is highly complicated by colonization and war, where the idea of kingdom or empire or nation was almost always more important than true liberty, which was often poorly thought through and even more poorly applied.
That moment when that handful of people attempted to sing the national anthem was so horribly awkward because there seemed to be an uneasy awareness in the crowd that this was not the right moment for nationalism – but a time to grieve the attack on the high ideals of France. There seemed to be at least some vague, uncomfortable awareness that the xenophobic brand of nationalism, the protectionism, conservatism, fear, racism and traditionalism increasingly endemic to this nation was in part to blame.
From all appearances, this attack did not look like a passionate, spontaneous, angry response to what was perceived as offensive heresy, so much as an attack carefully designed to set the French people even more at odds with each other than they already are. It looks highly calculated to inspire anti-Muslim resentment while stoking the self-righteous belief that “superior” Western culture/civilization/philosophy/ideals are under attack. Simultaneously it could help inspire young disaffected French Muslims to feel even more alienated, misunderstood, vilified and rejected by their home country, which might drive them to seek community elsewhere, namely Islamic Fundamentalism.
Here we see the great danger in allowing the very different Idea of France and Nation of France to be interpreted as one and the same thing. If these two separate things become more and more intimately equated by those that feel oppressed by France the Nation, they might also feel oppressed by France the idea – oppressed by these values, or at the very least feel deep convinced in the their hypocrisy, and not be able to personally identify with them.
(In December a suicide bomber attacked a French school in Afghanistan where the French Cultural Centre was hosting a theatre performance.)
The marriage between culture and nation is also deeply problematic because it gives racist nationalists the conviction that they have the moral high ground; it justifies bigoted opinions by allowing people to self righteously believe they are on side of all the good stuff like liberty, like freedom of speech, whereas the other side is for murder and oppression. After an attack like this it’s very easy for people like this to believe that “they” (in this case ALL Muslims) are against the idea of liberty, of justice, of freedom, equality, fraternity, etc – when really Muslim anger is mostly coming from oppression, racism, far-right extremism, and a commonly held belief that France is supposed to be for white people, and that anyone else is an invader, is not truly part of the “culture” not truly part of the nation (and despite all these very legitimate grievances for the vast, vast, vast majority would still never culminate in an act of violence).
For people who believe they are on the side of liberty and nation, it’s so easy to see themselves as the good guy and the other dudes as the bad guys, dehumanizing and vilifying the “other.” It also makes it increasingly impossible for them to notice that their own side also frequently oppresses and murders, and when they do notice such things, they justify this behavior as being all for the sake of the Ideal, all in “defense of liberty.”
We see the same thing in the United States – the espousing of these ideas of liberty and justice simultaneously with racism, bigotry, protectionism, and so many close-minded, fear-based, selfish ideas. The United States also suffers from a dangerous dichotomy between the idea and the reality…
Powerful countries with great histories of eloquence, and a military to back up their narrative, seem to very easily dismiss the idea that words and actions should somehow be aligned. A country is not an idea, or not just an idea, but also collective actions. Or perhaps a country is both the idea and the reality, and the two never quite meet. The idea exists in the minds of the people and it carries its own narrative power, creates its own history and conflict and dreams and despair. The country as a verb, as collective action, is often something else entirely, and our incapacity to look at the two simultaneously and see the distance between one thing and the other is at the heart of a great deal of modern conflict and misery.
We could collectively benefit from learning that freedom of speech is not one size fits all – and in defending the freedom we do not have to agree with the speech itself. But the line between what is harmful hate speech and what is just opinion is one we are constantly having to navigate carefully. There is no hard fast and steady rule making the concept of freedom of speech itself problematically murky.
When we say “Nous Sommes Charlie,” We Are Charlie – it is important to make the distinction between Charlie the Idea and Charlie the actual publication, between what the publication espoused to express versus what it actually did. The idea that I think most people are standing behind when they “Je Suis Charlie,” is their fundamental belief in the freedom of expression for all. But we must not therefore confuse this belief in the freedom of expression, with the kinds of messages that Charlie Hebdo often expressed – which were coming from a place of white majority privilege, often insensitive and occasionally racist or sexist, attacking the already marginalized. Believing that this magazine has the right to express its perspective, is not at all the same thing as supporting the ideas contained therein.
We are constantly dazzled by fake enemies who we think threaten our freedom, while we allow more real and present dangers to freedom to sneak right by us. People who think differently than us do not have to be the enemy, and freedom of the press is not in fact threatened as much by terrorism and fundamentalism as it is by the capitalism that it (barely) survives off of. Censorship is much more of a reality due to the politics of money and the money in politics than the threat of attack. The biggest enemies of liberty and equality are not outside our culture but a part of it. This is what we must consciously struggle against as we move forward from this horrible tragedy.