Who Speaks the Language of the Free?

On Paris, terror attacks, and the state of French power.

Unlike the many who descend in sweaty hordes on the city each summer, armed with infinite megapixels slung over the shoulder and throwaway ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’, I didn’t fall in love with Paris the first time. My first visit to the capital happened in 2007 at fifteen, as I was teetering on that annoying threshold of adolescence masquerading as maturity.

Arriving on a grey November morning, I was promptly whisked away on a bus of students on a whirlwind tour of the major sights — this included a mandatory canter through the Louvre, complete with about two seconds of face-time with the Mona Lisa, hibernating under reinforced glass. By the end of that day, mostly wet and icy, I thought that Paris would have been better preserved on a postcard. There exists, of course, the well-known Paris syndrome, symptomatic of tourists who arrive in France with delusions of grandeur, only to be mired in minefields of poo on the trottoirs (dog or human, we’ll never know). But no, it has never been a question for me whether Paris deserved all of its accolades throughout history. It was, and still is, grand and breathtakingly beautiful with its streetlamps and boulevards — yet, to me, Paris remained submerged under a sense of lethargy, haunted by a fading pompousness since the grudging end of the French empire. Simply put, Paris seemed to be the rich pretty boy in class who always got what he wanted, and so never saw a need for effort or grades, nor to hang out with the rest he considered less naturally endowed.

By the time I returned in late 2013 to begin my studies here, France had sunk further into its own brand of defeatism that some refer to as nombrilisme, literally, navel-gazing. Before the Charlie Hebdo attacks that would rally the nation and bring an estimated 3.7 million out onto the streets, one book that climbed the national bestsellers chart was depressively titled Le suicide français, ‘The French Suicide’ by Eric Zemmour, a public figure known adoringly by the French as a polémiste. In other words, he pisses people off for a living on TV, usually by raging about how the Gallic nation is slipping further down the gutter, or how unstoppable the Muslim encroachment of France has become. In the same vein, another writer, Michel Houellebecq, published his utopia/dystopia novel ‘The Submission’ on 7 January, the very day of the terror attacks, exploring the possibility of France electing a populist Muslim president in 2022 — presumably the stuff of nightmares, its raison d’être meant to polarize, anger, and terrify.

The very existence of these characters in the public sphere in recent years might lead a casual observer to remark on the already fractured and precarious state of the Republic, whose ideals, inherited from the Revolution, are now criticised as being increasingly sclerotic to real problems on the ground: immigration, ethnic clivages, social and territorial integration, and now, lethal Islamic fundamentalism. Indeed, the works mentioned capitalise on this spiralling gyre of pessimism, creating the fuel that has led to more outcry. Then there are the naysayers, who attempt to link the general decline of the country within the larger failings of the European project. With that, a whole other case of issues surfaces: EU bureaucratic incompetence, the ceding of sovereignty, loss of national identity, etc.

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Yet, in the days after Charlie Hebdo and the conclusion of two hostage crises that saw the nation jolt up in fright and solidarity, all such talk, previously a fixture of public rhetoric for years, dissipated almost overnight. In its place came strident citizens of all ages, colours and confessions, transforming every major city in the country into a display of republican pride. Even more impressively, French president François Hollande, hitherto lampooned pitilessly by his own people and trapped in the archetype of the ‘sick man of Europe’, with his droopy eyes and unauthoritative manner of speech, drummed up an impressive parade of more than 50 world leaders, who all converged on a Parisian boulevard in a march of ‘republican solidarity’ against the terror attacks. In a speech announcing the Sunday procession, Hollande even expressly declared that Paris would be known henceforth as the ‘capital of the world’. How did Paris, the pretty boy in class, haughty and stifling a yawn, suddenly turn into the class president, bursting with gusto and shaking everybody’s hand?

After returning to the city time and again in the past years, it dawned on me why Paris was both enchanting and repelling. It is a city buckling under the weight of its imperial arrogance, a city sprung from the excesses of power, adorned by the extravagance still radiating from stones and carvings — in the Pantheon, the Assemblée Nationale, and the tomb of Napoleon, a superman once riding the crest of the European continent as if he were immortal. And Paris naturally, a city he desired to reflect his own image, was also to be immortal. To that end, the capital established itself as the inheritor of art, commerce and culture, and in the later centuries, the proud mother of her colonial sons.

Because of that, Paris has never been able to fully relinquish its claim as the centre of the world after ceding its place to London, and then Washington. For centuries, France was fattened on the knowledge that its democracy was the one model that everyone else in the world desired. It values were what made its empire strong; its institutions were what exported this strength, and made the nation exceptional. When Hollande took his first stride on Boulevard Voltaire at the start of that republican march, those were perhaps not the exact renderings of his thoughts. But somewhere under that veneer of dignity regained is the desperate shove of a leader to get back to the forefront of global authority, to represent a nation that has rudely woken up from a dream nestled on centuries of Western complacency. The pretty boy found his privilege slipping away, and he would jump in the fray to fight tooth and nail to defend it.

The attacks hit France where it finally hurt. Slapped awake from her slumber, the entire country bristled with immense indignation at a ragtag bunch of infidels who slipped into Paris on a Wednesday morning, and callously fired at an institution that was part of a bigger national ideal. It was an ideal of centuries of world power and preeminence, one that had set the standard for democratic systems all over the world, and this time its primary and hallowed gift to the world, free speech, was thrown back to its palace, ripped and muddied. In “The Reluctant Fundamentalist”, one of the most intriguing parts comes when Mohsin Hamid describes the protagonist Changez’ immediate reaction to the September 11 attacks as one of pleasure. Pleasure not at the misfortune of its victims, but at the revelation of America’s vulnerability after half a century of immortality. Changez confesses: “I was caught up in the symbolism of it all, the fact that someone had so visibly brought America to her knees.” Similarly, the symbolism of such an attack on Charlie Hebdo revealed a certain pleasure of the fundamentalists who wanted to watch France drop to her knees.

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Yet, the outpouring of citizen solidarity in the days that followed surpassed all expectations. Battlecries to defend la République came almost immediately, surrounded by overwhelming unison on all forms of media. The unanimity of French public opinion over the couple of days displayed a remarkably unilateral quality — ‘free speech’ became inseparable from the crystallisation of a country’s huddled voice of outrage, and its protection of republican values in absolute principle (the common quote that floated around was supposedly uttered by Voltaire: “I do not agree with what you have to say, butI’ll defend to the death your right to say it.”) Any opinion in the country that suggested these men who died were anything less than heroes was consigned straight to the bin.

The labels? Barbarity and fanatics in one camp, civilisation and men of reason in the other. Therein, perhaps, lies the beginning of the problematic aftermath. As with every war, the question of what happens to the winners and losers are possibly as, if not more, important that the outcome of the war itself. In this battle against extremism, the French state has chosen to assert supremacy the only way it once knew how — pulling back into focus the binary narrative of reason and liberation over savagery, with Islamism being the cult of ‘barbarians’, and France the ‘conqueror’ and the deceased cartoonists her ‘martyrs’.

A more postcolonial critique of the aftermath would proceed to reveal instances of questionable images from the “camp of reason”. Why, for example, do certain cartoonists continue depicting the two Islamist attackers in stock Orientalist garb, furled in turbans and long dress, one even shown holding a scimitar à la Sinbad? The most telling illustration perhaps, was by Uderzo, creator of Asterix — coming out of retirement in support of theCharlie movement, he drew an image of Asterix punching a character out of the frame, screaming ‘Moi, je suis aussi un Charlie.’ The sole signifier of this person’s identity was a pair of pointy slippers, meant to suggest that he/she was an Islamist. Asterix, champion of the Gauls, enters the fight to rescue his land from the Oriental despot. How apt.

These caricatures are definitely in no way representative of what the French populace thinks, but it does echo how easy it is even for those who are more “reasoned” among us to opt for the facile and reductive when it comes to taking a stand after the attacks. We have to realise that in declaring war on radical Islam, one is wielding another weapon that can be equally punishing and oblivious against the silent minority. For free speech is itself an ideological construct, sanctioned, celebrated, and glorified by those in power and the cheers of the madding crowd, such as that which appeared on Place de la République. Those who witnessed the darkest days of the Bush administration and the worst of the Iraq War would readily attest, sometimes the retaliation against terror is even greater terror, fomenting a self-fulling prophecy of a ‘clash of civilisation’ many want badly to avoid. In these days as we all mourn, and seek a sort of collective solace, the choice to stand up to rationality should not become one that ironically does not recognise its own irrationalities.

One of the most contentious parts of the commemoration of the Charlie Hebdo attacks took place in French schools. French teachers received a communiqué telling them expressly not to discuss the minute of silence observed the day after, even though the act was greeted with mixed reactions in certain schools. Some students, mostly of Muslim faith, were reported as refusing to mourn for “Charlie”. According to Le Figaro, 80% of students in a Seine-St Denis primary school (located in the banlieues outside Paris) refused to participate, citing reasons such as “Charlie had it coming” for its unacceptable portrayal of the prophet, or that the caricatures were intentionally made to offend and hurt, and hence not deserving of respect. Others who mourned stated that they were mourning for the death of the victims, not the magazine. Facing some student sympathisers of the killers, a teacher requested a transfer, and wrote a Facebook note after narrating how difficult that Thursday was.

Elsewhere, criticism was made against the hypocrisy of the state in pursuing its own definition of “free speech”, by citing the example of French comic Dieudonné, who gained infamy for his anti-Semitic viewpoints and remarks. Since 2006, Dieudonné has been fined multiple times by the French courts on the grounds of insulting those of Jewish origin, both in public and on his shows. The question one might pose is: how does the state decide when the free speech of one has caused injury to others, and in the case of Charlie, when it is merely part of a jolly old French “tradition”?

My visit to Paris on 12 January, the day after the “republican march”, was surprisingly placid. Yet, in little corners on the streets, Charlie Hebdo-related graffiti and stickers have sprung up, subtly keeping the message of solidarity alive. On a construction sign in Bastille however, I saw a slogan in red spray-paint that advised: Mieux intégrer que surveiller — “Better integration than surveillance”. That morning, my mind travelled to a Paris that most tourists will never see. The grand Paris extending beyond the historic arrondissements, the bulk of which now houses a French socioeconomic underclass, predominantly non-white residents of immigrant descent. This was the Paris that became the explosive setting for the mass unrests of 2005, and the scene for one of the hallmarks of modern French cinema, the 1995 film “La Haine”, whose premise of banlieue delinquency is a timely reminder of today. Perhaps a follow-up to the slogan should be the words: Mieux communiquer que parler — “Better communicate than speak”. For as we preach proudly of the noble and beautiful Paris with its glittering monuments to liberty, so must we speak softly to the Paris that has fallen by the wayside, whose people simply do not need the high-handed rhetoric of virtues from an Elysée press conference, the result of a speechwriter’s deadline.

Between one Paris that has made many a college student like me dream, with its Hausmannian grace and cultural sumptuousness, and another Paris that is home to a large underbelly of French society’s underprivileged, it is not hard to see why France is a nation nostalgic for its bygone power, a power that once guaranteed its invincibility. Instead, she now sits uneasily between what she was and what she is becoming — that is, a medium-sized country saddled with low growth, an ever-increasing multiracial population, and the indignity of ceding its place to Germany as the driving force of Europe, a neighbour it once sought to weaken with the formation of the EU. Indeed, the ‘symbolism of it all’ is sometimes more present than any word or deed.

France, in the aftermath of the Charlie attacks, is now arming herself again with the old munitions: the rhetoric of freedom, forevermore. Yet, the paradox that a self-proclaimed liberal democratic state like France will have always have a hard time reconciling is the fact that in trumpeting with blind fervour the universal freedom to speech, it has to employ its power forcefully to ensure it, and in the process, contradict its objective by censoring those it deems have abused that right. In order to allow, the state must also limit. The question that I am most concerned about posing then is — who shall be silenced, and who will be entitled to speak the language of the free?

As this world power stumbles to find her footing again, we should perhaps not forget that with every broad stroke orchestrated by the governing, come those among the governed who are left untouched. The tradition of liberty is essential for a strong republic, but equally important are efforts to ensure this republic appeals to all its citizens, and becomes aware of its ideological blindspots. Should Paris hope to transcend its greying charm, and remould itself to boldly face the world, the language of free speech needs to be spoken not just to those who already have it, but communicated to those who do not, and need it most.

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Leon Yuchin is an undergrad student at the Institut d’Etudes Politique de Paris (Sciences Po) in its Euro-American campus. He writes poetry and non-fiction, and currently helms The Sundial Press, Sciences Po’s student news service, as its Editor-In-Chief. Topics of interest include diplomacy, superpower relations, transnational cultures and diasporas. He finds idolatry in the form of Frank Ocean.