Stephane Mahe / Reuters

Does the march of 4 million represent France?

A battle looms over the direction of French democracy

January 12, 2015 10:45AM ET

“The French Sept. 11.” That’s what Le Monde called the Jan. 7 massacre of 12 people by two hooded gunmen at the headquarters of the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo. But America has no equivalent to what I witnessed Sunday, Jan. 11, in France: More than 4 million people took to the streets, peacefully, from villages to metropolises across the country, in spite of the fear in their stomach and their political and religious differences, to honor the 17 victims slaughtered by three Islamic gunmen over three days on French soil.

One can certainly point out similarities between Sept. 11 and Jan. 7, starting with the magnitude of the shock, terror and grief that struck both countries. By destroying the World Trade Center, Al-Qaeda attacked an American icon for great visual effects. Who can forget watching a symbol of U.S. economic power tumbling into rubble? Last Wednesday in Paris, two gunmen, Saïd Kaouchi and Chétif Kaouchi, barged into the offices of the bawdy, lewd, often crass, always irreverent French weekly Charlie Hebdo and executed its most relentlessly blasphemous cartoonists. They sought to quell French irreligion, its secular spirit and its gauloiserie and make its national pastime — free-spirited political talk — a mortal sin. In both tragedies, the attackers knew the power of symbols and acted as destroyers of images.

As with the U.S. and Sept. 11, France’s response to the attacks will shape the ways they change — or do not change — the nation. The terrorists’ barbaric acts include not only the massacre at Charlie Hebdo but also the killings by a third gunman, Amedy Coulibaly, who shot a 26-year-old police officer from Martinique south of Paris on Thursday, then four Jewish hostages in a kosher supermarket in Porte de Vincennes on Friday. Beyond “revenge for the Prophet,” as one of the assailants shouted on his way out, the attackers likely sought to destabilize, terrorize and divide France — to lay the country and its secular values low and undermine its resolve to combat their fanaticism. The spontaneous gatherings of mourners all over France and abroad, culminating in millions of marchers on Sunday paying homage to the victims, offered a powerful image of defiance.

Yet how long will this unified front of pride and resolve last? And how much does it reflect the truth about France’s cultural divisions?

Born and raised in France

Contrary to Sept. 11, the political and societal implications of the Jan. 7 shootings are complicated by a cultural context already wrapped in fear and division. Last week saw the ominous release of Michel Houellebecq’s latest incendiary novel, “Submission.” The book imagines the victory of a “Muslim Fraternity” party against the far-right, anti-immigration leader Marine Le Pen in the 2022 presidential elections, thanks to a “national union” coalition of right-wing and left-wing traditional parties to bar Le Pen from power. This is, in fictional terms, a trope hammered on by Le Pen herself, who repeatedly warns against the rampant Islamicization of France by waves of immigrants and accuses all the other parties, right and left, of forming a covert alliance to silence the National Front. She even posed as a victim the day after the Charlie Hebdo shootings, claiming her party had been intentionally excluded from Sunday’s national march. 

The attackers acted on anti-democratic principles, but that does not mean we should.

Earlier this year, the right-wing polemicist Éric Zemmour did not hide behind fiction to paint a picture similar to Houellebecq’s. In his best-seller “The French Suicide,” which has sold over 400,000 copies, Zemmour deplores a country living under a self-inflicted death sentence because of left-wing Mai 68 nostalgics — the devotees of  France’s mass protests of May 1968 who, according to him, have come to tolerate a burgeoning immigrant population and ignore the country’s threatening clash of civilizations. In other words, France is on the verge of collapse because of the libertarian values that Charlie Hebdo epitomized. (Zemmour hammered this point home on France’s RTL radio on Thursday, a day of national mourning). In an interview with Corriere della Serra on Dec. 12, he said that “this situation of a people within a people, of Muslims within the French people, will lead to chaos and civil war” and imagined the deportation of 5 millions Muslims to solve the problem. In case that cultural ambiance was not apocalyptical enough, on the day of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, the cover of the right-wing weekly Valeurs Actuelles showed a Muslim woman wearing a blue white and red headscarf with the line “Fear over France: What if Houellebecq was right?”

Last week’s attacks bring to the fore the never-ending political debate over immigration and Islam in France. Contrary to Sept. 11, it might appear that it is not a clear-cut case of us versus them but of us versus some of our sons, who have turned out to be more alien than we ever thought possible. The Kouachis, the brothers identified by the police as the shooters in the Charlie Hebdo attack, were born and raised in Paris by their Algerian immigrant parents, who died when the boys were children; Coulibaly, the attacker of the kosher supermarket, was born in Juvisy-sur-Essone, the only boy in a family of 10 children of Malian descent. Does it matter that the attacks were carried out by some people have called French-born soldiers of Allah? The phrase sounds surreal, but for months now it had been repeated in newspapers and the speeches of government officials, referring to the legitimate menace of French jihadists returning from training in Syria, Yemen, Iraq or Afghanistan. Does it matter that the three gunmen were born and raised in France? Or that their parents came from Algeria or Mali? There is no doubt that these factors are part of the political trauma and that they are and will continue to be exploited for political ends. But what conclusions can we draw from these facts for the future of French society?

The answer: none. The hashtag #JeSuisCharlie was soon followed by #JeSuisAhmed, for Ahmed Merabet, the Muslim police officer who tried to stop the Kouachis and was shot and killed outside Charlie Hebdo’s offices. There is also Lassana Bathiny, a Muslim of Malian origin who hid five adults and a baby in the basement of the supermarket during the hostage crisis in Porte de Vincennes. If we hew to core principles of democracy, such as that individuals are free from the restrictions and prejudices of blood and birth, that everyone is equal before the law and that justice applies to individuals, not collectively to religious or ethnic groups, then we cannot draw any substantive conclusion from the sociological and ethnic profile of the three murderers. They acted on anti-democratic principles — that there is a “natural” order among beings created by God, in which women must be subordinate, entire religious groups must be decimated because of their faith and birth and submission to destiny is the rule — but that does not mean we should. 

Free individuals

We need to believe all the more in the freedom of individuals. We must stop differentiating between “good” and “bad” Muslims and instead look at men and women and how they live their lives. We need to continue to gather together, anonymous and strangers, intentionally blind to birth and blood and faith and united by common values, without fear, the way we did on Sunday to commemorate the cartoonists whose images live on to shame the sowers of death and the policemen, employees and grocery shoppers who fell to their bullets.

Four million people stood up throughout France, in marches and vigils, red-eyed and grieving, to uphold the incommensurable value of 17 human lives, and, beyond them, of every single human life. Let’s hope that in the battle of images that inspired these barbaric acts, the vision of hundreds of thousands of people of every race, gender, religion, age, size and shape standing up peacefully without fear of one another will have a more lasting impact than the bloody massacre. 

Cécile Alduy is an associate professor of French at Stanford University and author of "Marine Le Pen's Words: Decoding the New National Front Discourse."

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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