David Ramos / Getty Images

Who is Charlie?

France’s national unity hides deeper divides

January 17, 2015 2:00AM ET

Last Sunday’s massive rallying throughout France has been celebrated all over the world as a historic show of unity and courage, a redemptive coming together that transcended the stunned mood of the past week. An estimated 4 million people marched in the country, people of every age, religion, nationality, opinion and color, including more than 1.5 million in Paris. Almost every street of three arrondissements (an area larger than New York’s Central Park) was taken over by a compact cohort of determined marchers driven to the heart of the bleeding city, the Place de la République in the northeast. The procession stretched from there to the Place de la Nation — from republic to nation, and one could fear that what was started to honor victims and upheld universal republican values would end up in a more traditional, fearful brand of nationalist rhetoric.

The march was so thickly packed that it was almost impossible to join it. Families with strollers doubled back to barely quieter alleys or gardens. Crawling at a snail’s pace, the marchers barely moved most of the afternoon, stuck in place in compact yet heartwarming, benevolent masses. Even in the subway the Parisians were untypically affable, even though rush hour felt breezy compared with the crush and squeeze one had to experience to get through. After a ride in a car tight with passengers, it took me 40 minutes to extricate myself inch by inch from the platform and up one flight of stairs to the fresh air of the street. There the density of human beings per square foot was at once suffocating and exhilarating. Under- and aboveground, Paris looked like a gigantic anthill scooped open, revealing dozens of galleries and streets swarming east. This was possibly the longest funeral procession in history.

Perched on her father’s shoulders, a wide-eyed 6-year-old was watching the marchers moving slowly, steadily, from one end of the Boulevard du Temple to as far as one could see toward the Place de la Bastille at the other end. Many demonstrators were displaying black “Je suis Charlie” stickers on their coats, in homage to Charlie Hebdo, the satirical weekly whose offices were savagely attacked on Jan. 7. Others were holding supersized foam pencils inscribed “Not afraid” as a symbol of support for freedom of speech. Some had glued together placards showing the irreverent, anti-clerical covers of Charlie Hebdo or messages for peace and tolerance. With her hesitant first-grader’s voice, the little girl tried to decipher one such sign: “I … am … Charlie, I … am … a Jew, I am … a Muslim, I am a … cop, I am … a human being.” She bit her lips for a second. “What about me, dad? What am I?”

In spite of the historical mobilization, a lot of people in France are asking themselves the same question. It used to be, at least in theory, a simple one to answer. France prides itself on its republican melting pot. For centuries, hundreds of thousands of immigrants from all over the world have come and assimilated, endorsing within a generation the French identity that is handed over to them by way of a free, secular, centralized school system and a cohesive social framework. But the attacks perpetrated by Saïd Kouachi and Chérif Kouachi, two brothers of Algerian descent, and Amedy Coulibaly, whose parents arrived from Mali — all born and raised in France, all Muslims — have sharpened the sense that France’s unity is at risk.

Since the murders in cold blood last week of cartoonists at a Charlie Hebdo editorial meeting, of a policewoman on the streets and of shoppers in a kosher grocery, France has been petrified with fear. At the mixed-income, ethnically diverse public school my daughter attends in the 14th Arrondissement, parents were unusually numerous and serious Friday afternoon at pickup. Sophie, a single mother in her 20s with a pierced nose and black nail polish, was trying very hard to not mix things up as she attempted to put her feelings into words. 

‘Those who felt the furthest estranged from Sunday’s national wake-up call are those for whom the gap between the republican symbols and their everyday life in the banlieues is the starkest.’

Stéphane Rozès

a former counsel to President François Hollande

“I am outraged by what is happening to France right now and how our nation is being thanked for all that it gives them — the school, the jobs,” she started. “I’m also sad about what is likely to happen next. Like fear and also racism because of prejudice and generalizations. I think that good Muslims should rebel against extremists to show they are different and to prove that ‘Muslim’ does not mean ‘terrorist.’” In a few sentences, Sophie, who is white, summed up the ambivalence of many people: nostalgic for a simpler time before this new era of suspicion and racial profiling on the go.

French citizens from other backgrounds echoed her fears at Sunday’s march. A young Maghrebi woman wearing a headscarf held a sign that read, “I am a Muslim. I am not a terrorist.” But the conflation of the two in some people’s minds will take more than a placard to undo. In the week after the Charlie Hebdo shooting, 54 attacks or cases of hate speech against Muslims were reported to the police, including the beating of a 17-year-old high school student of Maghrebi origin and degradations of or shootings at mosques. That is one-third the reported total for all of 2013.

In this volatile context, President François Hollande felt compelled to address the Muslim community at the Institute of the Arab World in Paris on Thursday. “Muslims are the first victims of fanaticism, fundamentalism and intolerance,” he said. “The French of the Muslim faith have the same rights and the same duties as all citizens. They must be protected.” But are they? In Sunday’s procession, a gaunt black man with a thin raincoat wore around his neck several rounds of packaging tape marked “Fragile.”

Overall, though, as a Canadian tourist pointed out, the crowd was “rather very white.” And not all French citizens felt they had their place in the march. Stéphane Rozès, a former associate director of the polling institute CSA and a counsel to Hollande during the 2012 presidential campaign, put it tactfully, saying, “Those who felt the furthest estranged from Sunday’s national wake-up call are those for whom the gap between the republican symbols and their everyday life in the banlieues is the starkest.” Youssouf, a young man from Bondy, north of Paris was more blunt when he explained to reporters from Libération why he did not march. “I don’t want to belong to that France one afternoon but every day,” he said.

The Muslim community is not the only one to wonder where it belongs. “I’ve always defined myself as French first, then Jewish,” said Michèle, a journalist in her early 50s who knew some of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists. She was born in Tunisia and has lived in France since she was 5. “But very recently, things have been shifting — and not from my own doing.” She hesitated. “It’s very complicated to live with that feeling … I truly empathize with Muslims who used to be French and Muslims and end up now being seen only as Muslims, in spite of themselves. France failed us here.”

What was truly vindicated Sunday? Freedom of expression and the right to be of whatever faith, for all, everywhere in the world? Or was it a more parochial pride of being French? French flags could be seen everywhere. From time to time, marchers built up rounds of rhythmic applause, sometimes to celebrate police forces passing by but more often for no other reason than the need to applaud themselves for being there. The message was just “We are present, we came,” but it was unclear what that presence meant or what it will mean for the future. The difficulty to find the smallest common denominator that would alienate no one and unite all was palpable. After fiery debates about the hashtags #JeSuisCharlie, #JeNeSuisPasCharlie and #JeSuisJuif on social networks in the days leading up to the march, very few words seemed neutral or common enough. “The Marseillaise” got some claps. At one point, the crowd started chanting, hesitantly, “Liberté” (freedom), but soon it stopped.

It may be that this pride march of national unity was a gesture for domestic reassurance as much as a symbolic counteroffensive against jihadists. Were the attacks, perpetrated by French-born Muslims, not the latest, most arresting sign of a deeper crack in this frail unity that the French nation holds on to so desperately, like a comforting chimera from the past?

“We needed this coming together, this grieving ritual to mourn collectively. It was cathartic,” Michèle, the Tunisian-born journalist, said. “But if the march was a funeral, it was also the burial of our illusions. Now people have finally realized that we are at war.”

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.

Related News

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter