Charlie Hebdo killings: an assault on our freedoms

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The massacre that took place at the offices of Charlie Hebdo on Wednesday morning is an act without precedent, writes Mediapart editor François Bonnet. The killers who targeted the satirical magazine also attacked the very heart of what makes a democracy, freedom of the press and, beyond that, our individual and collective freedoms.

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Twelve dead and eleven wounded. An editorial team massacred in cold blood, two police officers killed. The attack carried out by a group of three men against satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo is certainly “the French press's blackest day”, as the journalists' organisation Reporters sans frontières ('Reporters without Borders') has said. It is an unprecedented act, an act that has never occurred before either in France or anywhere else in the world. It is an act of terror – the deadliest for 50 years– of whom the first victims are the members of the Charlie Hebdo editorial team. It is they who have nurtured this magazine, a magazine which, since its creation in 1969, has stood as a symbol of our freedoms.

Of course it is about the freedom of the press. But it is even more about all our individual and collective freedoms. In its own way Charlie Hebdo – and our passing agreements or disagreements with it are of no importance – never stopped claiming an ever greater freedom. On each occasion it wanted to push back all the barriers erected by the censors of the day, by old and new social conventions, by both lofty and less lofty interests, and by right-minded people as well as by fanatics. It is through this spirit of radicalism, through this permanent provoking of thought and debate, that this satirical magazine, as it is called, has widened the parameters of public debate.

In its time it has contained satire, criticism, provocative themes, vulgarity but also humour, laughter, and revelations, and has adopted lively editorial stances. Each week Charlie Hebdo has reminded us that freedom is an ongoing struggle. So it was quite natural that in January 2009 the magazine took part in an evening dedicated to a “free and independent press” with Mediapart and other online or print publications Les Inrockuptibles, Le Nouvel Observateur, Rue 89 and Marianne (read more here). Beyond our differences ,one thing was absolutely clear: freedom cannot be up for discussion, cannot be divided up and cannot be allocated according to the vagaries of the moment. During that evening Charb and Tignous – the pen names of Charlie Hebdo editor and cartoonist Stéphane Charbonnier and cartoonist Bernard Verlhac – 'drew' the debates held at the Châtelet theatre in Paris. Both of our friends were killed in the attack on Wednesday.

Charb and Tignous - like their cartoonist colleagues Jean Cabut, 'Cabu', and Georges Wolinski – never gave up the tradition that is anchored in our democracy because it developed during the French Revolution: to turn press cartoons into polemical writings on debates of general interest. Cabu and Wolinski, like many other cartoonist at Charlie, will go down as being among the greatest reporters and commentators of the French press. What would our memories of these last 40 years be without their drawings which, since the post-1968era, have told the story of sexual liberation, the emergence of the environment as a key issue, anti-militarism and all the social earthquakes that have shaken French society?

The assassins of the mind who targeted Charlie Hebdo, in a military-style action which according to our information so far seems to have been premeditated and meticulously planned, are thus attacking the heart of what democracy is all about. In an interview with Mediapart the historian Pierre Rosanvallon, an expert on the history of democracy, said: “A newspaper must fulfil two functions: to set the framework for the public arena, but also to produce revelations. To reveal, first of all, in the sense of holding up a mirror to society, and to reveal also in the sense of holding up a light, to put your finger on sensitive points.”

To get rid of this public arena, to break the mirror, to replace light with darkness; that is the aim of all terrorist acts, to strike so that the resulting outrage and fear end up smashing our freedoms. The initial facts of the investigation set out by the prosecution authorities in Paris on Wednesday lend credence to the idea that this was an attack by Islamic extremists. Ever since 2006, and the row over publishing cartoons of Muhammad, the magazine has been at the centre of controversies related to Islam. In 2011 a fire-bomb attack destroyed part of its offices.

If it is confirmed that it was indeed committed by fanatics proclaiming allegiance to Islam, the massacre of Wednesday January 7th will have political consequences that are, at this stage, impossible to gauge. After the obvious anger and unanimity, after the “concern for national unity” immediately evoked by President François Hollande, who went to the scene of the killings on Wednesday, there will come a time of questions and divisions.

There will be questions about France's foreign policy and its many military interventions. These interventions have been carried out in the name of the “war on terrorism”, a muddled expression that leaves one blind to the political realities to a part of the Arab world and prevents one from considering the complexities of the upheavals that are under way. Following on from the killings by Mohammed Merah in Toulouse and Montauban in south-west France in March 2012 – where a Jewish school was one of the targets – here is a new and tragic demonstration that France is going to have to face a war on its own soil, without any other prospect than a reduction in our freedoms and growing social tension.

Next there are the internal divisions: the breaking up of our political and social landscape under attack from the extreme right and faced with a Left that is, ideologically, completely routed. For some years now the extreme right, its thinkers and its intermediaries, just like a section of the Right with Nicolas Sarkozy lighting the fire, have continually sought to create “a Muslim problem in France”.

These attempts, which range from rampant discrimination to open xenophobia (see the article here, in French, by Mediapart's editor-in-chief Edwy Plenel), are now at the centre of public debate, stigmatising assimilated Muslims as a new enemy within, even as terrorists. This sickening climate is fertile ground for all extremists. “You can create dangers by shouting out every morning that they exist,” wrote Émile Zola. “If you steadily hold out to the people a scarecrow, you end by bringing into existence a real monster.” On Wednesday January 7th, this monster killed twelve people.

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  • The French version of this article can be found here.

 English version by Michael Streeter

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