Can Europe Make It?

Charlie Hebdo and the dawn of French McCarthyism

After a short-lived phase of national unity, critics have stressed that France is now more intolerant. Furthermore, since last January, free speech has regularly been under attack by a peculiar brand of "French McCarthyism".

Philippe Marlière
17 August 2015

Flickr/creative commons.

In the aftermath of the killings in Paris in January 2015, the French media as well as the government and most politicians delivered an emphatic verdict on those barbaric assassinations: what was at stake, they concurred, was the issue of freedom of speech. In other words, through their actions, the murderers had attempted to silence free speech, a cardinal value in French society.

From the outset, it was clear that the deeply unpopular socialist executive was trying to rally public opinion under the “Je suis Charlie” banner. To some extent, President François Hollande and Prime Minister Manuel Valls managed to achieve this objective. The “Charlie Effect” – as it was called in the French media – did not last long though. The grand march in Paris on 11 January brought together large segments of the nation: people from various social, religious and ethnic backgrounds took peacefully to the streets of Paris (as well as in many cities across France).

But what was the meaning of those peaceful demonstrations? Was it really in defence of freedom of expression and the “right” to ridicule believers and their beliefs, as it was depicted by the French media and most politicians? Did the public do so with a view to supporting the “right” to blasphemy? It would be hard to answer those complex issues unequivocally; however one can certainly challenge some of the official assumptions of the nebulous “Nous sommes Charlie” movement. In short, one can attempt to contextualise and objectify the government narrative on the matter.

The Hollande-Valls narrative

The only way not to concede victory to terrorists is to remain calm (Laborde 2015). This is not what George W Bush did after 9/11, and this is not what the French government did either. The point here is not to draw a parallel between the two situations which were, in many respects, dissimilar. But what was striking in the hours following the Paris attacks – and this was somehow reminiscent of the American reaction – was the public outpouring of emotion, and the active role played by the media and the government in conveying this sentiment. The fact that the attack was perpetrated by French Jihadists against a left-libertarian publication certainly struck a chord with large sections of the public. Although Charlie Hebdo’s “anti-Islamic” stance was increasingly seen as divisive and politically ambiguous by some on the left (Cyran 2013), the cartoonists who were killed – notably the elder ones such as Cabu and Georges Wolinski – were held in high esteem by the public.

There were unusual reactions in France the days following the attacks: in the “unity marches,” people were seen flying the tricolour flag (for most French people, to do any such thing seems rather cheap nationalism); they sang the Marseillaise (a song normally associated nowadays with the right or the extreme right despite recent attempts on some parts of the left to somehow “reclaim” it). More extraordinary still, citizens on the streets cheered and praised the police; a public institution which is traditionally fairly untrusted by the population. Marching with other heads of states – some of them open enemies of free speech at home – François Hollande declared on 9 January that “Paris is today the capital of the world.”

Manuel Valls, with similar self-restraint, affirmed: “France carries free speech everywhere.” This was, in a way, the expected Gallic response to those tragic events: a brand of patriotism, which mixes abstract statements about the “Country of the Rights of Man and the Citizen,” and references to the so-called “universal values” of the French “republican model.” This imperial rhetoric is reminiscent of that used by the US establishment when describing the United States as the “Land of the free” or as the self-appointed “leader of the Free World.”

Once a guerrillero in the Bolivian forest alongside Ernesto “Che” Guevara, now a conformist writer, Régis Debray summed up the national mood in his trademark grandiloquent manner: “There were four million of good citizens marching in the streets of France [on 11 January]; rightly proud to be there; unbelievers [in God]. This is admirable, but let’s think that there are one billion of believers in the world; people who do not think like us. We cannot ignore this reality” (Debray 2015).

Régis Debray’s interpretation of the historic show of unity was as follows: the crowd marching through the streets of Paris was celebrating “French exceptionalism,” that is the Voltairian spirit of the French revolution and its associated values: reason and free thinking (which for some in France is synonymous with anticlericalism if not anti-religious sentiments).

However, in line with the movement of “déclinologues” (politicians, journalists and intellectuals who lament France’s economic and geopolitical decline or loss of influence over the past decades), the writer acknowledged that outside France, few people in the world understood, let alone embraced the values of laïcité à la française, that is French-style secularism. Laïcité constitutionally separates the State and the Church and mandates strict neutrality from the state in regards to religions. 

Re-establishing 'republican values'

The defence of laïcité against what Manuel Valls has labelled “Islamofascism” was, for some, a key component of the mass support after the Paris attacks. A few days after the Paris killings, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the 2012 presidential candidate for the Left Front (a radical left coalition of parties) gave a public conference.

At that public event, Mélenchon argued that the attacks had aimed to undermine laïcité. According to this line of reasoning, the attacks had allegedly taken place because some could not tolerate the idea that religions – in this instance, Islam – should be made the butt of mockeries or blasphemous cartoons. Blasphemy – as it was argued almost unanimously in France at the time – constitutes a fundamental right as laïcité allegedly protects all kinds of beliefs including the right not to believe and to deride religions.

The day after the shooting, the French ministry of education decided that a minute of silence would be observed in all secondary schools across France to honour the victims. Teachers were invited to talk about the values of the Republic – notably laïcité – that had allegedly been threatened by the killings. In the days which followed the massacres, a 12-year old girl was temporarily excluded from school for saying in the playground that “all Muslims are friends with jihadists.”

An 8-year old was interrogated for two hours at a police station for allegedly refusing to respect the mandatory minute of silence and to join a “chain of solidarity” on the playground in support of Charlie Hebdo. He also allegedly declared that he was “on the side of the terrorists” (those claims were strongly denied by the child’s parents and lawyer). About 200 incidents of that nature were reported to the Education ministry. When no incidents took place, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, the Education minister, still lamented that “too much questioning came from pupils,” hinting that it was suspicious on the part of youngsters to discuss critically what had taken place in Paris or not to express full solidarity with Charlie Hebdo.

On 22 January, Vallaud-Belkacem presented a series of measures which were to constitute a “great mobilisation for schools around the values of the republic.” Several of those measures focused on laïcité. It was decided that a day of laïcité would be celebrated every 9 December to mark the passing of the law separating the Church and the State on 9 December,1905.

Other measures include explaining La Marseillaise, the French national anthem, or the flag in order “to re-establish teachers’ authority and Republican rites” in the classroom. Teachers were on the whole not impressed. Some regretted that those measures were ill-conceived and ineffectual as it was like imposing “something from the outside to kids who don’t understand it.” Some even challenged the reference to laïcité seen as a tool “that could be perceived as Islamophobic” by some pupils (Costa-Kostritsky 2015).

Sociological studies have shown that Islam has given some youngsters from the banlieues a chance to socialise at the mosque; it has helped them to steer out of delinquency and focus on their studies. In short, Islam has provided them with a way to find some dignity (Truong 2013). The importance that Islam today holds in the suburbs is the consequence of failed promises and policies in the 1980s. In 1983, a march for equality was organised: people walked from Marseilles to Paris.

This was the first time that second generation immigrants – mostly from Maghreb and former French colonies – publicly spoke up in favour of a multicultural and more inclusive France. After being initially courted by the Socialist government, they were rapidly ignored. This generation was failed and was never represented by the political system as a whole.

When Manuel Valls described France as a “territorial, social and ethnic apartheid” on 20 January 2015, most politicians were outraged: how could the Prime Minister compare the country of the Rights of Man to the institutionally racist South African regime? Valls, however, did not intend to suggest that France has failed to integrate the population of foreign descent.

It is true that he unwittingly admitted that, in France, there is indeed “race politics”: contrary to the elites’ republican discourse, successive French governments from the left and from the right have implemented policies which have stigmatised and discriminated against those populations.

For example, while serving as interior minister in March 2013, Manuel Valls crudely stated that the Roma population (hardly 2,000 people in France) could not integrate because its culture was “incompatible” with “French values” and “lifestyle.” This commentary was perceived as blatantly discriminatory and also arguably racist by anti-racist associations (Le Monde 2013). Yet the reaction of mainstream media and of political parties was tame if not inexistent.


In Memoriam Charlie Hebdo, Emmeline Broussard/Flickr. Some rights reserved.

The sanctitification of laïcité

Given the size of the Muslim population, the French authorities cannot be as dismissive as they are with the Roma people. In France, one does not refer to “Blacks” or “Arabs,” but to “people from immigration”; one talks about universal values and although one alludes to Islam, one mentions laïcité instead. In other words, race politics in French politics is heavily understated and codified. (Fassin 2015).

What had Valls intended, then, with his unsubtle comment about apartheid in France? After recognising that France was an “ethnic apartheid,” did the prime minister plead guilty for France’s failures and for treating sections of its populations as second-class citizens? He did not in the least do that. Rather than saying that the French government had imposed “apartheid policies” on some individuals, the Prime Minister argued that some (notably Muslim) “communities” had imposed an apartheid to the rest of society. In short, the population which originates from abroad allegedly regroups and creates isolated “ethnic areas.”

The French call it communautarisme (communitarianism, not to be confused with the word as it is used in English); a cardinal sin as the French republic is allegedly “indivisible.” Therefore it cannot accept segregated populations because they represent a “threat” to the unity of the nation. What this discourse fails to acknowledge is that those “segregated” populations do not choose to live in poor suburban areas. The successive governments put them there in the first place (Hussey 2014).

Banished from the physical, as well as political and economic centres of French society, many “French Muslims” have sought acknowledgement of their culture. The promotion of a “Muslim identity” has been for some a strategy to receive attention and some form of recognition. The political reaction to these new demands has been to radically redefine French secularism in terms of a normative set of rules and boundaries (Bowen 2015).

Throughout the whole process of demonization and segregation of individuals of Muslim faith, French “republicans” of late emphatically – some would say obsessively – refer to the notion of laïcité. The great universalist values of laïcité – freedom of conscience for all, common rules for everyone and equality between men and women – have become the instrument used to distinguish between “Us” (the “good” French citizens who abide by French law and customs) and “Them” (those who do not) (Rancière 2015).

This is not what laïcité and the law of 1905 was meant to be. In the 19th century, laïcité was a political concept which allowed republicans to free schools from the grip exerted by the Catholic Church. From the 1980s, it has become a kind of universal – and in a sense, religious – principle; a rule that every individual has to obey. It is up to the immigrants (first and second generations) and to the Muslims to conform to a kind of “Frenchness,” a set of unwritten rules of conduct and lifestyles which are compatible with “being French” or simply with living in France.

In this respect, Catholicism is largely integrated in this new laïque space; Judaism and Protestantism are tolerated, but Islam is seen and portrayed as an alien and incompatible body within the French nation. Worse, Islam is described as a “threat.” For women, to wear a hijab is a threat to laïcité because the majority of the population disapproves of the norms and values they ascribe to the garment. No pluralistic accommodation of those minority practices may possibly be found. In this situation, the role of the State is to intervene to “liberate” and “emancipate” women; to challenge decisions that most have freely made.

The State interference into people’s privacy goes as far as controlling women’s dress code and physical appearance. This explains why, since the late 1980s, the wearing of the hijab (first in school but now in the public sphere at large) has become a thorny issue for the tenants of this holistic interpretation of laïcité (Fouteau 2015). Such a take on laïcité relies on a false universalism.

It proposes in fact a “majority communautarisme” (Marlière 2004); meaning a set of Franco-centred values and norms which are compatible with the views and culture of a majority of French citizens. After the ban on the hijab in state schools (in 2004) came the ban on the face veil in the street (2010). More recently, girls in secondary education who were not wearing a hijab were expelled from schools on the grounds that the “long dark dress” which they were wearing constituted a “conspicuous religious [Islamic] sign.”

The public narrative on “Islam” and “the Muslims” (as opposed to “the Arabs,” the more widely used term until the 1990s) by French politicians, the media and intellectuals/writers  have shaped very negative representations of Islam in general. It can be argued that there has been is an attempt – deliberate or not – to vilify and ostracise people who are Muslims (Fredette 2014).

Republican McCarthyism

Obviously, everyone was horrified by the Paris attacks and everyone agreed to condemn them. But this is not to say that everyone agreed with Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons, nor that the great marches across France were meant to support “freedom of expression.” Free speech is obviously an essential component of liberal societies.

It follows that the State cannot prevent dissenting views being expressed unless they break the law. The “Charlie Hebdo effect” and the show of national unity were short-lived exactly because French citizens did not take to the streets in support of an unqualified conception of free speech. People know that some ideas and viewpoints are suppressed. For instance, France has the most draconian laws in Europe to fight Anti-Semitism. So everyone understands that one can defend free speech in theory, but without having to publish, let alone embrace offensive ideas.

This is the main reason why the whole nation could not possibly come out in support of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, which were seen by many as crude and offensive. On the left, there was unease with anti-Islamic criticisms as Muslims have virtually no representation and no political clout in society. Simply put, people took to the street to express their disgust at the cold-blooded killings. They sent a simple message: it is not right to shoot someone because you do not like what they have to say.

This underlying principle of tolerance sets the terms of how individuals can live together and learn to respect each other. The French authorities, however, chose instead to polarise the debate in terms of freedom of expression with, on the one hand, partisans of the Republic, laïcité and free speech (the “good” citizens), and on the other the first and second generation immigrants (the “bad” citizens), who are “communitarian,” culturally backward, sexist and Islamist.

Reducing the Charlie Hebdo attacks to a question of freedom of speech allows the government to ignore the disastrous socio-economic context in which some young French people become murderers. In truth, the obsessive reference to Islam in French society can be seen as a proxy for class and race.

Muslims are discriminated against owing to their religion, but also because they belong to the lowest segments in French society: they live in deprived areas where school and public services provisions are poor, and where there are few job opportunities. They are stigmatised due to the colour of their skin. In those hostile socio-economic circumstances, Muslims in France were urged by the government and the media to pledge their allegiance to the Republic by publicly stating: “Nous sommes Charlie.”

In a pluralist society, laïcité should not involve banning religions from the public sphere, but should enforce equality of all – believers or not – before the law. Under those circumstances, minority religions should only be limited when they break the law or when they do not respect the principles of liberty and equality for all. Religions should not be banned on the grounds that they do not please, or even offend, the majority of the population (Laborde 2009).

The ban on “conspicuous” religious signs in schools (the hijab notably with the 2004 law) and in the street (2010 law) is not “republican” as it goes against the underlying republicans values of liberty (to decide how to appear in public) and equality (the laws 2004 and 2010 laws primarily discriminate against Islam). For some, a new republicanism – pluralistic and strongly egalitarian – should be founded (Laborde 2010).

Since the January killings, France has not become more tolerant and more united. Quite the opposite. It started out with the condemnation of those – at school and elsewhere – who were not joining in the “Je suis Charlie” movement. The claim that the public was in favour of free speech was grossly exaggerated as dissenters were briskly silenced. Of more serious and lasting consequence has been new legislation restricting freedom of expression and dissent as well as drastic internet surveillance in the name of the “fight against terrorism” (Fouteau 2015).

Since January 2015, the French government has robustly reigned in vocal support for terrorism: up to 100 people are currently under investigation for “making or posting comments that support or try to support terrorism.” The Valls government is preparing its own Patriot Act “to fight terrorism.” It is described by critics from all political persuasions as the “single most important attack” on French civil liberties since the end of the Second World War (Plenel 2015).

Emmanuel Todd, a demographer and a historian, also a staunch “French republican,” came out against this intolerant and illiberal drift calling the march of 11 January an “imposture” (Todd 2015a): “This neo-Republic is a weird socio-political object which keeps shaking the grand rattles of liberty, equality and fraternity which have made France famous all over the world, whereas, in fact, our country has become unequal, ultra-conservative and closed” (Todd 2015b). In the aftermath of the Paris killings, it is not free speech which is making inroads, but a brand of French republican McCarthyism.

If you enjoyed this article then please consider liking Can Europe Make it? on Facebook and following us on Twitter @oD_Europe


Bowen, John “France’s Own Political Traditions Can Accommodate Visible Islam and Heal Social Divisions”, Boston Review, 3 March 2015, (last consulted on 28 April 2015).

Bowen, John, Why the French Don’t Like Headscarves. Islam, the State, and Public Space, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2007.

Costa-Kostritsky, Valeria, “Forced to be ‘Charlie’”, Precarious Europe, 17 February 2015, (last consulted on 26 April 2015).

Cyran, Olivier, “Charlie Hebdo Pas Raciste? Si Vous le Dites…”, Article 11, 5 December 2013, (last consulted on 24 April 2015).

Debray, Régis, “Après Charlie, le Risque d’un McCarthysme Démocratique”, Mediapart, 20 avril 2015, (last consulted on 26 April 2015).

Fassin, Éric, “Apartheid: Aveu ou Dénégation?”, Libération, 1 February 2015, (last consulted on 27 April 2015).

Fouteau Carine, “Valls Touche à la Liberté D’expression Pour Lutter Contre le Racisme et l’Antisémitisme”, Mediapart, 17 April 2015, (last consulted on 29 April 2015).

Fouteau, Carine, “Des Crèches aux Universités, Vingt-Cinq Ans de Fixation Contre le Voile”, Mediapart, 22 March 2015, (last consulted on 25 April 2015).

Fredette, Jennifer, Constructing Muslims in France. Discourse, Public Identity, and the Politics of Citizenship, Philadelphia, Temple University Press, 2014.

Hussey, Andrew, The French Intifada. The Long War Between France and Its Arabs, London, Granta, 2014.

Laborde, Cécile “Don’t Let the Paris Murderers Win”, European Institute, UCL, 25 February 2015, (last consulted on 24 April 2015).

Laborde, Cécile, “Républicanisme Critique vs. Républicanisme Conservateur: Repenser les ‘Accommodements Raisonnables’.”, Critique Internationale, 3/2009, No. 44, p. 19-33.

Laborde, Cécile, Français, Encore un Effort Pour Être Républicains!, Paris, Éditions du Seuil, 2010.

Le Monde (unsigned), “Le MRAP Porte Plainte Contre Manuel Valls Pour Ses Propos Contre les Roms”, 12 November 2013, (last consulted on 29 April 2015)

Marlière, Philippe, “La Laïcité, un Principe de Non-Domination”, Mediapart, 30 October 2013, (last consulted on 28 April 2015).

Marlière, Philippe, “La Laïcité en France, un Communautarisme Majoritaire”, Politique, Revue de Débats, No. 33, February 2004, (last consulted on 28 April 2015).

Plenel, Edwy, “Contre la Surveillance, la Question Démocratique”, Mediapart, 29 April 2015, (last consulted on 29 April 2015).

Rancière, Jacques, “The Front National’s Useful Idiots”,, 13 April 2015, (last consulted on 28 April 2015).

Todd, Emmanuel, Qui Est Charlie ? Sociologie d’une Crise Religieuse, Paris, Éditions du Seuil, 2015a.

Todd, Emmanuel, “Le 11 janvier a été une imposture”, L’Obs, 29 April 2015b, (last consulted on 29 April 2015).

Truong, Fabien, Des Capuches et des Hommes, Paris, Buchet-Chastel (“Essais et Documents”), 2013.

Get weekly updates on Europe A thoughtful weekly email of economic, political, social and cultural developments from the storm-tossed continent. Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData