Can Europe Make It?

Letter from Paris

My friends and I, either in the past or more recently, all had some kind of personal and/or activist link with people among the victims…

Bernard Dreano
16 January 2015

Dear Friends,

As you know the terrorists killed 17 persons, targeting journalists and cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo and Jews at the Hyper-Kosher store. 

In a way the victims were a microcosm of French society, for among the victims in Charlie Hebdo were 2 Muslims, one Caribbean policewomen and one Tunisian, and several customers of the kosher store were saved thanks to the courageous behaviour of a Muslim migrant from Mali who was working there. 

My friends and I, either in the past or more recently, had all had some kind of personal and/or activist links with people among the victims, such as the cartoonists Wolinski, Cabu or Tignous, the writer “Oncle Bernard”, and Yohav Attab, a Jew from Tunis, a human rights activist who had just arrived in France as a student and who was killed in the kosher store. 


Condemnation of the attacks came from everywhere, all kind of parties, movements, unions, right and left, Christian, Muslim, Jews, etc.

And as you know 4 million people went to the streets on Saturday and Sunday in all the towns of France, probably 1.5 million people in Paris alone (the biggest street demonstration ever). A massive expression of the society in honor of the victims, and to say "we are not afraid", "we will live together in peace…". 

People were not only condemning the violence. They were also defending the freedom of expression (of the newspaper) and condemning the racist attack against Jews. 

Charlie-Hebdo was a leftist satirical journal, supposed to mock the mightiest, criticize all powers (political, economical, and religious), to fight bigotry and racism wherever it could be found. Be that as it may, Charlie had also been in recent years a channel for Islamophobic positions, and I am not referring to the publication of the “Mohamed” Danish cartoons, but to a host of articles, statements, as well as some cartoons, attacking Muslims and Arabs…. Especially in the period 2005-2009 when Philippe Val was editor in chief (Val for example, expounded the thesis that the 2005 youth riots were an Islamic plot, and in 2008 he expelled Sine, one of the cartoonist founding members of Charlie, for criticising Israeli policies; he was subsequently nominated by Sarkozy for the position of the director of the main French public radio-channel). 

Therefore Charlie was not very popular among the civic activists of the populous districts of the “banlieue” as a whole (even if the journal was quietly ignored by young people in general), not to mention Muslims. Nevertheless, practically all of them reacted against the terrorist attacks and mobilized themselves and participated actively in the demonstration. But at the same time a lot of them were questioning the slogan “Je suis Charlie” (to the extent that this implied support for all the opinions and editorial line of Charlie…), many combining it with other slogans like je suis Charlie and something else, Je suis Charlie, Je suis Ahmed (the Muslim police officer killed in the attack), Je suis juif (I am a Jew) et musulman (and Muslim).), or simply using other slogans instead, like nous sommes ensemble – (we are together).


“National Unity” or union of the people

The decision of François Hollande to invite heads of state and government to participate in the Paris rally created uneasiness. A lot of people – including a lot of Parisian demonstrators, got the impression that their protest had been hijacked by politicians. Beyond the symbolism of the meeting of all nations gathered around the French people to fight terrorism, there was an unmistakeable sense of a lack of legitimacy among these powerful peoples, some of them being well known for their responsibility for policies of war, discrimination, not to speak of corruption. Netanyahu came with his two henchmen Lieberman and Bennet (the leader of the Israeli extreme right, an advocate of apartheid and ethnic cleansing). He was duly accorded the maximum red carpet treatment and shown every sign of respect by the French authorities, as if he alone was representing “The Jews”, having just issued a sort of war communiqué by inviting all French Jews to emigrate to Israel! And the presence of Mahmoud Abbas was hardly seen as a “balancing factor” or compensation…

Nevertheless, it must be asked, does this massive mobilization of a society means that the people are indeed united?  Or is this “union nationale” a fake? 

The willingness of all the demonstrators to “co-exist” respectfully and peacefully was obvious.

Unfortunately xenophobia, sectarianism and divisions are now on the rise. The union of the people has to be built.


A lot of Jews are afraid. There are 600,000 Jews or people of “Jewish Culture” in France, the majority of whom are very secular, the biggest Jewish community in western Europe. Anti-Semitic incidents are frequent (insults, name-calling, assaults, etc.). Meanwhile the leader of the “official representatives” of the Jewish Communities (who are very far from “representing” all French Jews) take a very aggressive and provocative stance, (especially concerning the Palestinian question). Some of these “spokespersons” have opined that the mere demand of recognition of the State of Palestine had opened the gates of terrorism!

A lot of Muslims are afraid. There are 4.5 million Muslims or people from a “Muslim culture” in France, the majority being very secular in their attitudes. There were Islamophobic incidents just after the attacks in more than 50 cities (Mosque attacks, graffiti, etc.). Muslims, especially women – with or without the hijab (Islamist veil) are insulted and sometimes assaulted in the street. Muslims have the impression that the authorities are not fighting Islamophobia but contributing to spreading it (as with the veiled Muslim mother forbidden to participate in school activities with the pupils, as officially decreed by the Ministry of Education, but with the mother insulted in front of her children).

“Islam” is represented in the media by a few “spokespersons”, most of them discredited (especially among young believers) and appearing as the “Imams of the République” like those who were active during the days of French colonialism.

Intellectuals, people of the media, political leaders are always “enjoining” Muslims to “take sides”, and at the same time systematically ignoring year in year out the numerous anti-sectarian and prodemocracy activities, statements and demonstrations orchestrated by a huge range of organizations of citizens including those of the Muslim faith, proponents of Muslim culture, local, secular, religious, leftist, conservative, antiracist, even islamist (like the French Muslims Brothers) voices who responded affirmatively to these exhortations.  

In this context, a “radical Islamism” is growing (mainly through informal channels, influencing a lot of people, but especially youngsters).  Sectarian “salafists” and neo-wahhabist elements are active in some mosques, on the internet, through publications (often Saudi publications), etc. They spread the ideas of division, separatism, and intolerance. From this background a few “jihadists” as such, emerge.

A small but significant section of the young people, mainly (but not only) Black and Arabs, mainly (but not only) from a Muslim background, and from the “banlieue” are expressing a sort of dissent by refusing the “Je suis Charlie” rallying cry, and denouncing as double standards the attitudes towards the recent killings. Very often as well, especially among the younger elements, there are a lot of converts to a ‘conspiracy theory’ about a fake attack, or ‘plot’ (just like after 9/11). These people are more or less, in support of Dieudonné. Dieudonné is a black ‘humorist’ who last year very vocally espoused very racist and anti-Semitic positions. He is linked to the extreme right… He chose to say after the attacks, “I am Charlie Koulibaly”, and is currently being prosecuted for being an apologist for terrorism (which of course gives him maximum publicity).

French chauvinism is of course also on the increase. The extreme-right, xenophobic, Front National now represents around 25% of the potential vote. Its traditional anti-Semitism is now much less visible, but islamophobia is one of its main preoccupations. But the Front National is not supporting any kind of violence. Small radical fascist groups (one is called Riposte laïque) are trying to create an anti-Islam movement like the Pegida in Germany. Another kind of xenophobia is articulated by leftists who purport to be secular and republicans, but who in the name of an antireligious “laïcité” are encouraging discrimination against religious people, and blaming as “accomplices to jihadists”, anyone who denounces the existence of Islamophobia in French society! 

And, in the name of “national unity” and “laïcité” some mainstream officials, intellectuals, and politicians are calling for the people who dare to say, “we are not Charlie”, to be prosecuted and penalised in some kind of official way.


Who are the terrorists? 

Who were the terrorists?  Three French guys born and raised in France may have been helped by a very small number of accomplices. The Kouachi brothers (murderers of the Charlie-Hebdo team) were radical jihadists (one of them had been convicted in 2006 for recruiting for jihad in Iraq). The third one, Amedy Coulibaly had met Cherif Kouachi in jail (Koulibaly was in jail for a minor misdemeanor).These are the ‘lost generations’ of French society (suffering isolation, school problems, social marginalization, unemployment…). There have been radical-islamist attacks in France in the past, the most important ones in 1995. These assassinations and bombs in public places were also organized by a very small group of the same kind of young “lost children” like their “leader” Khaled Kelkal, also killed by the police.

You find the same kind of admiration of or fascination for jihadists among part of the marginalized youth of the banlieue. But it seems that among the more than 1000 French active ‘jihadists’ who are in Syria or Iraq, a lot do not correspond to the profile of these lost children coming from the poor outskirts of the big cities. 1/4 are recent converts to Islam coming from non-migrant families, and a lot are relatively middle class. They often come from small cities. France has the biggest number in western Europe, but it’s still a very small number if you consider the number of Muslims in France.

20 years ago everybody said that we should have better security laws, but also have some social solutions to bring to the situation of social insecurity of these people from ‘the banlieue’, and also have a ‘dialogue with Islam’, to promote ‘laîcité’, and to avoid the ‘importation of foreign conflict… such as Israel-Palestine, or the civil war in Algeria…’ and so on and so forth. All words, words…


WE ARE TOGETHER, a movement initiated by people from the ‘banlieue’ of Paris and Toulouse

What next?

The worst scenario is one where we accept the logic of dislocation and the logic of war (which is precisely what the terrorists are trying to achieve).  A sort of French “Patriot Act” with emergency laws, the restriction of liberties, minority discriminations, some kind of concentration camp for suspected terrorists, as proposed by some politicians. This will not protect anybody. 

A certain type of speech about “national unity” against the common enemy addresses itself to the enemy within, all these dangerous youths. The constant references to the unifying  “values of the République “ while the discrimination, double standards, segregation, continue to flourish, can only be counterproductive.

Inside French society, there are some individuals, associations, movements, who are working hard to unite the people. Others are working hard to divide them.



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