Why "I Am Charlie" (And a Bit Danish too)

A bloody past and troubled present do not trump crucial democratic rights

Posted Feb 15, 2015

(This is the second part of a two-part post on the Charlie Hebdo affair: everything written here applies equally, I think, to yesterday’s attacks in Copenhagen)

Demonstrators at the pro-Charlie march in Paris

It is true that France has a lot to be ashamed of in both the past and the present. But does a bloody colonialist past mean the modern nation must abrogate the right to criticize or make fun of someone on the grounds that he or she originally came from a former colony? That would be pushing the politics of guilt to an absurd level. And it would mean that Britain, for example, would have to put three quarters of the planet off-limits to satire.

(Israel, Turkey, Iran and China are ongoing, modern-day colonial powers, occupying territory in Palestine, Kurdistan and Tibet respectively. Somehow, no one questions their right to generate fulsome propaganda in regard to their treatment of colonized subjects.)

It’s also true that France has a vocal xenophobic minority that finds expression in the loathsome “Front National” party. Immigrants from former Arab and African colonies are routinely discriminated against by employers and police. Various governmental initiatives to improve the lot of French people of African and Asian descent have done little to reverse a social trend that isolates lower-income blacks and Arabs in de facto ghettoes rotted by high crime and unemployment.

But the thing about the French is—and here, I think, I’m going to annoy everybody, including my countrymen—we are volatile, excitable at times, occasionally inconsistent. We have a side to our society that is racist, xenophobic, and (of course) culturally arrogant.

And we also have an amazingly and consistently worthy side. To illustrate that dichotomy, and how it’s perceived elsewhere, I’ll bring up the awful spectre of French anti-semitism, much invoked (not least by President Obama) following the attack on a Kosher market by an associate of the criminals who attacked Charlie Hebdo.

Foreigners love to cite the Dreyfus affair as an example of French anti-semitism, as indeed it was. And the inhuman actions of Vichy collaborators who sent French and other European Jews to the death camps fed on the same sickness. But critics tend to forget that the Dreyfus affair ended with a popular protest in favor of Dreyfus, and his eventual exoneration. Just as they forget that 76 percent of French Jews survived the Holocaust; a better record, thanks in large part to the actions of ordinary French people, than in any occupied country in Europe except Denmark.

Contrast that with what happened over the years to Jews in Poland, Germany and Russia. There was never a “Dreyfus affair” in those countries, for example, because even if the Frenchman’s Polish or Russian counterpart had made it to the rank of captain, as soon as he was suspected of espionage it's likely he would have been taken away and shot, or pressured into suicide.

Furthermore, many of the principles that Westerners now accept as fundamental to democratic values: the natural equality of all people, the right to various freedoms including expression and faith, the separation of powers; were first formulated in France. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen of 1789, during the French revolution, was the first systematic affirmation of human rights ever.

France was the first major power to abolish slavery in modern times (though it soon, under pressure from economic interests, abolished the abolition). Even now the insistence that “liberty, equality and fraternity” are fundamental rights of every French woman and man regardless of origin constitutes an obstacle to gathering census data on different ethnicities and thus implementing sorely needed affirmative action plans to bring French citizens of non-European extraction into the mainstream.

"Laicity" or secularism, the principle that religion and government should be kept rigidly separate, is a principle massively endorsed by French citizens on every part of the political spectrum.

It was this positive side of French culture that came out after Charlie Hebdo was attacked by the whacky Jihadis. The overriding feeling, in the streets, in cafés, in the press, was that the freedom to speak out on any subject was a fundamental part of what it meant to be French. Call it arrogant if you will, but French culture instills a respect for strict Cartesian logic, and the fundamentally indivisible nature of free expression seemed obvious to everybody.

Not only that: The march which brought roughly two million people into the streets of Paris in support of Charlie included a slew of people of African and Asian descent. In my segment of the demonstration, I estimated they made up maybe fifteen percent of the marchers, about the same as their share of the population. The signs read not only “I am Charlie” but “I am French and Jewish,” “I am French and Muslim.” Some signs read “I am Ahmed” in honor of the policeman of North African descent shot by the Jihadis (the other cop who died was a black woman from Martinique).

Friends of mine who are of North African descent but who consider themselves, and are considered by everyone who knows them, as fully French, wholeheartedly took part in the demonstration.

It was the new France that marched and sang the Marseillaise then, sometimes accompanied by Caribbean reggae and Berber ululations. The overwhelming sentiment among the marchers seemed to be that the freedoms that made us French united us far more than our ethnicities could separate us.

It was, then, a march that brought out the best of France, and instilled hope that the many different cultures and colors of the new France will be smelted together in a flame born of logic and republican (in the original sense) ideals. That hope will depend on making it clear that respect for free speech is not a cover for discrimination against immigrant culture (a clarity that was often missing in the debate over banning the Muslim veil).

The hope must also depend on France as a whole making a huge, and costly, commitment to forsaking racism and improving the lot of its minority citizens: something that, given the sclerotic grip which mediocre politicians and entrenched functionaries have on civil and political life, seems unlikely at best.

But the march for Charlie proved that it is not impossible.