It was supposed to be a nice morning. Indeed it started off well enough, sunny, not too cold. In fact, looking back, Wednesday January 7th, 2015, was a beautiful day … until noon. Many of us were just heading out for lunch when phones started to ring, app notifications popped up on our screens, and Twitter and Facebook news feeds were hyperactive.
For me, it was a simple message that came from a friend in Paris. Six words, and a list of names.
Suddenly France stood still.
In France, we’ve always heard that Americans remember where they were and what they were doing when they learned about JFK’s assassination. January 7th was the same for the us. Marie, Camille, Jean-Pierre, Samia, Sarah …students, waitresses, postmen ... Muslims, Catholics, Jews ... we all remember.
The same can be said for 9/11. My best friend and I recall what we were doing on that fateful day: she was on the bus going home; I was turning on my TV expecting my favourite sitcom to start.
But the reason why January the 7th is in a sense even more shocking to us than 9/11, was we never thought for a second that a cartoonist or policeman would be killed ... simply for doing their job.
Charlie Hebdo under attack isn’t anything new. Over recent years, the magazine had been accused of being offensive, toward religion in particular. We were all aware of the threats, but today those calling themselves “Charlie” are the same who condemned the publication not so long ago.
And sadly, police officers getting killed in the line of duty also isn’t new, nor is terrorism. France has already witnessed these types of sorrows. In March 2012, Mohamed Merah, a 23-year-old French citizen of Algerian descent, shot and killed seven people in Toulouse, including three unarmed French soldiers and small children at a Jewish school. More recently, we have seen fanatics abroad act in Boston, Australia and Canada. Deep down, we knew that it could happen in France on a large scale, but we chose not to admit it.
For the French, the January 7th attack was also completely new in terms of journalism. Having a passion for the US, I sometimes watch American news channels. And I was in the US when Michael Jackson died and saw some of the most serious news channels airing live images of the singer’s ambulance driving to the hospital, filmed from a helicopter. And it all appeared so normal. The same cannot be said for French news reporting … that is, until January the 7th.
Of course, we remember 9/11 and how TV shows were interrupted by live news coverage, images of the Twin Towers aired over and over, all day long. But this was a time when social media and rolling news channels didn’t exist in France. The French weren’t in need of constant information, constant updates. We even criticized the Americans for their lack of decency.
Fast-forward ten-plus years, we have French citizens filming a policeman being shot by terrorists and uploading the video on YouTube; we have French reporters filming special forces while they’re preparing for a secret operation; we even have French journalists calling a suspected gunman and asking about hostages – hostages that he didn’t know he had, thus putting their lives in danger.
Speaking about the siege at the Paris kosher grocery store, a policeman friend in Paris told me: “In Vincennes, Amedy Coulibaly didn’t know people were hiding in the cold room of the shop where he was holding hostages, but one of the news channels actually reported this detail. The problem was … Coulibaly was watching the same channel. Just to have the best images, just to attract viewers, journalists actually put lives in danger … while my colleagues were trying to save them.”
Seven million … that’s more than 10% of the French population. It’s also the number of issues printed of Charlie Hebdo’s “survival issue”. This is a record for a French magazine, previously held by France-Soir after the death of the President Charles de Gaulle. (Ironically, it was de Gaulle’s government in 1970 that banned Charlie Hebdo – then published under the its original title Hari-Kari – and France-Soir ceased publication in 2012; it’s now available only online.) Seven million … normal under the circumstances and yet so surprising when you consider the crisis of the written press. Bookstores are closing, major publications are disappearing. I cried when Newsweek stopped its print version because nothing is more satisfying than turning paper pages.
I’ve been reading Charlie Hebdo for the last 10 years. Readers, like me, of pre-attack Charlie Hebdo were connected to the magazine because they enjoyed its insolence, its drawings, its dark humour and its freedom, even if they disagreed with it sometimes. It’s the only magazine that publishes cartoons and dedicates a column to animal rights. Cabu (who was “the best journalist in France” according to film-maker Jean-Luc Godard) was a vegetarian (also like me); many of the cartoonists had adopted dogs and cats from shelters. Since the publication was resurrected in 1992, it has been a melting pot of the French population: old, young, left or right, men or women, with or without religion. True, over the past years readership has dwindled but some remained faithful. And on January 14th, the faithful couldn’t get a copy. Even worse, they suddenly heard nonreaders, people who used to criticize print journalism, who were getting the news online, explaining how important it is to help support magazines and newspapers. These are the same people who criticized Charlie Hebdo just two weeks ago. The same people who are going to criticize it again in a month’s time.
Charlie Hebdo was already in the middle of a chaotic squall. Their office had been purposefully set on fire, they were losing a lot of money, they were asking for help ... no one responded. Until now. But will seven million readers still be there tomorrow?
This shock wave has changed the French in many ways: morally, politically, socially. If France stood still this day, it was for a brief moment.
Despite the fact the French media didn’t show itself in its best light, the entire country overcame its differences on January 11th, marching with a message of more than just solidarity for a magazine and freedom of speech.
In the end, we echo the expression of Voltaire biographer Evelyn Beatrice Hall: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” As it’s a bit too long for a sign, and because “United We Stand” is already taken, the French captured the moment with a simple “Je suis Charlie”.