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What's at Stake in Europe's Response to Charlie Hebdo

A French citizen explains the explosive realities of her nation's identity politics after a horrific terrorist attack.

After having his office firebombed and his website hacked, after being criticized by his own Prime Minister, Stéphane Charbonnier, a French cartoonist, spoke up for himself. “I don’t feel as though I’m killing someone with a pen,” he said, to Le Monde, in 2012. “I’m not putting lives at risk.” Charb, as he was known, indeed did not kill. But, as editorial director of Charlie Hebdo, a biting, bawdy, and terribly brave French satirical newspaper, he put his own life at risk, as he certainly knew. On Wednesday, masked gunman assassinated him and nine of his colleagues, as well as two police officers, for their work.

#JeSuisCharlie is trending all over Twitter, and Parisians are holding up pens, before the silhouette of delicate trees and carousels with yellow lights, to support their fallen confrères. It’s very likely that more people are demonstrating, horrified, than regularly read Charlie Hebdo. The magazine was strapped financially, and relatively fringe, mocking evenly the overinflated and overpowerful—man, creed, whatever. Many citizens who wouldn’t call it blasphemy might think it distasteful, or simply pointless, to print a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad bending over (to take just one example). But it was legal, and it was defensible: that, merci Voltaire, is what free speech is. President François Hollande, who hurried to the scene of the attack, said Wednesday, “Nobody in France should think that they can behave against the principle of the Republic and harm the spirit of the Republic, embodied by a newspaper.”

The story of the next months and years, however, is likely to be defined by the fact that these ancient abstractions—the spirit of the Republic!—conceal complicated cultural realities, which Charbonnier’s satire was designed to bring into the open, then rip up. Exactly one week before the attack, Hollande used his New Year’s Eve address on TV to say that his towering  "cause" for 2015 would be the national battle against racism and anti-Semitism. Both forms of bigotry are swelling in France, not quite mirror images, but related in complex ways. Because of these forces, the attack on Charlie Hebdo has the potential to be a decisive moment of cultural inflection for France, and perhaps for all of Europe, on the level of 9/11 for the United States. Hollande's national battle just got much harder.

France gave us the Statue of Liberty, but it has no Ellis Island; it isn’t a country composed of settlers. The traditional French person—Français de souche, they call it—sees you, and it's that view that sticks. Whatever hallmark of national fidelity you display, whether or not you, like the two brothers suspected of the killing, were born in the heart of Paris, you can’t take it off. Even if you are a French citizen, to a Français de souche, you may still be the Other.

Secretary of State John Kerry, in his statement condemning the attacks—delivered partly in the serviceable French that may have helped deny him the presidency—said that France gave birth to democracy itself. France also, in a sense, gave birth to the melting pot: back in Revolutionary days, France was the first country to "emancipate" its Jews, granting them civic equality. But the melting pot never fully melted. As the legacy of Alfred Dreyfus and Vichy France will tell you, it never quite figured out what to do with people who are French but don’t seem, feel French. In France, the cheese, the wine, the blood, is linked to the land, the literal root. France today has the largest Jewish population in Europe. Its citizens, of which I am one, recall the Vichy state’s colluding with Nazi Germany for anti-Jewish measures, and cannot believe the shattered storefronts, synagogue threats, and other violence that have lately been in the news. Thousands of Jewish citizens are leaving France for Israel.

France also has Europe’s largest Muslim population. In many ways it is this group that has become the country’s broadly scapegoated minority. Children and grandchildren of immigrants from North Africa—the Maghreb—who were born in France and are French citizens often find it difficult to get a decent job. President Sarkozy famously smeared those who live in the suburbs, and complained that there were too many immigrants, when what he meant were Arab French people. Unemployment is at nearly 30 percent in some of Paris's suburbs. In and out of the workplace, certain Muslim practices have been deemed impossible to assimilate. The face veil is not allowed in public, and the headscarf is not permitted in civil service offices or state-run schools. Companies respond far less frequently to resumés that show Arabic-sounding names up top. Many Arab neighborhoods are like walled cities, kept far, kept out.

Young French Muslims, often treated as un-French, feel alienated and powerless. That alienation—and the video-game power conferred by an AK47—might help explain why almost 1,000 French citizens last year alone decided to join jihadist groups in Iraq and Syria, joining at least 1,000 more. For some young people, the ideology of ISIS and related groups has become an irresistible fantasy of power. In the past several weeks, 23 people were injured when Muslim men drove vehicles into crowds in French cities like Dijon and Nantes, yelling jihadist rallying cries. The New York Times notes that, when Chérif Kouachi, one of the suspects, was on trial in 2008, he described himself as an “occasional Muslim.” It’s telling that, years before the attack on Charlie Hebdo, he schemed of attacks on Jewish targets. France is unusually tangled in Middle Eastern politics. 

For all of France’s fine political abstractions, ethnic identity is inescapable. Everyone is obsessed with where everyone else comes from. The French government tells itself that it doesn’t "see" or recognize race, so racism is impossible—but those are just words. When I lived in Paris after college, commuting, traveling, was a constant act of encounter. “Are you Jewish? Are you Egyptian? Are you Iraqi?” I was asked at least every day. On the metro, one afternoon, I didn’t understand a slang term being tried, so smiled politely and popped my ear buds back in. The man pulled a chain up from under his t-shirt, and poked me with its Star of David.

Even the free speech issue is more complicated, and caught up in identity politics, than #JeSuisCharlie would suggest. President Obama said that the attack on a newspaper "underscores that these terrorists fear freedom of speech and freedom of the press." But freedom of speech in France isn’t as airtight as it is here. In France—and in Germany, for one—it is a crime to deny the Holocaust. Even Twitter, which prides itself as a free-speech champion, had to start censoring content in two cases involving hate speech against Jews, as I wrote in 2013. (The social media network instituted a policy called "country withheld content.") Glenn Greenwald has called France's censorship demands to Twitter odious and dangerous. But the provision is in place, like the one banning displays of Nazi flags, to foster national repentance for its part in the moral catastrophe of the World War II genocide.

Enforcement is emphatic. Last year, the Parisian government, and mayors of a few cities, banned shows by the French comic Dieudonné M’bala M’bala, whose comedy traffics in anti-Semitic tropes, and who has been convicted several times for inciting racial hate. Then-Interior Minister Manuel Valls, who is now France’s Prime Minister, said he wanted to keep Dieudonné and his "mechanics of hate" off stages throughout France. The comic called the cancellations “blatant political interference,” and hasn’t suffered for popularity. It might upset some people that Dieudonné’s comedy—at the expense, some perceive, of Jews—is illegal, while Charlie Hebdo’s comedy—at the expense, some perceive, of Muslims—is not.

As with 9/11, the reverbations of the Charlie Hebdo attacks are apt to be as powerful as the event itself, or more so. All of French society is now awaiting the aftershocks. The rector of Paris’s Grand Mosque stressed that his kind of Muslims—comme toi et moi, he must hope the non-Muslim French will think—are horrified at the “deafening declaration of war.” “Our community,” he said, “is stunned by what just happened. It’s a whole section of our democracy that is seriously affected.” Imams visiting the scene of the shootings have called on French Muslims to join in a unity March Sunday. As models, they have at least two of those slain Wednesday: Ahmed Merabet, a French police officer and a Muslim, and Mustapha Ourrad, a copy editor from an Algerian family.

In her statement in response to the attacks, the French far-right leader Marine Le Pen cannily stayed far from a certain jingoistic pitch. She will be striking some chord of national unity Friday, by meeting with Hollande, and French leaders like François Bayrou et Jean-Luc Mélenchon, at the Élysée. But she could not restrain herself from speaking of “denial and hypocrisy” over “Islamic fundamentalism.” Her National Front party, which runs on the menace Islam poses to French tradition, are very likely to benefit from voters who wish the killers were simply foreign elements. After Mohammed Merah killed seven at a Jewish school in southwest France, Le Pen asked, “How many Mohammed Merahs are arriving on boats and planes each day, filling France with immigrants? How many Mohammed Merahs are among the children of our immigrants?”

The violence is already being used to fuel support for the far-right, anti-immigrant, xenophobic politics throughout Europe. (Not to mention places closer to home; the night of the attacks, the New York Post issued an editorial using the events in Paris to recommend that the NYPD restart its “Muslim Mapping” intelligence program.) 9/11 inaugurated a war culture in America, and there are already those pressing for one in Europe. On Wednesday, Geert Wilders, the head of the Dutch Party for Freedom, tweeted, "This is a war. When will Western leaders finally realize this?"

Charb had lived with security protection for years. And while he knew that he was in the sights of extremists, he also knew that this was no war. To him and the older generation of satirists, provocation, engagement was the only way. Now, we’ll never be sure what he was thinking, if he had time to think, before he was shot to death. He must already have been stunned at his context. More than defiance, he showed that he simply wanted to draw his cartoons. Charb must have been stunned, Wednesday, that he could be taken so seriously. But anyone who has read of his commitment cannot doubt that he took cartooning seriously.

Martin Vidberg, a cartoonist at Le Monde, tweeted Wednesday, “How to draw today? How not to draw today?” Below, the image of a marker, with blood splattering—either drawn by the same artist, or else the faithful blood. Le rouge et le noir. “Today, I am a journalist,” he wrote, in the beautiful, recognizable script achievable only by one who was a tidy schoolchild of the French République. “Today, I draw for Charlie Hebdo.”