Analysis |

The Attack on Charlie Hebdo: France’s 9/11

The terrorists struck at what they saw as a French symbol — the irony-rich arrogance of free expression.

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People lay flowers outside the offices of the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris, January 8, 2015.Credit: AFP

From childhood, almost every French person recognizes the people killed in the terror attack at the Charlie Hebdo offices on Wednesday. The newspaper's circulation is fairly small — between 40,000 copies for a regular edition and 100,000 for special editions, including the one that made fun of the prophet Mohammed. But its aura is larger than its circulation.

Everyone in France knew Charlie Hebdo’s cartoonists; they were among the biggest stars in French comics, children’s television programs, popular newspapers and children’s books. In the French subconscious, the deadly attack is tantamount not only to an attack on freedom of expression and artistic freedom, but on childhood itself, the time of innocence of every French man and woman.

From this perspective, at least, the attack is France’s 9/11. Just as the attack on the World Trade Center in Manhattan struck at what Osama bin Laden saw as an American symbol — the confident arrogance of Wall Street — the attackers on Charlie Hebdo struck at what they saw as a French symbol — the irony-rich arrogance of free expression.

Before his death, the last cartoon by Charlie Hebdo's editor-in-chief, Stephane Charbonnier (Charb), was chillingly prophetic. Captioned “Still no terror attacks in France,” the cartoon depicted an Islamic terrorist remarking: “Wait — we still have until the end of January to present our wishes.”

Shortly before the attack, Charlie Hebdo’s Twitter account published a caricature of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State, wishing readers a happy New Year and adding: “And good health, too!”

Besides Charbonnier, France’s highest-profile cartoonists were killed in the attack — among them 80-year-old Georges Wolinski, the brilliant political caricaturist, and Jean Cabut (Cabu), whose hero Le Grand Duduche will always remain a 16-year-old high-school kid even though his creator was murdered at age 76.

The mourning in France — whether on social media, in the conventional media or at the large spontaneous demonstration at the Place de la République in Paris — is without a doubt profound, honest and understandable. But very soon President François Hollande will have to make wiser decisions than the ones his former counterpart George W. Bush made after the attack on the World Trade Center.

It will not be easy. France has a president showing no authority, and is experiencing  worsening anti-Semitic incidents and growing support for Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right National Front. With coincidental but disturbing timing, the attack took place on publication day of a much-talked-about book by the national writer Michel Houellebecq, a dystopian novel of 2022 France under Islamic control.

All these things pale in comparison to Hollande’s deeper problem — the French republic’s failure to integrate its Muslim citizens based on its slogan of liberty, equality and fraternity. If France does not wish to become embroiled in an internecine war whose results will be just as tragic as Bush’s war in Iraq, it must come up with a solution that protects its values and saves its future as an egalitarian society.

The populist alternative — mass arrests in mosques, the deportation of major Islamic activists or even a military attack on the Arab country from which the attackers (perhaps) had roots — would produce the opposite and result in the  National Front's victory in the next elections.

When the editor of Charlie Hebdo was asked in 2012 whether he feared for his life, he replied: “I have no children, no wife, no car, no debt. It might sound a bit pompous, but I’d prefer to die on my feet rather than living on my knees." Hollande must show courage. It’s always difficult to ask that of a politician, but that’s the message the victims have left him.