“Charlie Hebdo” and the wave of democracy in France

The Republican march of January 11th has been one of the most relevant demonstrations in France since the end of the Second World War. 4 million of people gathered in the streets of the major cities to pay tribute to the fallen, and to praise the French democratic values. Despite this national concern about freedom of expression and thinking, it would be a mistake to consider this protest rally as an expression of unanimous praise for France policies. The march, firstly, is the consequence of a shock resulting from the terrorist attack to the very heart of Paris. Whereas France was consecrating its new martyrs, French politicians worked to take advantage of it.

Indeed, to consider the political use of Martyrdom as a specificity occurring mainly among the Arab-Muslim populations is a wrong assumption. Though, the supposed culture of death is often mentioned as a key factor in analyzing those populations’ actions. For example, the preventive actions made by Israel over Gaza last summer Hamas party leadership was charged with putting children on the rooftops in order to act as human shields for relevant infrastructures. For the same events, famous HBO television host Bill Maher affirmed to this extent that the Protective Edge Operation was not a war because to die a martyr is considered as a success, if not a goal, in the region.

This supposed Death-loving culture is notably criticized in Western countries as a major expression in Arab-Muslim countries of inability to achieve political goals in a democratic context. Despite those affirmations, today France has also its own martyrs. Indeed according to Nation thinker Renant “The ancestors’ cult is of the most legitimate, ancestors have made of us what we are”. In his opinion, the community formed by a nation is not ontological or civic but built on the supposition of a shared past.

Hence, martyrs, as memorial proof of national values to which a given community must think about their legacy, have a key role in a cultural and national identity. For instance, the figure of messiah Jesus Christ or fallen resistance fighters of the Second World War like Jean Moulin or Guy Moquet. The latter gave their names to elementary schools, streets, train stations, the reasons and conditions of their deaths are studied in school. Furthermore, France parliament voted the application of Memorial Laws prohibiting the historical claims that Jewish holocaust did not occur.

Today and despite the 17 people killed following the events of January 7th in the offices of Charlie Hebdo, 4 people arose as national martyrs.

To explain the power of martyrdom for national identity is to understand the power of representation. As cemeteries are not built for the dead, but for the living, the political and symbolic use of a deceased individual as a national martyr often goes beyond the person’s actual former will and beliefs. The martyr is a perfect allegory, it is an image showing a single individual, never a victim, he or she is, by the process of representation, dispossessed of his identity features such as beliefs, public or private behavior, social and familial interactions to be left with only one main characteristic: to have died in a specific context linked to an ideal, a cause. By doing so, the image becomes the ideal, the representation of a physical form embodies an abstract idea.

The First World War gave birth to mass propaganda, the poster media, even though produced by thousands, succeeded the prodigy of targeting each person. To succeed in doing so, the propagandist needed to find the smallest common denominator within a given population, some key elements have, throughout the past decades, showed a great capacity in gathering souls and hearts like nationalist sentiments or religious beliefs.

To this extent, it is a much harder task within multicultural and heterogeneous societies like those one in Western European countries. To reach consensus within this type of society, there is only one last, but absolute, common denominator: our coming death.

Franz Fanon wrote that “death is the only certitude that is”. Indeed, beyond what determines our identity, death concerns every one of us and we, as human beings, are bound to this ultimate experience. Therefore, to criticize a martyr is a profound offense and violence. Despite the pride felt by liberal countries in freedom of speech and thinking, to criticize a martyr of your own community, no matter the relevance of your point, is blasphemous to the only thing we know as absolute; death. Here is the perfect fuel for a propaganda machine, but in this case the interest of every person could be at stake.

Spontaneous actions happened as soon as the night of January 7th for solidarity and basic freedom rights. Though, the republican march, a few days later, was even made up of those political personalities that had been criticized by the satirical magazine. That day, the initial message and aim of the march fell into a glorious political demonstration against fear and so, into political legitimacy for more restrictive security over freedom.

Despite her beliefs and those of the Front National party, being openly against numerous Republican values, Marine Le Pen was present at the march. More than an ultimate prank to Charlie Hebdo’s caricaturists, her presence remained a necessary move for the party she represents. Indeed, not to appear in a national march of 4 million of individuals could have been a political mistake. Moreover, the bad feeling in the air, affected by the fear, was the fertile ground on which extreme right parties cultivate their political success. A page in French society has been turned. The issue now is to figure out if the present blank page will serve as an opportunity to consolidate civil society beyond religious or cultural bonds or rather to stress tensions between communities under the ratification of a French version of “Patriot Act”.

Why would this particular moment be determinant for the future of French society? To give an interesting explanation is Toqueville’s consideration of “warm patriotism”. According to him the national sentiment (not to say “nationalism”) is an essential resource of democracies against their worst threat, the civic desertion and the retreat into private life allowing access for authoritative power. Tocqueville was attached to a patriotism being the result of a rational thinking in which personal and common interests are put into perspectives. This cold patriotism is different, even opposed to the warm patriotism, this last being instinctive, thoughtless, an epidemic reaction to what one will consider as an offense or an insult to its own identity marks – this affection stemming from sentimentalism rather than civic experience. The latter form of patriotism is therefore very efficient in times of crisis but leaves the civic life to die during peace.

This situation may be the starting point leading to a better integration of Arab and Muslim populations in France. Latest events traced a clear distinction between Muslims and Islamists. Since ISIS became a matter of interest for the Western world, Muslims gained social visibility – even though their presence on screen was mainly to express their disassociation with the Islamic State. For instance the #notinmyname campaign in which Muslims were basically apologizing for something they have no connection with. Despite the absurdity of this situation, social integration did improve, Imams share their opinions on TV, and Imam of Paris Mosque is now a regular TV guest. Media vocabulary is more accurate and so is the understanding and distinction between Arabs, Muslims, and Islamists. ISIS became a concern for both Middle East and Western countries, communication therefore improved between the enemies of the terrorist group. Walking along with François Hollande on January 11th were Mahmoud Abbas, The King Abdullah II and his wife Queen Rania of the Hashemite kingdom. The declarations of Saudi Arabia leaders were broadcasted in France, the following Wednesday, Supreme Iran leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei even wrote to the Western youth for tolerance and understanding over their judgment of Islam.

The series of events may lead to an improvement. The emotion following the tragedy brought back an impressive political power, that is, the one of the people, a power capable of changing the face of the French Republic. The issue here is that democratic explosion and civic coups do not change the face of a society. The late demonstrations did express a great force in civic mobilization, the question remains: how long will it last in the sensitive context of extremist factions enjoying great media coverage, religious and social community tensions, and the government being tempted to abuse individual laws for more security. The civic dynamism must stay viral long enough so that French citizens remain active and focused to avoid any social degradations within their society.

It would be a partial truth to consider the democratic wave that shook France and its history to be a purely national union. It also appears that these demonstrations reunited a majority of French people with the democratic exercise, the union of the affection for national values with the duties allowing theses values to be, the union of patriotism with public-spiritedness. The majority of demonstrators were not political activists, not either affiliated to a specific corporation linked to working or social class. This march was mainly made up of that silent majority who lost faith in the democratic tools because of individualization and retreat into the self. This rising was indeed the manifestation of Tocqueville’s warm patriotism but it remained in accordance to the frame of law. France is at a crossroad, one way is to improve national security with more means of law enforcement. It is a short term, not necessarily effective but highly repressive method that would therefore offer better political results to the present government than deep social improvements. The other way, focusing on a deeper and long-lasting strategy such as improving education and social integration is a longer process but truly fruitful for the sake of the entire society. If the particular interest of the government members, in political need of taking rapid actions, goes against the general interest. It is fundamental, for the sake of each French citizen, to keep on embracing democracy. This spirit must remain vivid to avoid an escalation in violence and fears leading to a lessening of freedom over security aims. When talking about the late democratic events, people agree over the fact that “this was beautiful”, I disagree with that, French people have a lot of work coming. This must not be over yet.

Master’s degree in European Studies (Institute for European Studies)

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