In Paris

Jeremy Harding

The march in Paris on Sunday was called originally in honour of the dead at Charlie Hebdo’s offices. In the meantime the dead had become more numerous. By the time the marchers reached Place de la Nation yesterday many were carrying A4 print-outs reading ‘Je suis Charlie, je suis juif, je suis flic.’ In addition to three dead police officers, four Jewish French citizens had died in the kosher supermarket in Porte de Vincennes.

The mood among yesterday’s vast crowds was quietly upbeat and self-assured. We were all ‘Charlie’ and we knew we were marching in step. Occasionally you saw the name Yoav (son of the chief rabbi in Tunis who was killed in Porte de Vincennes) on a home print-out. Often, when the crowd passed the rows of police vans lining the route there was spontaneous applause. By the time participants arrived at the destination and solemnity was no longer in order, a group of Syrian oppositionists began chanting: ‘Je suis Syrien, je suis Charlie.’ There were large pencils everywhere in evidence, one mutating into a Kalashnikov, with a shoulder-butt and magazine clip. A desultory teenager – 15 at most – strolled beside his parents with a placard reading: ‘Culture murdered by barbarians.’ A niggling wind got up but the Place de la Nation was becoming a happy-sad party by the time I left, around seven. Everyone was Charlie, for a day.

In a brasserie a retired train driver, black, with a wrestler’s grip on Republican values, said how much it meant to her to come on the march. She remembered Réunion – her French ‘outre-mer’ homeland – as a successful, multicultural exception, where there were different times for eating and fasting, opening and closing, and separate, complicated meals in school and workplace canteens. It was a good system in Réunion, but she didn’t want to see the rot set in here, in metropolitan France. She was haunted by the attack on Charlie Hebdo.

So were the couple, originally from Algeria, with a placard in black felt-tip: ‘Je suis Charlie, je suis Ahmed’ on one side – Ahmed Merabet was one of the police officers killed on Wednesday – and ‘No to terrorism, No to state terrorism’ on the other. An IT worker and a psychiatrist, they felt impelled to march in solidarity with the dead, and in defiance of the killers. But the time for a proper conversation about identity in France was due. They hadn’t liked shuffling along behind Binyamin Netanyahu: the psychiatrist had two brothers who’d worked in Gaza as journalists and she was convinced of the Palestinian cause. Netanyahu has made the most of the killings and invited French Jews to perform aliyah. Seven thousand Jews left France for Israel in 2014.

I’d spent the previous evening with two lycée teachers. One, born to an Iraqi father, said that after the attack on Charlie Hebdo’s offices her philosophy students in Amiens had asked for an off-syllabus discussion. She suggested they think about the names for what happened on 7 January and whatever happens next. They talked about words like ‘terrorism’ and ‘Islam’ and who owned them. The other teacher, who works on the southern edge of Paris, had difficulty getting some of her students to observe a minute’s silence the day after the murders. About a third of her class are ‘Muslims’ and, as one explained, there was no minute’s silence when coalition forces killed civilians in Afghanistan or the Middle East, or children died in Syria. All her students seemed horrified and shocked by the killings – for most French Muslims this is a moment of deep foreboding – but they weren’t going out of their way to honour the dead.

France is pleased with itself after yesterday’s immense performance, but there was something more convincing and moving about the night of 7 January, when crowds gathered without ceremony to mourn and reflect. Tens of thousands came out in Place de la République in Paris and as Libération’s journalists mingled, they were hearing exactly what should have been on everyone’s mind at a time like this. ‘I’m frightened about what this is going to unleash in terms of extremisms, when really what we need is a lot of ties.’ ‘This is a free pass for prejudice and escalation. The danger is already here. We have to unite.’ On the eve of an identity nightmare, the instincts of French men and women flickered reassuringly like lights about to be restored after a power cut. But today there are still great swathes of obscurity and sooner or later, as we fumble in the dark, announcing our whereabouts in ever more strident, anxious tones, we’re going to mistake someone in the building for the person he isn’t.


  • 12 January 2015 at 1:21pm
    Alan Benfield says:
    "They hadn’t liked shuffling along behind Binyamin Netanyahu"

    Quite right, too, although it's hard to see Bibi as an enemy of press freedom: the Israeli press are quite happy to censor themselves in the main and well-known dissidents are free to speak, the death threats and being labelled a 'self-hating Jew' notwithstanding.

    But let's not forget the real lovers of press freedom who they were also shuffling along behind:

    Ahmet Davutoglu (PM, Turkey, 70 journalists under prosecution)
    Sheikh Abdallah ben Zayid al-Nahyan (UAE: 118th out of 180 countries for press freedom - Reporters without Borders)
    Sergei Lavrov (Russia: not just journalists in jail, but any 'hooligan' who disagrees with Putin)
    Sameh Choukry (Egypt: 16 journalists in jail)
    Ramtane Lamamra (Algeria: try marching anywhere in Algeria).

    In Russia, of course, being an outspoken journalist is literally life-threatening: I don't remember the 'Je suis Anna Politkovskaya' marches at the time of her assassination, though. She is, in any case, just the most famous of many. We cannot, of course, lay these assassinations at the feet of the government, but they seem remarkably insouciant about them and the investigation is seldom pursued with great zeal or effectiveness.

    The presence of such people posturing as democrats and lovers of freedom is almost as tasteless as Nigel Farage's opportunistic 'Third column' remarks (not to mention the amazing coincidence that the head of MI5 just happened to have a speech ready claiming that his boys need more powers to do the job properly, or we're all doomed).

    Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose, eh?

    • 12 January 2015 at 3:18pm
      Alan Benfield says: @ Alan Benfield
      I meant 'Fifth Column', of course. Apologies.

    • 13 January 2015 at 3:31pm
      muzzle30 says: @ Alan Benfield
      "although it’s hard to see Bibi as an enemy of press freedom"

      Mr. NetanYahoo's govt has been responsible for arresting, attacking, maiming, and killing, many Palestinian journalists in Gaza and in the West Bank. The idea of free speech in any society, as in the case of Charlie Hebdo, is that even that speech which we find repugnant is to be protected and offered as a right. So who is going to donate today to those Palestinian journalists killed by Israel? Who is going to wear T-shirts and march arm-in-arm with, their freedom to exercise their basic works? So yes, it is disgusting to march behind such a person, as with the others you mention above - though you leave out the Palestinian occupation-collaborator buffoon, AKA Mr. Abbas, who sends his police to beat up protesters when Israel and the US ask him to.

    • 13 January 2015 at 9:40pm
      stettiner says: @ muzzle30
      Those interested in "Palestinian journalists killed by Israel" or "soldiers of truth" as they are called by their masters, can take a look at this: Mr Abdullah Murtaja tells us all about how he "exercises his basic work" and shows us the pencil he uses.

      For more about "soldiers of truth", please visit Hamas', Islamic Jihad's and PA's home pages.

  • 12 January 2015 at 1:37pm
    stettiner says:
    The Jews represent 1% of the French population, but 40% of hate crimes in that country are directed against them. Meanwhile, Mr Harding is discussing Gaza with a couple who doesn't like Mr Netanyahu, described here as the eternal mercantile Jew, who "makes the most of the killings".

    • 12 January 2015 at 2:53pm
      ander says: @ stettiner
      It is an outrage that Bibi, who terrorizes an entire nation, was even allowed to alight from the aeroplane without being arrested.

    • 12 January 2015 at 3:14pm
      Alan Benfield says: @ stettiner
      No, it is you who refers to Mr Netanyahu as 'the eternal mercantile Jew': Mr Harding merely points out that Netanyahu has opportunistically reminded French Jews that the option of emigration to Israel is always open.

      Mr Netanyahu is, as I point out above, not the only opportunist, nor perhaps the worst, but an opportunist is exactly what he is and, like the others, he is tastelessly grandstanding in the light of the deaths of a number of different people whose ethnicity is not at issue here. Jeremy is not being anti-Semitic to point this out.

      On a different note, while much hate crime in France is certainly directed against Jews, figures supplied by the French government to the OSCE indicate that there is also a large amount of hate crime reported against non-Muslim Africans and North Africans, Muslims, foreigners of other European origins (e.g. Poles, Roma and other Eastern Europeans) and LGBT people.

      While it is true that about 1% of France's population is Jewish (around 600,000 according to the World Jewish Congress), I wonder if you indicate a source for the handy '40% of hate crime' figure you mention? The OSCE data (from the French government) indicate that a large proportion of the hate crime reported is anti-Semitic, but not 40%. It also depends a lot on what sort of crime we are looking at: crimes against the person, or all crimes (including desecration)?

      I dislike numbers pulled out of the air: they are often a distortion, or just plain wrong.

    • 12 January 2015 at 4:26pm
      stettiner says: @ Alan Benfield
      "Mr Netanyahu is, as I point out above, not the only opportunist, nor perhaps the worst, but an opportunist is exactly what he is and, like the others, he is tastelessly grandstanding in the light of the deaths of a number of different people whose ethnicity is not at issue here".

      Oh, but it is. "The third man" didn't choose the local halal butcher for his action - he explicitly stated his wish to kill Jews. He wanted to trade his hostage against the Kouachi brothers, an endeavor doomed to fail; already Raymond Barre explained to us that there are innocent French people and then the Jews. This sentiment is alive even today and not only in France: just check out BBC's despicable Tim Willcox. So yes, ethnicity is quite an issue here.

      For statistics on French antisemitism:

    • 12 January 2015 at 4:28pm
      stettiner says: @ ander
      You call him Bibi and he calls you Andy? You went to kindergarten together?

    • 12 January 2015 at 5:39pm
      ejh says: @ stettiner
      That's an interesting source, but it doesn't really give you any way to evaluate its figure (on page 9, for those looking).

    • 14 January 2015 at 3:25pm
      Alan Benfield says: @ stettiner
      Are you seriously suggesting that France is generally so anti-Semitic that in choosing to target a kosher supermarket, Coulibaby made it unlikely that hostages would be swapped for the freedom of the Kouachi brothers, because the police would consider Jews not worth saving?

      If not, perhaps you could explain what you do mean.

      Regarding the SPCJ document, I agree with ejh: it's not possible to find out how the events are being counted or analysed. I did some analysis of the official statistics for 2013 myself and discovered that the numbers you get vary wildly depending upon what type of events you are looking at. That being said, in general, I would agree that, considering the relatively small percentage of Jews in France, the rate of racist acts recorded against the Jewish population is much higher than any other group.

  • 12 January 2015 at 6:09pm
    frmurphy98 says:
    Many angry young men out in the banlieues are doubtless contrasting the outpouring of solidarity over the last few days with the singular lack of solidarity in the wake of the much more shocking Paris massacre of 1961. (Which the French government denied even happened up until two years ago).

    • 13 January 2015 at 8:15am
      Alfalfa says: @ frmurphy98
      I can't help thinking you're slightly overestimating the historical awareness of the young men in question, born about 30 years later.

    • 13 January 2015 at 8:58am
      frmurphy98 says: @ Alfalfa
      You don't think that young black or Asian men living in today's London would be aware that, within the living memory of millions, the Met had drowned 200 of their number in the Thames under government orders?

      The Paris massacre of '61 was the formative event in the history of Muslims in France. I would be very surprised if there is a youth of Algerian extraction who does not know all about it from family and friends, colouring his entire perspective on the land of 'freedom, egalitarianism', etc.

    • 13 January 2015 at 3:54pm
      Alfalfa says: @ frmurphy98
      I would imagine that their "perspective on the land of ‘freedom, egalitarianism’, etc." would depend very much on their experiences in present-day France, which are likely to vary considerably.

    • 13 January 2015 at 6:12pm
      frmurphy98 says: @ Alfalfa
      By all accounts, there isn't too much variation in the experiences of Maghrebian youth in present-day France. Wonder why.

    • 14 January 2015 at 8:10am
      Alfalfa says: @ frmurphy98
      Given that Maghrebians were both victims and perpetrators of the Charlie Hebdo attack, I'd leave room for some variation.

Read more