Chez Soi

Adventures of a Year Abroad

On Charlie Hebdo, et al

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I’ve been wanting to write about the Charlie Hebdo thing ever since it happened, but every time I go to organize my thoughts, they kind of squirm away. So, fine, disorganized it will be then…

I remember where I was sitting when we learned of the news. It felt like the whole cafe had their phone buzz at the same time. I was sitting with Curt at a coffee shop (Cafe Loustic) in the 2nd arrondisement, with our new friend Rahaf. I remember what she said, and how we felt, and how good the dirty chai was. We had just finished sharing with her that we’d be staying for another year. We were a little excited, a little hopeful. And then it felt like *our* city was being attacked. That feeling as we were going to the metro to get our kiddo, that the gunmen were still at large, somewhere near us. Maybe just around that corner.

That night we learned that the person who had let the gunmen into the building had just returned from picking up her kiddo, and at gunpoint had to decide to save her child or her colleagues. We did a post on FB so friends would know we were okay. We didn’t go out that night, but had a quiet evening watching it online. This is a picture from that night taken by Jessie Morgan (Rahaf’s husband and photographer/ videographer extraordinaire). Thru them, we felt we were there.


The next day, Curt and I went to the National Assembly building which is super close to where we live, to listen to the church bells ring at noon. This was the fifth time in national history that the flag had been lowered to half-mast. 3 times before for the death of dignitaries, once on 9/11 and then for this.
That night, we picked up Kiddo from school and took the 15 minute metro ride to the Place de La Republique. People were humming at times, chanting at others. It was just a bunch of people, self-organized, not the official march that would happen on Sunday. I remember one couple very solemnly holding some candles. We held up our pencils. When the crowd was singing together, I looked down to see that kiddo knew all the words. I later came to find out that what he and everyone else was singing was the national anthem, La Marseillaise. How did you know the words, I asked him? He just shrugged his shoulders, with a “how do you not” kind of look. [Whatever can be said of this experience of living abroad, I will say that this was a moment I’ll never forget. He was of this place in that moment.]
We walked around, to some historic sights like the Arc de Triomphe (which by the way, has a depiction of La Marseillaise on it). (that’s what that decoration is on each side…) and it said, “Paris est Charlie”. (Paris is Charlie)
On Friday, two days after the attack, the city seemed threatened with surround-sound sirens. I couldn’t concentrate. And then our local church in the neighborhood just kept ringing the bells. I think they were saying “it’s going to be okay”. At least that’s what I took it to mean. Friends at the American Church had to evacuate the building, as did International schools since htey were considered targets. Fear filled the city in a way that’s hard to describe now. Since I could concentrate, I spent the day online. On that day, a friend I had met through my Harvard Business Review writing posted on his twitter feed:
Liberté is wounded, but it will survive. Egalité has long been struggling. But it’s Fraternité we must look after most now. – gianpiero petriglieri
He got something like a 100 retweets in a few minutes. It seemed to capture the sentiment. The Saturday version of the NYT was online with a weird op-ed running the NYT by Marine LaPen, a French politician, who said that we have to clamp down on immigration. Which made me wonder if I had misunderstood the situation, because these were not immigrants. These were french-raised people. That reminded me of the 9/11 moments of confusion, where terror propaganda passes for truth. I was struck by how much France struggles with religious differences. I searched around for pieces to understand the issues. This one, written by Nabil Wakin tried to explain the shootings to his “american friends”. The big thing there is that “free speech” is a broadly defined term by every culture. The other broad observation, was that people wanted to pin this on a “bad guy, and how universal that sentiment is around the world.
On that Friday, it came to pass that a young man helped a great deal to safety in a Jewish grocery store. He later became a citizen of France, in thanks. The fact that he was muslim, an immigrant, he became a symbol of hope. That’s kinda cool but also sad that it was needed. The eulogy delivered by brother of one of the shot police officers reminded us of a fuller truth. I had the clear idea that it was the fact that this was *muslim* driven actions that were being discussed, than terrorism. It struck me more than ever that terrorism comes in all shapes and sizes, from ISIS to Ferguson to Hebdo. Across religions, across colors.
There’s a big push to anti-immigration going on from what I can catch in LeMonde. France has already banned the burka from public places, and its treatment of their immigrant population has long been a blot on its reputation — like slavery is in the US. The explicitly anti-immigrant party, the National Front, gained 25% of the vote in recent elections to the European Parliament, the potential for a step backwards in history is not-too-far.

I asked a lot of people what this means, for them. I mean, what did a march together mean or what does it mean to say #jesuischarlie. Some say that they are defending the rights to say what they want. Others feel it is to stand up for freedom. Otherwise, say it is to say we will not be divided. I learned a lot about the people not necessarily by each answer but by the multitude of answers. That is France, at this day. People did not feel that they had to say the same thing.

And yet I could see that the sentiment was different amongst those who are of Algerian decent. If you were cutting the data by that sort, you’d find a different result. In The Times Charles Bremner said, “the whole French establishment has been reluctant to acknowledge the residue of anger felt among a former colonised people. It denies the flaws in the doctrine of assimilation that requires the six million immigrants and their descendants to meld into a supposedly colour-blind national family.”

But even to see that some of this was optics. On Sunday, there was a big “manifestation” held in the same Place de La Republique. This time, would leaders were flying in. Again, the city full of sirens mostly to get people here and there. I stayed home because i was coming down with something (again) but the boys went. I watched on Twitter. And probably had a better view than the boys. Curt described how at some point, his group was halted and then moved and then all of a sudden some very well dressed people came and stood in front of them and there were photos. It’s weird to think that whole thing was so staged… but apparently it was. In The Daily Express Peter Hill said “can’t help thinking that the line of world leaders at the front of Sunday’s Paris demo was one giant selfie, a photo opportunity not to be missed by politicians shouting: ‘Look, we are with you – so vote for us.’”

On Twitter, people were taking jabs at that front line of politicians many of whom don’t believe in the definitions of free speech that were supposedly being celebrated that day. I read on Twitter that France jailed a 16yo for posting a cartoon, in fact literally a Hebdo cartoon w/the Muslim swapped for white guy. Oy.

In some ways I found the dissonance of ideas reassuring. The one thing I’ve learned of the French is they can have an opinion. And they are willing to discuss and debate and think rather than be punked into action.
I really don’t know all of this means, really. And so perhaps this post is not valuable. But I wanted to record what we experienced, with some of our memories still fresh before it fades away.
As much as we experienced it and it changed us in ways we can’t quite describe what it all means. Things of the heart can be that way sometimes.

Author: nilofermerchant

Strategist. Passionate about igniting cultures of innovation. HBR Writer, O'Reilly Author (published January 2010) of The New How, and former CEO of Rubicon.

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