At 11:30 a.m. yesterday in the 11th quarter of Paris, three armed and hooded men entered the building of the Charlie Hebdo offices, and opened fire. They killed ten people on the spot, one minutes later in the street, and mortally wounded another. Other than the twelve confirmed dead, four more are currently in a critical condition, while seven have been wounded. This brings the total toll of struck individuals to twenty-three, a statistic unprecedented in over fifty years. It is also the first time that a whole news team has been assassinated at once in French history.
The attackers, whom some media sources have affiliated to Al-Qaeda, chose their hour well: they caught the entire Charlie editorial team, plus a guest and police officer assigned to the protection of one journalist, already under Islamist death threats, in the middle of their weekly editorial meeting. Eye and ear-witnesses claim the masked men shouted “Allahu Akbar”, and meant to “avenge” their blasphemed prophet. They were well-trained, extremely organised, and methodical. People representing obstacles, like the maintenance worker at the building’s entrance before the main firing, or the coincidental policeman on his bicycle who tried to oppose their escape, were killed instantly. The video, now difficult to find, of their Kalashnikov-to-forehead execution of the policeman lying wounded in the street, is chilling.
The gunmen were stopped three times in their escape: once by a French police-car, once by a cyclist patrol of policemen who happened across their path, and once by their own violent collision with a female driver in the 19th quarter. This particular car crash forced them to leave their initial, fully-black vehicle, and hijack another car in the 19th, before driving out and across the Northern Paris outskirts.
Charlie Hebdo is a French weekly notorious for its biting, fearless satires against all and any form of racism, xenophobia, intolerance, bigotry, and socio-political hypocrisy. In solidarity with the Danish newspaper which released caricatures depicting the prophet Mohamed in 2003– a figure “unrepresentable” in Coranic tradition – Charlie Hebdo had also published controversial caricatures. They are the only French newspaper to have done so, and this after the radical Islamic fatwa* launched against their Danish colleagues.
Their February 2006 cover showed the prophet Mohamed sat mournfully on a chair, saying “C’est dur d’être aimé par des cons”: “It’s difficult to be loved by idiots”. The subtitle read “Mohamed overwhelmed by fundamentalists” (“Mahomet débordé par les intégristes”). The illustrator in question is Cabu. He was among the dead, along with Charb, a.k.a Stéphane Charbonnier, the paper’s head editor, Tignous, and Wolinski. These were Charlie’s best and brightest satiric pens. Cabu, a veteran of provocative journalism, was seventy-five years old when he was killed, after forty-five years of working with Charlie.
This strike against Charlie Hebdo was not just thought-through in logistic terms: the message vehicled and the symbols targeted were also clearly and carefully chosen. The paper has often been toted as a bastion of French republicanism, in its original sense – a freedom of speech principle which implies the freedom to attack those who would limit it and defend, regardless of race or political allegiance, those who suffer from its prohibition. In fact, one Charlie edition might lampoon French extreme-right politician Marine Le Pen (Front National) – a public Islamophobe – on its cover, while caricaturing Islamist fundamentalism in centrefold. Their release day is traditionally Wednesday, and in fact today’s front cover sharply mocked sensationalist and racist French author Michel Houellebecq, whose latest novel “Submission” imagines a future Islamist takeover of French culture in which university professors either convert or quit, and women are legally compelled to wear the veil.
It is this sort of preying upon the base currents of xenophobia – intrinsic to any nation with a history of immigration, like France – which Charlie Hebdo was so good at pinpointing and ridiculing. The irony is that with their decimation of its journalists, today’s attackers may well have catalysed the paranoia and ideological amalgamation (between Muslim and Islamists, for example) which Charlie so vehemently resisted. This venomous potential was immediately acknowledged by the French Council of Muslim Faith’s President, Dalil Boubakeur. He referred to today’s attacks as a “blow aimed at the totality of France’s Muslim community”, anticipating the likely backlash to follow.
French president François Hollande went to the place of the attack in early afternoon, and later visited the hospital where the wounded are being treated. In his brief address this evening, Hollande announced a moment of silence in all public institutions today at noon, while the whole day is one of national mourning. All official flags have stood at half-mast since midday yesterday, and are decreed to stay thus for the next three days. Hollande has declared that the French anti-terrorism system, the “Plan vigipirate”, has been activated to its maximum level, in case of further attacks.
The president also spoke of the journalists’ “influence“, the “insolence” and “independence” which led them to “die for the idea they had of France, one of freedom”. He went on to note that “it is the entire Republic which has been targeted, an ideal of tolerance and peace”.
It is this fragile, and, some would argue, already broken equilibrium that the unnamed attackers have endangered. They have hit at the core of a founding principle in French democracy, never better expressed than by Voltaire: “I do not agree with what you are saying, but I will fight to the death that you may continue saying it.” In its own blunt and at times shocking way, Charlie Hebdo was one of the rare remaining guardians of nuance in French media. For all its crudeness, it nevertheless had an eye for the fine lines of inequality and prejudice prevalent in the public scene. Most importantly, it had the tongue, and the hands, ready to speak them out of their unchallenged obscurity, and lay them bare upon its pages.
*Note: literally, a fatwa is a religious edict pronounced by Muslim theologians, ulemas, and which does not always imply condemnations or mortal sentences, but rather reacts to issues as they arise.