« Newsletter #149: January 9, 2015 | Main | Christmas in France »

Je Suis Charlie

The plan was to finish and send out my newsletter Wednesday. The day didn't go quite as planned. In the morning it was so foggy I could barely see the buildings across the street from my window, but I needed to go for a run so I texted Bryan and asked if he was game. We met at the Place de la Bastille at 9:30am (hey, we're on Paris time) and took the Promenade Plantée to the Bois de Vincennes, the Central Park style green space east of Paris. After 10k my knee decided I was done, but Bryan wanted to get another two miles in, so I told him to do a lap around the lake while I walked it and when we met up we'd call it a day and head to the metro. We took a selfie for Instagram and he jogged off into the fog. 

I ended up doing an entire 1.5km lap around the lake with no Bryan in sight. It seemed to be getting colder, and my hands were getting numb. Bryan didn't have his phone on him, and although I could occasionally spot runners emerging from the fog as they rounded the lake, he was nowhere to be seen. We've done this before (tried to meet up and ended up missing each other), so I finally headed to the metro at 10:45am to get home and thaw out. Happily he made it home okay, too (we still have no idea how we missed each other). 

After a hot shower and lunch, it was almost noon and I knew that if I wanted to finish the newsletter that day that I'd need to turn off email, Facebook and Twitter. I went "offline" just before 1pm. At 3:45pm one of the messenger apps on my phone beeped. It was a close friend in Seattle, "Just reading about the attack on the newspaper." I immediately turned on France Infos news radio station, and the first thing I heard was that two of my favorite satirical cartoonists, Cabu and Wolinski, had been shot dead at Charlie Hebdo's offices.  

Photo of Wolinski and Cabu from Paris Match 

By now you all know the rest of the story. And it's still ongoing as I write this two days later, with the presumed murderers holed up in a warehouse with a hostage, and another hostage situation in a Kosher supermarket at Porte de Vincennes (not far from where we were running Wednesday before), presumably the same shooter who killed a policewoman yesterday morning in Montrouge, the suburb directly south of Paris. 

So the newsletter was put on hold as I watched the news, called friends, assured family back home I was fine. A group of my neighbors went to the vigil at Place de la République on Wednesday night, where thousands spontaneously gathered. The phrase "Je SUis Charlie" (I am Charlie) appeared instantly online, on signs, in windows, in tribute cartoons in Paris and around the world. Yesterday was declared a day of national mourning, with a minute of silence at noon to be observed everywhere, including the Paris metro. 

Photo by Bryan Pirolli, click to see more from the vigil.

French leaders of every party (except the Front National, which was not invited after blaming the Left for "allowing" the attack to happen) have called for everyone to join a Marche Républicaine (Unity Rally) in Paris on Sunday at 3pm from Place de la République to Nation. Seeing the support and solidarity from around the world has been comforting. The mood in Paris remains somber; people are saddened by the deaths and want to be respectful of those who were killed and the survivors. But they are also angry, and determined not to let it crush their spirit. They believe very strongly in the right to free press (and the right for people to choose not to read it if they find it offensive).

In fact, Charlie Hebdo has never been a wildly popular publication, rarely printing over 30,000 copies for each issue, even after they were fire bombed by offended extremists in 2011. Just last week I had a tour with a family whose 9-year-old daughter asked her mother, "What's that?", pointing to a Charlie Hebdo at a newsstand, pictured here on the left, with the title "The True History of Baby Jesus". I shrugged in apology to the mother and quickly distracted the daughter by guiding her into the nearest chocolate shop. Not many people outside France really knew Charlie Hebdo before this. But now these idiot gunmen have made it a worldwide, household name. Next Wednesday they will be printing one million copies of a special edition by the survivors of the staff. 

The French also seem to be going out of their way to avoid blaming all Muslims for the actions of a few wackos, despite a few scattered "revenge" attacks that have already occurred around the country (and the call for a referendum to bring back the dealth penalty by Marine Le Pen...and she wonders why no one has invited her to the march). The "popularity" of the Front National seems as blown out of proportion as their fear-mongering fantasy that Islamic fundamentalists will enact Sharia Law in France. Let's hope that the French will vote for reason and rationality in the upcoming elections, and not let themselves be terrorized into restricting human rights and dignity of the innocent out of a thirst for vengeance. 

For yesterday's national day of mourning I went to Notre Dame Cathedral to stand with hundreds of others in silence at noon as the bells rang in memory of the victims. For 20 minutes we stood in the rain and cold wind, listening to the sad, slow tolling of the 13-ton bell Emmanuel. Dating back to the 17th century, it's the only bell that survived the French Revolution, and is only rung for special Catholic holidays and solemn events such as State funerals and the end of WWI and WWII.

This cathedral has been witness to many traumatic and horrific events taking place in Paris over the past 860 years, and I couldn't help but think that we were standing just a few hundred feet from the St-Michel station that was bombed by terrorists in summer of 1995, a few weeks before I first arrived in Paris as a student. I remember how all of the public trash cans were sealed and replaced with the plastic bags as part of the "Vigipirate" safety measures enacted throughout the city that we still see today. There were three more bombings that fall, including one on my line at Maison Blanche, but the perpetrators were eventually captured and life went on. Only the occasional sighting of the military police patrolling heavily touristed areas reminding us of the constant vigilance. It would be easy to get depressed about the current situation, to fear the worst for France's future. But the monumental cathedral at the heart of the city, even to those who are not Catholic, is a visual reminder that Paris has endured much darker moments in its history, some that seemed impossible to overcome. I don't doubt there will be more of these difficult times, but I have faith that Paris -- and the French Republic -- will survive, as it has for over two millennia. 

For all their faults, the French people are stronger than you think. They ARE Charlie: not always popular, sometimes even offensive, but unwilling to compromise their values or give up their liberty even when faced with threats or attacks. Now if they can just all agree on what that means in practice...à suivre

Some recommended articles (suggestions welcome):

Charlie Hedbo, Translated and Explained in Three Minutes (video)

Nine Points to Ponder on the Paris Shooting and Charlie Hebdo

Islamic Civilization is in Europe's DNA: France Must Cherish Its Multicultural Experiment

A Moment of Speech: Charlie Hebdo's Controversial Cartoons

Censorship and What Freedom of Speech Really Means

Religion, Secular Morality, and What Compassion Really Means for Our Shared Human Future

PrintView Printer Friendly Version

EmailEmail Article to Friend

Reader Comments (10)

Thank you, Heather. This is a very welcome and level-headed account of terrible events.
January 9, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterSusan Bruce
Thank you for this post and the wonderful video/audio of the bells ringing at Notre Dame. We (in the States) have all of you in Paris and throughout France in our thoughts. Je suis Charlie!
January 9, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterSue C.
Will French citizens who have stood vigil with signs saying 'Je suis Charlie' now stand vigil with signs saying 'i am Jewish' in solidarity for the attack in a Kosher market on the Jewish Sabbath?
January 10, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterFord Cornell
American friends of France and Paris stand in solidarity, that these senseless murders must bring us together to surround hate and perish it from the earth. Nous sommes Charlie. Vive la France.
January 10, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterPaula
I agree with Heather's advice that a way to respond is to pay fo!r your favourite magazine, satire journal, thoughtful news source. We encountered this a year ago, when we told a friend we'd stopped subscribing to the Guardian Weekly because our sub. had gone from about $80. per year to over $200. He said that he had renewed because he so strongly admired and supported the Guardian's publishing the story about the NSA's spying on citizens through their phone calls and emails and internet searches-- the Snowden revelations that the Guardian and a couple of US papers were the first to break. (They won the Pulitzer Prize for this: I send my admiration for the P. Prize people!). Our friend said that the best way he knew to show agreement with and support for what the Guardian had done was to subscribe, which we did.
January 10, 2015 | Unregistered Commentersue from canada
Thank you Heather for your thoughtful and heartfelt commentary. My husband and I were at Place de la Rpubliques Wednesday night too. It felt good to stand with the Parisians and not to be afraid. Our US friends have been checking in to make sure we are okay-just like yours. We have been reassuring and thanking them for their caring. I will share your post too as it will help them to understand the resiliency of the French people. The sound of Emmanuel ringing at Notre Dame is humbling and haunting.
January 10, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterBrenda Prowse
Thank you for writing this Heather, it's a very informative, balanced, and personal look at what we in the UK have been watching through our TVs over the last three days. Some friends and I will be attending the gathering at one of the French consulates here in Scotland on Sunday. It's such a terrible attack on free speech, and we must show to the world our respect to the people who were killed and that we stand up for what they died for. Vive la France!
January 10, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterAdam
There have been several large vigils here in Montréal, Québec (Quebec City) and Ottawa, as well as in smaller towns, despite extreme cold. There will be a silent demonstration on Sunday, tomorrow.

Ford, I think "je suis charlie" includes not only the editorial staff and other people killed at the office, but also the three police officers and the shoppers or workers killed at the kosher superette.

I have dear friends who are Jewish Parisians, including one who fled a military dictatorship in South America, and another, quite elderly now, who had to wear the yellow star as a little girl under the Occupation in Paris. They are shocked and sad, but I don't think they'd like to be "singled out" as Jews - which is, after all, what that sh*thead terrorist did, as the Nazis and French collaborators did many decades ago.
January 10, 2015 | Unregistered Commenterlagatta à Montréal
Thank you Heather. I agree with another respondent who had praise for your level-headed account. I am American and started subscribing to Secrets of Paris last spring when I was planning a trip to Paris in July with my granddaughter. We had a wonderful visit to your city and hope to return. I found your newsletter so interesting that I continue reading. Thanks also for including the sounds of Notre Dames bells.
January 11, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterMay Engquist
Thanx for sharing... hopefully, world will go back to normal. Normal ?
As if ever was...
Studied Sciences Po as well, but developped very uncorrect attitude after,
so will reccomend digging a bit deeper into rabbit hole than the media version.
If there's any ?
Greetings from the Med shores,

Comments for this entry have been disabled. Additional comments may not be added to this entry at this time.