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The Uncivil Servant: If Charlie Wasn’t Always Charlie, How Can We Be Charlie?

Mitchell Abidor
January 16, 2015

by Mitchell Abidor

Mass Unity Rally Held In Paris Following Recent Terrorist AttacksLAST SUNDAY, the day of the great marches in France, which were attended by nearly 10 percent of the French populace, a friend who lives in France half the year wrote to say that he was on his way to his town’s demo, and forwarded an email from a Trotskyist group attacking the rallies as class collaborationist and calling on people to refuse to participate in this union sacrée with the parties of the bourgeoisie. All I could think was that it was because of silly sectarianism like this that the left has become so marginal and that the young who are Islamist killers see no political alternative to their current state. And then I watched the excellent coverage on Al-Jazeera America, and had second thoughts.

There, in the front row, indeed fighting for a place there, were the men and women who have dragged the world to its current depths: Benjamin Netanyahu, the butcher of Gaza; Angela Merkel, architect of the austerity budgets that have destroyed entire countries (but thanks to which we will soon have, in Greece, the first freely elected independent communist government); David Cameron, who has stepped up the dismantlement of the social state begun by Thatcher and continued by Blair; and Nicolas Sarkozy, who as minister of the interior and president poisoned relations with France’s immigrants, calling young rioters racaille, scum, and persecuting France’s gypsies. Then there were representatives of such beacons of freedom as Russia, Turkey, the oil states... The hypocrisy was flagrant, sullying a moving day that some thought would be a turning point in France.

One needn’t be a seer to predict that that was unlikely, unless the turning were for the worse.

I could never quite figure out what “Je Suis Charlie” really meant. It certainly couldn’t mean journalists standing by freedom of the press and printing whatever needed to be printed: the New York Yimes still refuses to print any of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons, newsworthy as they certainly are. And among the general public, the appropriation of the name of Charlie isn’t everyone’s right: those here who opposed the mounting of a production of The Death of Klinghoffer certainly had no right to it; those who block Ayaan Hirsi Ali from speaking about her experience with Islamic repression certainly have no right to think themselves Charlie. Charlie Hebdo, after all, stands for mocking everything that merited mocking. David Brooks (of all people) hit the nail on the head in his first column after the massacre: “If they had tried to print their satirical newspaper on any American campus over the last two decades, it wouldn’t have lasted thirty seconds. Students and faculty groups would have accused them of hate speech. The administration would have cut financing and shut them down.” Non, nous ne sommes pas Charlie.

THEN I REMEMBERED the case of Siné, a cartoonist who was fired from his newspaper in 2011 after publishing a cartoon deemed anti-Semitic, though the anti-Semitism was really hard to find (the cartoon was about the marriage of Sarkozy’s son to the daughter of a wealthy Jewish family and the possibility that he would convert. The caption said: “He’ll go a long way in life, that boy.”) The newspaper that fired the cartoonist was... Charlie Hebdo. So if Charlie Hebdo was not always Charlie, how can any of us be?

And was everyone always such a fan of the magazine, ready to defend it when it needed defense? We know that the paper was struggling, that it only had a print run if 60,000 prior to the massacre. Although it had a great deal of notoriety, it wasn’t that large a part of the French scene. Perhaps its changing reputation is best typified by the reactions of Daniel Cohn-Bendit, Dany the Red, icon of the revolution of May 1968. He wrote a tribute to the editors of Charlie on the day of the killings, saying that “Charlie is anticlerical radicality” and that “the legacy of [slain cartoonist] Cabu is that at difficult moments one must not stop thinking.” Yet in a television interview in 2012 about the magazine’s publishing of cartoons mocking Mohammed, Cohn-Bendit called them “assholes” and “masochists.”

Accusations have quickly flown in France that there is a double standard, that anti-Semitism is treated as a criminal offense while Islamophobia is treated as business as usual. Those who make this accusation miss the fact that the cartoons that are the cause of death threats and terrorist acts don’t accuse Muslims of being criminals, but mock the extremism within the community, its hypersensitivity, which is very different. But that there’s a double standard is becoming harder and harder to deny. Witness the case of the unspeakable anti-Semitic “comedian” Dieudonné.

On the evening of the demonstrations, he posted a mocking message on Facebook calling them “a magic moment equal to the Big Bang,” and added that “as far as I’m concerned, I feel like Charlie Coulibaly” (invoking the name of the killer at the kosher supermarket). What Dieudonné said can be interpreted in countless fashions, some of them abhorrent, but some not. Could he have meant that he is “Charlie” because he, too, is a provocateur, and “Coulibaly” because he understands the source of the killer’s rage? Or is it because, as his lawyer told the press, he “is treated like a terrorist.” Immediate calls for his head were issued, and when he continued likening himself to Coulibaly the police went to his home at 7:00 in the morning on January 14 and arrested him for “apology for terrorism.” Since Dieudonné insists that his intention in his post was to show that he, too, is a victim, but of the French state and the Jews, he and his supporters can and do say that Charlie was allowed to mock freely without intervention by the authorities while Dieudonné goes to jail for equivalent acts against different targets, mainly the Jews. Sad but true, he has a point.

It must be pointed out that France has nothing resembling our First Amendment, so free speech is constricted there in ways we can hardly imagine. What Dieudonné said can be construed as “apology for terrorism,” which is a crime. It’s a charge that’s being applied in many strange ways: a 28-year-old man described as “mentally deficient since childhood” was sentenced to six months for telling some policemen, “They killed Charlie and it gave me a good laugh” (he got off easy: the prosecutor had requested a year!); a 14-year-old girl in Nantes is being charged for telling ticket inspectors on the tram that “We’re the Kouachi sisters and we’re going to take out our Kalashnikovs;” and a certain Kamel Belaidi received a four-year sentence for having told officers who were questioning him after a drunk driving accident: “There should be more Kouachis; I hope you’re next.”

If “Je Suis Charlie” can mean anything at all, it must mean that people can mock whoever they want and should able to do so without fearing for their lives, freedom, and livelihoods. If it means feel free to mock the lunacies attached to Islam but shut up about the Jews or any other community, then the aftermath of the killings will only serve to further poison the French atmosphere. Jews will once again -– and justifiably — be viewed as getting privileged treatment.

The divisions within France are frightful. High school students in Muslim quarters and suburbs refused to honor the nationwide minute of silence in honor of those killed, and some even justified the killings. It took only days for a Mossad plot to be proposed as the real source of the events. Mosques were shot at, and it’s fairly certain that the racist Front National will come out of all this the real winner. So much awfulness, so much stupidity in a country known for its intelligence. And it almost goes without saying that governments throughout Europe are proposing laws legalizing internet surveillance...

One of Dieudonné’s lawyers spoke of “selective freedom of expression,” and another asked, “Are we in a country of freedom of expression?... The government just provided the proof.” Well, just as a broken clock is right twice a day, a twisted individual who never shuts up is capable of expressing something true once in a while.

TO BORROW A PHRASE from one of the great Canadian novels, France — and indeed much of Europe — is inhabited by two solitudes. The two solitudes in France are perhaps more toxic than those anywhere else in the West. On one side is the Franco-French country, on the other the Muslim immigrant France of the cités. The latter France, cut off, rejected, and rejecting the larger France, has created an alternative reality, one in which too many of them have interpreted their real sufferings as a legitimate reason for murder, and see the perpetrators of the atrocities that have sickened the world as heroes. The other France refuses to accept the part it has played in the isolation of its immigrants, who they view as criminals and freeloaders who will never be French.

France is caught in a vicious cycle: forsaken by the greater French society, members of the immigrant community, in their rage and impotence, carry out heinous acts which leads them to be hated even more which leads them to more heinous acts. It’s impossible to say where this is all headed, but it’s no place good.

Mitchell Abidor is the recipient of a Hemingway Grant from the French Ministry of Culture for his forthcoming translation of Emmanuel Bove’s A Raskolnikoff. His Anarchists Never Surrender, an anthology of anarchist writings by Victor Serge, is about to be published.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936-1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.