Three gunmen armed with kalashnikov rifles opened fire in the office of the satirical french newspaper Charlie Hebdo killing 12 people, including prominent journalists and two policemen. Four top French cartoonists, Cabut, widely known as Cabu, Stéphane Charbonnier, known as Charb, Wolinksi and Tignou were all killed. Cabu, Wolinski and Charb have been important figures in shaping/mocking French society and culture with the ink of their pens for decades. Since the attack the region Ile-de-France, including Paris, is on its highest threat alert as the authorities are looking for the gunmen, recently identified. Even though, there are still speculation about whether the gunmen acted as lone-wolves or are part of a wider terrorist network, François Hollande, French President, immediately announced that it was an act of terrorism and an assault on freedom of the press. President Hollande and the Minister of Interior went to the location of the shooting and addressed the press (here is his evening allocution on the act of terrorist).
Since 2001, the European continent has been struck by two large terrorist attacks, 2004 in Madrid and 2005 in London. Both terrorist attacks were planned by members of Al-Qaeda and were of large amplitude. Since 2005, Europeans have been better prepared, and in some instance lucky, in stopping attacks before their phase of implementation. But a new trend has emerged on both sides of the Atlantic, the lone-wolf syndrome. In the last years, attacks have been perpetuated in London (2013), Ottawa (2014), Sydney (2014) and other failed ones in the US like in New York (2010).
Marks of Radical Islamic Terrorists?
Even though all the proofs haven’t been gather to confirm such attrocity as a terrorist attack, world experts seem convinced of its terrorist nature. Now, the question is: is it an attack of lone-wolves? or a terrorist attack planned by a wider terrorist network?
Radical Islamic terrorism figures as one of the many terrorist threats facing the EU today. EU Member States have encountered over the years different sorts of terrorist groups like the IRA in the UK, ETA in France and Spain, individuals like Carlos the Jackal, the Red Brigades, so on and so forth. However, a new emphasis has been placed on radical Islamic terrorism in Europe starting in the 1990s and especially since the deadly attacks of September 2001 in the US.
On the European continent several key terrorist attacks have led to tentatively deepen cooperation between EU Member States and increase vigilance domestically. However, counter-terrorist experts are witnessing a shift in the origins of alleged terrorists. For example, the cell in Hamburg linked to the 9/11 attacks was composed of foreign students; Moroccan immigrants were behind the Madrid train bombings; but the killing of Dutch filmmaker, Mr. van Gogh, in 2004 was initiated by a European-born individual (Leiken, 2005: 125). European experts argue that the radical Islamic terrorist threat in Europe is entering a new phase, the emergence of “Middle East-style political assassinations as part of the European jihadist arsenal and disclosed a new source of danger: unknown individuals among Europe’s own Muslims” (Bures, 2010: 62-63).
This previous distinction underlines the two existing categories of jihadists in Western Europe: insiders and outsiders. The Outsiders are legal aliens such as asylum seekers or students. Oftentimes they move to Western Europe in consequence of a crackdown against Islamists in the Middle East. The other category, Insiders, is composed of second- or third-generation immigrants, who were born in Europe (Leiken, 2005: 126-27; Laqueur, 2006). This second trend, of home-grown Islamist terrorists, has considerably increased since 2006 as reported by Europol. In the case of the Charlie Hebdo attack, it will be interesting to find out if both men were insiders or outsiders. Additionally, France has been in recent months a country with over 1,000 men deciding to leave Europe in order to join the fight with ISIL fighters in Syria and Iraq. Ultimately, a segment of French population, nevertheless minimal, have decided to follow a road towards radicalization.
An Attack on French Democracy and Values
Such action is a direct attack against the French democracy and its values. Charlie Hebdo is a extensive satirical newspaper mocking everything, anything and everyone. The New York Times described Charlie Hebdo extremely well when writing that “Charlie Hebdo is part of a venerable tradition in France, deploying satire and insolence to take on politicians and the police, bankers and religions of all kinds.” French citizens have remained divided on the work produced by Charlie Hebdo as “some saw them as powerful stands for free speech, and others as needless provocations.” The editorial director, Charb, was consistent in his understanding of freedom as he not only criticized anything even under foreign threat and national pressures (he has been under police protection for some time), but also called for the respect of criticism and expression by the others. François Mouly, the art editor of the New Yorker magazine was quoted saying “To have cartoonists slaughtered for publishing cartoons is something we haven’t seen since the 18th century,” and added that “They were troublemakers for my entire life” (listen here her interview on the issue).
The weekly newspaper, created in 1970, has a complex history. It emerged from the newspaper Hara-Kiri banned for mocking the death of General de Gaulle. From 1981 to 1992, Charlie Hebdo ceased to be printed for lack of funds. In the 1990s, it was resurrected and become highly visible after the publication in 2006 of cartoons representing the Prophet Mohammet priorly published by a Danish newspaper. Since 2006, Charlie Hebdo has faced threats for its publications and repeated criticisms of Islam. Ensuing the publication of the cartoons, French President Jacques Chirac called for greater responsibility by the press. Charlie Hebdo responded by claiming: “We, writers, journalists, intellectuals, call for resistance to religious totalitarianism and for the promotion of freedom, equal opportunity and secular values for all.” In 2011, the offices of the newspaper were under attack and damaged by a firebomb.
The symbolism behind this terrorist action is direct attack against French democracy and values, and overall France as a whole. The freedom of press and expression is a basic and central pillar of democracy in most Euro-Atlantic countries. Mockery, criticism, and self-criticism of the world, political systems, religion are necessary for fostering debate and pushing the limits of democracy. Mockery and satire have historically been a core component of French democracy and political life (see Les Guignols de l’Info, Le Bébête Show, Le Canard Enchaîné, and others).
Where does France go from here?
The spontaneous reaction by French citizens around the country and even the world has been the best one possible: spontaneous street meeting demonstrating the spirit of French unity behind its press and principles. Even though terrorism will never end and cannot be ‘killed,’ these attacks should be seen as a starting point in order to address the failures of French society and political environment and trying to reform them. France has been on the verge of a breaking point for quite some times. The society seems broken between the true-French and the rest (see the problem in this use of words). The true-French are unwilling to accept a reform and the opening of French values and cultures in accordance with the new realities; while, the rest feels rejected and sidelined in the booming French suburbs/ghettos. The society is divided into these two groups so intrenched in their narratives, beliefs and ideologies creating a environment propitious to such type of violence.
In addition to a broken society, the French political class is far from being exemplary. Political courage is needed in order to unite and once and for all ending the vitriolic and xenophobic tone present this last decade in mainstream political narratives. Unfortunately, these attacks are taking place at a time of breaking point for French society. The rise of populist and xenophobe parties like the Front National, scoring so highly at the recent European elections, and the vitriolic narratives of the mainstream right trying to attract the voters from the extremes has transformed the national debate. On the one hand, political parties and political leaders have created a dangerous amalgam linking terrorism, immigration, islam, integration altogether when the realities are much more complex. For instance, France hyper-activity in the fight against radical islamic networks in Africa, Sahel and Middle East has increased its vulnerability. While on the other, a taboo about the evolution of French society and the failure of its model of integration, through assimilation, have never been addressed properly. Last, mainstream political parties ought to reject/alienate the extremes and their attempts in normalizing their agendas.
Today France is mourning the death of its talented cartoonists. Tomorrow, France ought to face its realities and weaknesses. Combining a broken society and a toothless political class, the challenge seems considerable. The starting point is an obvious acceptance of the failure of the model of integration, the assumption of its standing as a leading democracy, and finally comforting the need to reform its broken society.