Monday, 12 January 2015

La Marche Silencieuse

In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo shootings France has been the focus of world attention for a few days. French people and those of us who live here are mostly in shock at the horror of the events and seeking ways of responding and recovering.

Every night since the shootings took place there have been gatherings in public places. People wanted to express their sorrow, their condolences, their outrage and their support for freedom of expression. The Twitter hashtag #JeSuisCharlie and the phrase Je Suis Charlie is to be found everywhere.

The mayor of Preuilly makes a speech, surrounded by elected officials from the Touraine du Sud.
Occasionally someone will question what it means. A fellow blogger has written a post entitled I'm not Charlie, I'm the Doorman. Another reader has commented on a friend's blog that they suspect the phrase means different things to different people. Maybe it does. For me it's a reference to the famous scene in the movie Spartacus, and is primarily a way of simply expressing support. In addition, and most importantly, combined with the carrying of a pencil, it indicates that the cartoons and writing will go on and cannot be killed off by violent acts.

The cartoons published by Charlie Hebdo were frequently offensive, but in France, my impression is that is seen as neither here nor there. It is the viewer who chooses to be offended and that is their problem would be the attitude of many French people. Satire wins over offense every time in France. But of course this is complicated by the fact that the satirists are entirely self appointed, as are those who are offended and those judging the quality of the satire. Added to that, to be effective, satire has to be funny as well as pointed. Mostly Charlie Hebdo managed that, but sometimes they were just crude and offensive for their own amusement. Allowing this sort of freedom of expression also means having to managing the line between insulting derision and inciting hate crimes.  It's a complicated old world, and freedom of expression is more complicated than most issues.

This is about half the crowd, heading down to cross the bridge.
One of the reasons behind the huge outpouring of grief in France for the cartoonists in particular is that they were associated with more than just political satire. A couple of them also illustrated kids comic magazines and all of them worked for other magazines and papers besides Charlie Hebdo. Even if you didn't read Charlie Hebdo (and the reality is not that many people did) everyone knew who these people were and had read them. Several of them also worked for the much more widely read satirical magazine Le Canard Enchaîné.

Ideas of solidarity, liberty, citizenship and secularism are widely disseminated in the French culture and education system. After the success of the spontaneous rallies on the night of the initial shootings at the Charlie Hebdo offices, the energetic, decisive and omnipresent Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, proposed a march to demonstrate support for Republican values. Political leaders were summoned and invited so that it would be a cross party event. The march was set to take place simultaneously throughout France at 3pm on Sunday. Some places, like Preuilly, held their own march, other town authorities organised a bus so that residents could travel to a larger town and participate in the march there.

The march turned out to be extraordinarily well attended, with our estimate being around a thousand people. I asked a policeman what he thought and he agreed and said it was maybe even a bit more. What the march was not was silent, but talking was kept to a low respectful hum and everyone was quiet for Bertu's short speech.  Then the national anthem was sung, rather beautifully it has to be said. By chance there were some very good singers in the crowd, but as a French friend rather ruefully pointed out, the lyrics of the Marseillaise are absolutely frightful!

Some people, including Bertu, were referring to it as a marche blanche (a solemn march). Preuilly organised the march as principal commune in our communauté des communes, so many of the people attending were from the surrounding villages. Lots of people had stuck pens in their hats or were wearing Je Suis Charlie badges. People of all ages, colours, and presumably creeds were there. The march made its way down the main street from the town hall, across the bridge, around the fire station to the bourg neuf and up again to pick up the main road and retrace our steps.

The back half of the march rounding the corner at the fire station.
Like I said, it's a complicated old world. After some thought we decided to participate in the march in Preuilly. We didn't want to be supporting political opportunism, but we did want to support our neighbours. We have never been Charlie Hebdo readers, but did feel that the lives of everyone involved should be acknowledged in some public and official way, and more widely, that free speech and the law should be defended. Publishing provocative cartoons should absolutely not be countered with guns no matter how offended you are. Whichever way you look at it, the recent events are a tragedy and leaves the world divided into those who are sorrowful and those who are angry.

When it comes to reactions to the past few days I fall into the sorrowful camp and it can knock the stuffing out of you for a while. Those of us who react with sorrow do so quietly and rarely raise our heads above the parapet. But we hope we can recognise the moment to do so when it is necessary. I do think that the gathering together of so many diverse heads of state in Paris was a remarkable thing and that it is not all just lip service. I also think that this could be the beginning of a genuine grassroots movement to improve relations between the religions. We may have to guard against threats to freedom of movement and heavy handed security measures as the politicians struggle to deal with the terrorist issue though. We've demonstrated our support for freedom of speech. It would be a shame to have that undermined by the loss of other liberties.

18 comments:

  1. Well said, Susan. You have articulated so beautifully (and in a way we can only aspire to) our feelings about the happenings over the past days.

    Thank you for giving us the local picture on events.

    I agree about looking forward and have the perhaps naive hope that something positive will continue to grow out of the horror.

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  2. Gaynor: Thanks for the kind words. Both of us felt we hadn't quite expressed what we wanted to say, but it is such a complicated issue the blog would have ended up being unreadable. However, somewhat to my surprise, I am always an optimist in these sorts of situations. A great deal of how the future pans out depends on the media though. Their influence on the average person cannot be overestimated.

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  3. I really have a hard time with blogs by this person who now calls herself the venemous beade. How many different blogs does she have anyway? And how much nastier can she hope to get?

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  4. Thank you so much, Susan, for this very sensible post.

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  5. Ken: My impression is that she isn't nasty at all, but certainly quick to react with outrage, deeply cynical and suspicious of all authority. Her point was at least in part that people were forgetting about the innocent bystanders.

    chm: I'm glad you found it so.

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  6. It's the deeply cynical part that bothers me. Skepticism is one thing and cynicism another.

    There was a lot of truth in what you had to say, Susan. I find the part about not wanting to support political opportunism a little difficult however. Politicians and officials of (almost) all persuasions were invited to participate, and they did. So where is the opportunism in that?

    Unfortunately, I'm afraid I think you sound naive about "the beginning of a genuine grassroots movement to improve relations between the religions". The battles have been going on for thousands of years.

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  7. Ken: I thought the current government was to some extent opportunistically cashing in on the success of the spontaneous demonstrations.

    Religious differences flair up for political reasons (eg the Crusades being a way to continue to occupy a knightly class that was otherwise beating up each other in Europe). They flair up for reasons of social deprivation and injustice and provide a handy code for talking simply about the problem. You never know when the right sequence of events may come along to allow an unexpected outburst of tolerance. Don't give in to self fulfilling prophecies :-)

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  8. Thank you for this, S&S. Since I am a slow thinker, I've appreciated reading comments from many sources to help me think things through. Just this morning I've found comments by two Guardian columnnists especially helpful, Gary Younge and Roxane Gay.

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  9. If I might reply to Ken Broadhurst, without entering into personalities...

    I have one blog...it moved from Blogger to Wordpress and changed its name.

    If, Ken, you don't like it, either don't read it, or comment on the blog itself, rather than on that of a third party...The Days on the Claise has no responsibility for what I write.

    I have just read over again the post to which imagine you refer.
    The points I make are as follows:

    I considered Charlie Hebdo to be a crude, racist and sexist publication.
    I am entitled to my views.

    I considered that police protection of the premises had been inadequate given the level of threat sufficient to provide a bodyguard for the editor and that had it been in place there was a probability that lives - particularly those of the maintenance man and the policeman first on the scene - would have been saved.

    I noted the imbalance of reporting on those who died...a life lost is a life lost, be it journalist or doorman.

    I questioned the effectiveness of the general security measures put in place by government.

    I hoped that this incident would not be used by government to further restrict the freedom of ordinary citizens.

    I cannot imagine how this would give rise to your reaction in this comments section.

    I note that your remarks are ad hominem in their nature and would suggest that if you wish to engage in argument that you do so in the appropriate forum and that you play the ball, not the man.

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  10. I don't want to argue. That's the whole point. I was leaving a comment for Susan. If I want to leave a comment on one of your blogs, I will do so.

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  11. Good point about self-fulfilling prophesies. Several thousand years' worth of them! I enjoyed your post about the march in Preuilly. The Saint-Aignan event took place on Saturday afternoon, when it was raining. We didn't make it.

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  12. Have read the post and the follow up comments with interest.I think it was ever likely that after the initial solidarity the different perspectives would emerge - probably there from the outset, but only now coming through as the focus moves from the killings through the manhunt to the aftermath and the questions.

    A satirical cartoon image might well offend, using the attack for cynical political motives irritates, but at a very simple and naive level I remain far more offended by terrorists who kill in the name of someone or something.

    BTW just noticed the header. Love it.

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  13. Carolyn: It's very hard coming to your own point of view. You never have all the information and can't always be sure of the background or agenda of the media. Gary Younge seems to often speak sense, I've never heard of the other journalist. I'll take a look at both articles, thanks.

    Ken: 2K at most surely? :-)

    Gaynor: At last! Someone notices Simon's wonderful new header!

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  14. The header is wonderful, Simon.
    I too am horrified by the events in Paris and moved by the response of so many people.
    The Hyper Cacher murders and the rise of blatant antisemitism make my skin crawl.
    Such evil, such evil.

    Jocelyn

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  15. Jocelyn: Hi! Can you email me privately? I sent you and A New Year greetings last year and didn't get a response, so I was worried that something had happened to one of you, but maybe I just didn't have your current email address.

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  16. From Australia:

    Attorney-General George Brandis is drafting changes to the Racial Discrimination Act which will give people the right to make comments that are racist, offensive or insulting. (ABC 24th March 2014)

    “People have the right to be bigots” (Senator Brandis)

    There was an uproar, in part from groups who had suffered racial abuse and bullying, especially indigenous Australians, and in the event the Prime Minister made the decision to shelve the amendment. This means that the offending cartoons could not have been published in Australia. But this isn’t an appropriate forum in which to discuss whether the right to offend should exist. My mother would have said “It just isn’t good manners.”

    Thanks so much Susan and Simon, for your thoughtful, intelligent piece: It has been on my mind all day.
    And the header is smooooth!

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  17. "Ken: 2K at most surely? :-)"

    I doubt that religious conflicts and intolerance started only when Christianity came on the scene. Religion and superstition pre-date the Christian era, so conflict there had to be.

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  18. Fran: You can't incite hate crimes in France but you can otherwise be as offensive as you like so long as you are just expressing your own personal opinion.

    Ken: My impression from the history books is that religious intolerance really only dates from once there were competing monotheisms.

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