The shock across France at the terrorist attack on the offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and the hostage situations that have followed have been met with incomprehension. The barbarity of the deliberate assassination of ten journalists at a small magazine, selling only tens of thousands of copies a week, follows on the back of threats, pursuit through the courts and a firebomb attack on its offices in 2011.
While the French press has been united in keeping its coverage of the attacks from veering towards Islamophobia, the reaction on social media has been far more fractured.
The well-known journalists and cartoonists killed were symbols of the heady years after 1968, characterised by a bubbling up of humour and ideas. A generation of French people grew up laughing at their visual jokes. At the heart of the reaction to the events have been debates about liberty and freedom, the bedrock of a society which terrorists have now attacked.
Compulsive live coverage
The impact of the Charlie Hebdo attack and its aftermath has been reinforced by the unstoppable live media coverage of the events. French people have been surfing between Facebook and Twitter, websites, radio and television to follow the developments and the marches that have followed to show unity in face of the violence.
Wolfed down among this live blogging are the most shocking of videos and images, including those of the assassination of an injured policeman on the ground. The furore has been constantly fed by official statements, press conferences and anonymous witnesses. These are all being watched closely, particularly by those who followed the well-known cartoonists during their lives. Their laughter has mutated into rage and pain.
Although many French people have been left dumbstruck, incapable of thinking and expressing their opinions on the events, a line-up of professional public speakers are now filling the silence left by the reverberations of Kalashnikovs. They are not necessarily very precise, but have spoken truthfully about how freedom of expression and democracy have been targeted and wounded.
Some of the press, such as the left-leaning newspaper Le Monde, have called the events France’s “11 September”. And much of the editorial comment so far has been about the scars that such attacks in the past have left, by changing rights in our society, and how information can be sacrificed in the line of defence.
Press united in support
The press could have hesitated. In the past, Charlie Hebdo has been seen as marginal, even a pariah by some. Its provocations of all religions, including Islam, have often drawn criticism.
Maybe because they currently feel menaced, the newspapers have instead united, immediately identifying with their colleagues who were subjected to an assault of blind totalitarianism. Their words have been elevated even higher by a powerful social media movement quickly identified by a visual slogan: "Je suis Charlie", using white text on a black background.
It has become the photo on numerous twitter accounts and quickly spread across Facebook even before people started protesting against the violence. Just four or five hours after the attack, 100,000 people across France were on the street. At its height, the hashtag #JesuisCharlie was being tweeted 6,500 times every minute.
A wave of international solidarity from world leaders – many of them at the march in Paris on January, 11 – and from civil society has helped reassure France of its capacity to resist the terror that we’ve experienced – if not remove the pain. Charlie Hebdo has become a symbol.
Its reporters arrived at the offices of the left-leaning Liberation newspaper two days after the attack to start work on the edition. The Guardian Media Group in the UK has donated €100,000, adding to €250,000 from the Digital Innovation Press Fund, which gets funding from Google, among other donors.
Trap of Islamophobia still present
And yet the political trap set by the terrorist group is still there, as the former justice minister Robert Badinter immediately underlined. Whatever their motives, these attacks have happened at a particularly delicate moment for French society, which is struck by doubt and pessimism about the world and particularly about it’s own future. This doubt eats into France’s capacity to connect with and speak with everybody in the country. It’s a doubt about values and about cohesion.
The first hours of unity following the attack should be reassuring. For the most part, the first reactions to the events by the media have avoided the obvious risk of fracture and confrontation between communities. This from a society which hardly ever talks about the relations between the communities within it and denies their existence under the name of integration.
Social media shows divide
But multiple fissures have formed online and on social media, which are more numerous, if not as violent as the attacks on some mosques in the hours following the attack on the Charlie Hebdo office. These include questions over whether there has been inaction by the government in face of the threat from Islamist terrorism in France and whether the journalists at Charlie Hebdo provoked the attack by their cartoons. Conspiracy theories have also begun swirling about the attack and the information being disseminated in the media.
There has been controversy sparked outside of France too, including angry reaction to a tweet by media mogul Rupert Murdoch that implied all Muslims were responsible for the Charlie Hebdo murders.
The trap of Islamophobia is a real menace. And it is now up to intellectuals, journalists and politicians to work intelligently and courageously to overcome it and resolutely combat it.