"Because we are French": An Inside Look at the Rally to Support Victims of the Charlie Hebdo Attack

 /  Jan. 13, 2015, 7:44 p.m.


A woman wearing grey pants and a red sweater walked hand-in-hand with her small daughter, who was trying to understand why she was standing in a massive crowd of people. “Nous sommes ici parce que nous sommes Françaises,” she said to her overwhelmed child—“We are here because we are French.”

The girl and her mother joined 1.6 million people on the streets of Paris in the largest rally in French history, a massive showing of solidarity following several deadly shootings last week. On January 7, two masked gunmen stormed an editorial meeting at the Charlie Hebdo office in Paris’s 11th arrondissement. The satirical publication, which has previously gained notoriety for its grotesque caricatures, depicted the Prophet Muhammad in a recent issue. This depiction served as the catalyst for the attack.

Proclaiming “we have avenged the Prophet Muhammad” in Arabic, the gunmen killed twelve members of the publication’s staff and injured another eleven. The two attackers, brothers Cherif and Said Kouachi, fled the capital and were killed by police north of Paris. The next day, a third gunman with reported ties to the brothers shot and killed a police officer and took hostages in a Kosher supermarket in eastern Paris. After police stormed the market, the gunman and four hostages were killed, four hostages and two officers were wounded, and fifteen were rescued unhurt. In total, seventeen people were killed. Reports suggest that a fourth accomplice has fled to Syria.

Since the shooting, demonstrations have taken place around the world, #jesuischarlie has trended on Twitter, and millions have expressed support for the victims of this atrocity, vowing that terrorists do not get to define free speech.

As an American student living in Paris this winter, I have had the opportunity to see these events unfold. This article tells the story of the past week as I experienced it. I do not mean to make any sweeping generalizations but instead want to share what I have learned, based on personal introspection and conversations with UChicago peers and Parisians I have met over the past several days.

Controversial Cartoons

Like most of my University of Chicago peers in Paris, I was in class in the 13th arrondissement—twenty-five minutes minutes from the Charlie Hebdo offices by train—when the shooting occurred and, given my limited Internet access, I had absolutely no idea that terrorists were attacking Paris. Once out of class, however, I began receiving worried messages from parents and friends and learned what had happened.

People here were a little on edge. We tried to stay safe and did not travel around as much as we would have liked, so I did not get a great feel for how the city was coping. One evening, though, we were taking the Metro to dinner, and, while waiting on the platform for our train, the Metro station was suddenly evacuated and closed, and uniformed soldiers rushed in as we exited. We quickly returned to our dorms, feeling a bit shaken.

As I began to read about the attack from my favorite American news publications, I saw the emergence of a debate about the place that offensive speech should hold in modern society. Everyone values free speech, but the place of explicitly hateful speech in society, such as Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons, is currently under discussion. For example, media outlets have grappled with the question of whether or not to post Charlie Hebdo’s cover art: CNN refused to post some of the publication’s most insulting cartoons, and NPR, the New York Times, and the Washington Post faced a similar dilemma. Columnists have also commented on the role that free speech should play in society: David Brooks suggests that society should accept all forms of speech, while filtering out offensive voices; Arthur Chu has proclaimed “je ne suis pas Charlie,” because he believes in mourning the death of human beings, not elevating a “crass” publication and “making martyrs out of its staff;” And Teju Cole points out that “it is possible to defend the right to obscene and racist speech without promoting or sponsoring the content of that speech.”

Ici, Tout le Monde est Charlie—Here, Everyone is Charlie.

I attended the rally on January 11. I saw most of what I expected to see—signs, flags, roses, and lots of crayons, as the pencil has come to symbolize the past week in Paris. The streets were covered in bleu, blanc, et rouge, and onlookers in surrounding apartment buildings voiced support to marchers below. People from all walks of life became part of the Je Suis Charlie movement: Children carried signs on their parents’ shoulders, foreigners waved their countries’ flags in support, and leaders from around the world, including Germany, Italy, Mali, Turkey, Britain, Israel, and the occupied Palestinian territories marched arm-in-arm.

According to a University of Chicago student, “I was surprised that everyone was just really nice to everyone.” People on the Metro held onto one another because there were not enough rails for everyone to grab and keep from falling. “Nous tomberons ensemble”—“We will fall together.” Marchers helped one another climb trees and get a better view. The city lifted all Metro fares so everyone could attend the rally. “It was shockingly friendly,” said another student. We did not expect to see any protests, or violence, but American coverage of the tragedy gave rise to a debate about how to treat hateful speech and we noticed that this tension was notably absent from the march. Indeed, that particular issue seems like an American invention.

I expected to see a call to end Islamophobia or to increase tolerance. I expected someone to raise the issue that hateful speech should not be spread simply because such speech is protected by law. Another student agreed: “It was so much calmer, so much more one-sided than I expected.” Based on everything we had read, we expected to see the beginning of a conversation, but this rally was not about that. I do not mean to say that this conversation is not taking place in Paris or the rest of France; I merely suggest that as one attendee of 1.6 million, I did not witness it. Rather, from what I experienced, this rally was about France and reaffirming the values of a country that refused to be brought to its knees.

On Wednesday, January 14, Charlie Hebdo, which has received support from Libération, released a much-anticipated issueThe image featured in this article was taken by the author.

Chelsea Fine