France’s Moment of Truth

The jihadist killing spree in Paris last week (seventeen people murdered, twice as many wounded) has been described as "France’s 9/11" by Le Monde, the French liberal daily newspaper. Indeed, just like the American 9/11 fourteen years ago, it was a moment of truth: for France as a nation, for the French political class and -- last but certainly not least -- for French Jews. The question, however, is not so much whether one sees the truth or not, but rather what one is supposed to do once truth has been seen.

America’s instincts after its own 9/11 were sound: it understood that it was in a state of war and that it had to react accordingly, but it wavered about what war to wage and what strategy to follow. As a result, the War On Terror, in spite of considerable American and Western investment, pugnacity, and heroism, has been largely inconclusive and even, in many respects, a failure. Likewise, whatever the emotional or philosophical impact of the present French 9/11, either in France or abroad, it is not clear whether it will translate -- or can translate -- into adequate policies.

There were three stages in the killings. It all started on January 7, with the massacre at the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical magazine located in Central Paris near Bastille Circle. Two men in their early thirties, the brothers Said and Cherif Kouachi -- French citizens of the Muslim persuasion and of Algerian descent -- murdered eight journalists and cartoonists who happened to be there, as well as two menial workers and two policemen. Some other people were wounded. According to witnesses, the terrorists claimed they were "avenging Prophet Muhammad." In 2006, out of defiance against Islamist intimidation, Charlie Hebdo reprinted the caricatures about Muhammad previously published by the Danish magazine Jyllands-Posten. In 2011 and 2012, the French magazine published further sets of anti-Islamist caricatures with Muhammad as a main character.

The Kouachi brothers were able to flee Paris in spite of an enormous manhunt that involved thousands of policemen and gendarmes all over North-East France. Eventually, they were trapped and shot on January 9 by special antiterrorist units at a printing office in Dammartin-en-Goële, some 30 kilometers east of Paris.

In the meantime, on January 8, another terrorist, Amedy Coulibaly, 33, a French Muslim of Senegalese descent, shot a policewoman at Montrouge in Southern Paris and fled. He was apparently looking for a Jewish school located nearby. On January 9, Coulibaly attacked Hyper Casher, a kosher supermarket in Eastern Paris. He killed four customers and wounded several others. About fifteen customers, including a mother with a baby, were able to hide underground in the shop’s refrigerated rooms. Coulibaly was shot by the antiterrorist units later in the evening.

There is evidence that the Kouachi brothers and Coulibaly, all three of them with criminal records, were close associates in a single al-Qaeda network extending to the whole Paris and even to Belgium, and that they had coordinated their operations. One may surmise that they saw themselves as "holy warriors" and their victims – both the cartoonists ad the Jews - as undifferentiated enemies of Islam. One may also surmise that, deadlocked as they were in their gore fantasy world, they did not grasp the full dimension of their murders.

Charlie Hebdo is not just a satirical magazine. It has been for more than fifty years a pillar of French popular culture. It started in the 1960s as Hara-Kiri, a lampoon-and-cartoons monthly loosely modeled after the American magazine Mad. It soon proudly evolved into a "stupid and nasty magazine" (according to its own motto): a blend of utopian anarchism, militant atheism, provocative bad taste, and gaudy pornography. As such, it fit into an age-old French tradition stretching from François Rabelais to Louis-Ferdinand Céline. Half the country hated it intensely; the other half was in love with it.

It was a safety valve under Charles de Gaulle’s semi-authoritarian regime. It became the vanguard of the 1968 May Revolution in France, the student riots that turned into a general strike and led to a near disintegration of all authority.

Hara-Kiri was published as a monthly until 1985. A weekly version was however launched in 1969, as Hara-Kiri Hebdo, and then, after it was banned for having ridiculed de Gaulle’s funeral in 1970, as Charlie Hebdo. With ups and downs, this is the magazine that has survived until this very day.