After a long flight to Paris, finding my luggage and dragging my massive suitcase to the train station, I finally made it to Nantes late in the afternoon on January 7th, where I will spend the next few months studying abroad. However, as I would soon learn once I arrived at my homestay, while I was adjusting to the time change and the culture shock, the country was coping with the shock of the attack on Charlie Hebdo.
Charlie Hebdo is a satirical French publication whose office was attacked by extremists two weeks ago. The attack and the days following left a total of 17 people dead, and a nation shaken to the core.
Walking to my first day of orientation the next day, signs saying “Je suis Charlie” were already in the windows of the shops and cafes. Once I arrived at the program center, we were informed by the program director of the situation and what the implications could be during our time here, such as the rise of global extremism and, in the case of Charlie Hebdo, the demonstrable threat to free speech and expression.
In the debate about free speech, the phrase “Je suis Charlie” has sparked some disagreement. As with other slogans of solidarity, often times the meaning behind the phrase can be misunderstood or misrepresented. In discussion with fellow students and as reported in both French and US papers, some see the phrase as a way to identify with the victims, while others see it as identifying with the newspaper itself—and as the publication satirizes established religious institutions, find it offensive.
Freedom of speech is something that is highly-valued in France, but when discussing what it means, there are differences and nuances that complicate the matter. The differences in points of view are among the French themselves, as well as visitors to France, whose home countries share a similar regard for the right to free speech.
Junior Emmet Shipway is also studying in Paris this semester. “A cultural difference I’ve found interesting between the states and France in the aftermath of Charlie Hebdo is that we’re both secular, but to different degrees,” Shipway said. “In France, blasphemy isn’t punishable by law, politics exist completely outside of religion.”
Junior ThuyMy Do, who is studying in Bordeaux adds: “It seems to me that the French take their separation of church and state very seriously. In many of my courses and during the orientation period, I’ve heard the term ‘laïcité’ [secularism] multiple times.”
It is this clear separation of church and state that is engrained into the fabric of the country—therefore, the attack against Charlie Hebdo by extremists where law and religion are one, makes the act not only heinous to the French, but also disconcerting and alien.
Nonetheless, a comfort to France has been the formidable solidarity that has been shared by countries across the world.
“The solidarity Paris has shown with the victims has been amazing. ‘Je suis Charlie’ is everywhere on cars, billboards, the Hotel de Ville,” Shipway said.
“I went to the march the following Sunday, which was attended by 140,000 people,” Do said. “The manif [protest] was very “quiet” in the sense that people didn’t really chant or yell…but “Je suis Charlie/Nous sommes tous Charlie” signs have been/are everywhere.”
As many expressed in the days following the attack, the solidarity comes from an increasingly shared experience, where abhorrent acts of violence affect so many countries—whether at the hands of a lone operator, or at the direction of terrorist cells.
The isolated acts of extremism in a city that spurned “people’s republics” is striking and also makes me think of another incident of fanatical violence—the Boston Marathon bombings.
I was at the finish line of the Boston Marathon in 2013, waiting for my father to finish his first marathon. I was there when the explosions that killed three people and injured countless others occurred. I hate that it happened and I wish I wasn’t there, but that is not my point. Rather, as I navigate the metro, fumble through conversations in French and try to adjust to my new life in France, I am struck by how in two beautiful, historic, and powerful cities with a legacy built on the revolution against tyranny and oppression have been victims to a growing threat that operates on hate, fear and violence.
As we continue to spend a semester in France, the talk of Charlie Hebdo, the debate on free speech, and the rising threat of violent extremism will all continue as the country heals.