Wednesday 14th January 2015. Exactly a week after tragic events that rocked and shocked France.
It is January 7th 2015. 6.30am. – Just a typical early January day. A slight chill in the early morning wind as I walk down to the post box to get the morning paper – The main preoccupation seems to be the Greek economy. My daily broadsheet bears the headline « Will Greece leave the Euro zone » – and then several pages of analysis on the repercussions if far left-wing parties win the up and coming Greek elections. On the inside pages, the results of a national poll – 57% of French people say they are optimistic about 2015. Br it opinion polls or the plight of the Hellenic economic plight, most French people are still struggling with the hard crawl back to work after the Christmas break. Dark, dismal, dreary January – national teaching unions and parents’ organisations are asking for a week’s extra holiday – the kids are too tired after Christmas, they can’t concentrate and the teachers haven’t had sufficient time to prepare new lessons – an extra week’s holiday. I’ll support that. Of course, it’s not all dull, this is Epiphany week an as such the French will be celebrating by gorging themselves on a few slices of Epiphany cake. It’s traditional, with colleagues at work or family friends and neighbours at home, this is the time to uncork a bottle of bubbly, share the Epiphany cake and wish everyone a happy new year.
Come 11am, it’s clear that 2015 won’t be so happy. First reports are coming in of a « shooting incident » at the Paris offices of the satirical magazine « Charlie Hebdo ». At lunchtime the horrific figures are confirmed – 11 dead and 5 seriously wounded. In the afternoon, the death toll climbs to 12. At work, all work seems to have stopped; we stand round in the corridors looking at footage of the attack taken by CCTV cameras. It hasn’t taken long for the images to make their way on to the Web. Masked gunmen, calmly climbing into their car and « making their getaway » after the attack with all the nonchalance of a Sunday afternoon drive. A couple of minutes previously, one of the attackers has, executed a wounded policeman by shooting him through the head. The footage of the execution has also made its way on to Internet. We can see the policeman, prostrate, one arm in the air waving off the attacker. The policeman is pleading for Mercy and then …
The rolling news coverage continues well into the night. The following day, in what the authorities qualify as an « unrelated incident » a member of the Paris municipal police force is gunned down by a man »of African origin » in the Montrouge area in the south of the capital.
Throughout the rest of the week, 90,000 police, troops and Gendarmes are mobilised in the hunt for the Charlie Hebdo killers, who are eventually tracked down to a print works on an industrial estate just 25 kilometres to the north of Charles De Gaulle international airport. Come Friday the powers-that-be have established a firm link between the Charlie Hebdo Killers and the Montrouge killer who is holed up in a Jewish supermarket in the Vincennes area of Paris, he has ten hostages.
Around 5pm on Friday, in simultaneous assaults on the Jewish supermarket and the print works, all the terrorists are « definitively neutralised » (a direct translation of the French term). In the Vincennes supermarket four hostages also lie dead, though they have been murdered during the siege by their hostage taker.
The week in France when France changed forever. The slogan « Je suis Charlie went nationwide and then worldwide. Shops, offices, public buildings … everywhere you looked, the « Je Suis Charlie » slogan had appeared. On Friday and Saturday nights there were impromptu candlelit vigils for the week’s victims. On Sunday four million people took to the Streets in France’s towns and cities. They were not there to condemn terrorism, they were there to celebrate freedom, they were there to celebrate the values of the French Republic – Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité – even in the smallest farthest-flung village, locals gathered around their village war memorial to say « Je suis Charlie » – for once, everything was not confined to Paris. And in this nation where patriotism is often associated with the far right, out came the tricolour flags – the nation was a sea of red white and blue. Even the most virulent of critics who associate patriotism with nationalism, were out on the Streets, flying the flag and say « je suis Charlie » and « Je suis Français » and proud to be French, because being French is not just a question of culture, it is also a question of accepting those three most basic of republican values – liberty, equality and fraternity. This week too, the nation has been taking up the national anthem in spontaneous chorus – the good old Marseillaise, once almost considered as an embarrassment by some – has become the hit of the day
What has changed in France this week? – Our normally fractious nation has found its own unique sense of republican national identity – it feels good to be French because France stands for freedom. For sure, this, the greatest expression of national cohesion since France won the football World Cup in 1998 won’t last. We will soon be back to our old ways – ever cynical, ever complaining, ever divided – but then this too is an essential part of the French character – we are a nation of complainers and pessimists – this is what makes us happy.
What has changed? I don’t think anything has changed however the tragic events of the last week have awoken the latent republican that slumbers deep within the soul of every French person. There is a new national conscience about what it means to be French regardless of race, creed or colour.
Surprising images from this week though – People in the street applauding police officers and Gendarmes. People in the Paris Métro actually talking to each other and at the beginning of a debate in the French Parliament – all the members, regardless of political allegiance, standing together for a hearty rendition of the French national anthem – not seen in living memory. This hasn’t happened since the end of World War One.
And finally, just one week after the fatal editorial meeting, Charlie Hebdo, the iconoclastic, satirical magazine that was on its last legs – just 13000 subscribers, just 60,000 readers – has now gone worldwide. This week’s edition has gone from a print run of 60,000 to five million and already most of the shops have sold out. The irony is, had the terrorists not “killed” Charlie, it would probably have died a protracted financial death in relative national indifference – perhaps just a few minutes on the evening news to mark the passing of this institution. Tnaks to the terrorists though, Charlie Hebdo will now live on, greater than ever.