One year on from Charlie Hebdo: The French government's assault on liberté

French police special forces carry out searches as part of an investigation into the Charlie Hebdo attack
French police special forces carry out searches as part of an investigation into the Charlie Hebdo attack
Ian Dunt By

The terrorists who stormed into the Charlie Hebdo offices one year ago today never had any chance of success. They could shock, and perhaps even temporarily traumatise, a nation. But they could not scare one of Europe's great liberal countries from giving up on secularism and laughter.

The government, however, is another matter. In the year since the Charle Hebdo attack, French liberty has been placed under serious threat. But the threat does not come from the terrorists. It comes from the state. And the victim is not the satirist. It is those seen as subversives: unruly children, Muslims and young radicals.

It started the day after the attack. Even while the perpetrators were still on the run and the nation was in shock, the French ministry of education decreed that all schools would hold a minute's silence.

That itself didn't seem odd. What had happened was a moment of national trauma - one which seemed to directly challenge the foundations of French society: 'Liberté, égalité, fraternité'. The attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices wasn't just an attack on people. It was an attack on ideas.


"For me as an English person in France, it was first time I understood these ideals weren't abstractions," professor Andrew Hussey, director of the Centre for Post-Colonial Studies (CPS) in Paris, says. "They're living embodiments of what it means to be French."

Across the world people were tweeting #JeSuisCharlie. Even though hardly anyone would have condoned the attacks, it was a difficult sentence for many French Muslims to utter. After all, Charlie Hebdo specialised in being as aggressively disrespectful to them as it possibly could.

French government have cracked down on free speech in the wake of attacks

Some students refused to participate in the minute's silence. Their refusal became an obsession for the press, as core ideas about identity began to play out in a much more emotive way than they had before the attack. The minute's silence became something like a litmus test for national loyalty.

"What we witnessed was a discussion with two trends emerging – those who were Charlie and those who weren't," Index on Censorship's France correspondent, Valeria Costa-Kostritsky, says. "After the terror attack it was very problematic to not be Charlie, or to express some distance or criticism of the work of Charlie Hebdo."

Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, France's education minister, told the National Assembly that 200 "incidents" had taken place in schools. "Schools are in the front line," she said. "We will punish firmly." Her assessment of terrorist sympathy seemed to be rather broad. "Even in schools where no incidents took place too much questioning came from pupils," she said. Suddenly even questioning the spirit of national solidarity was considered dangerous.

Teachers were required by the provisions of the emergency Plan Vigipirate to report any pupil whose remarks could be interpreted as an "apologie du terrorisme". The reports started flooding in. Children were questioned for saying al-Qaida should bomb their school, or that they agreed with terrorism.

Many weren't Muslim, many were. But they were certainly all children. Their natural teenage inclination to say something shocking was suddenly triggering a police response.

"I was a teen. When someone came into school and said 'believe this', we said 'fuck you'," Hussey says. "A lot of it is adolescent fuck-you-ism."

The terrorism apology law is extremely broad and dangerous, given that no-one can define the thing it has outlawed apologising for. Judicial proceedings started to increase in the weeks following the attack and attracted heavy sentencing – even imprisonment. Even an eight-year-old boy who had told his friends he was "with the terrorists" was questioned by police.

The Charlie Hebdo attack didn't create the divisions between Muslims and mainstream French society, it merely exacerbated those which were already there.

"A lot of people argue that France is a totalitarian democracy," Hussey says. "'Liberté, égalité, fraternité or shut up'. 'Be free like us or shut up'. One of the things the French are terrified of is multiculturalism, the politics of identity. They're terrified of the idea of an African-American identity, or a gay African-American identity, and so on. Multiple identities within the republic are not acceptable."

Inforgraphic created by Index On Censorship

Hussay suggests that the issues France struggled with in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks go right back to Algeria in the nineteenth century, when Muslims were invited into the French democratic process but only if they were prepared to lose their Muslim identity.

"There's nothing wrong with the model itself, but the way it's deployed by politicians is a problem," he continues. "That's why a lot of ordinary Muslims find it difficult to identify with mainstream politics, from which they feel quite justifiably excluded."

Then, as the year drew to an end, the horrific attacks on Paris, and in particular the Bataclan, brought a new wave of horror and revulsion to French civic life. On the night of the attacks, a state of emergency was announced. That state of emergency is still in place.

President Francois Hollande secured an extension through to February 26th. He is now trying to alter the French constitution to increase his powers under a state of emergency, prolong certain of the powers after it is lifted, and remove legal avenues to challenging them.

The state of emergency gives the police powers to raid and search homes without a warrant, shut down associations, and ban peaceful protests – all without judicial oversight. The majority of raids have been against Muslims, whether in their home, their workplace or their Mosque. Most have yielded nothing.

"Have you been to Paris recently?" Hussay asks. "It's quite unpleasant under this state of emergency. There are armed soldiers all over the place. I've seen jeeps with paratroopers rattling along the Left Bank. After the Bataclan, everyone was talking about war. But war against who? What kind of war?"

A ban on public gatherings put in place on the night of the attacks has continued. A large protest against climate change due to coincide with the Paris talks last month was banned by police, leading thousands of campaigners to symbolically leave their shoes along the route it would have taken. At least 24 climate activists were put under house arrest, on the suspicion of preparing to attend the march.

TV station Arret sur Images reports that local authorities in many cities have formally prohibited demonstrations seen as "anti-establishment". In Paris, around 60 people who were suspected of demonstrating for the rights of refugees are reported to have been called in by police and now face up to six months in jail.

"I couldn't believe this was happening," Costa-Kostritsky says. "I couldn't believe the emergency measures were being used against people who wanted to protest."

Many worry that authoritarian politicians are using the heightened state of alarm to smuggle in draconian new pieces of legislation, not least on media freedom - although on that matter the media handed politicians most of the weapons they would need to challenge them due to their catastrophic mishandling of events following the Charlie Hebdo attack.

When terrorists Saïd and Chérif Kouachi arrived at an industrial estate in Dammartin-en-Goële, outside Paris, two days after the attacks, the media reported that there was someone hiding in the building - potentially tipping the attackers off. When a separate attacker, Amédy Coulibaly, burst into into a kosher supermarket in Paris, the same thing happened. A group fled downstairs, only for a news network to report that someone was hiding in the fridge.

In February, the French broadcast regulator formally censured several TV and radio networks for serious breaches in their coverage of the attacks. But some Socialist politicians tried to go further, with draconian and far-reaching powers giving the state considerably more control over the press. For the time being, it hasn't succeeded, but it gives some indication of the way the debate in France is going.

President Hollande is now pushing for powers to strip dual-nationals of their French citizenship if they are convicted of terrorism offences. The policy has massive public support, but even some on the right have grown concerned about it. As Jacques Toubon, a former right-wing justice minister who is now the French constitutional ombudsman for citizens' rights, said, it is "a fundamental division of French people into two categories, against the spirit and letter of the French constitution".

This time last year, the Charlie Hebdo attack felt like a clear attempt to destroy Europe's commitment to free speech and satire - to put fear into the hearts of those who would mock and offend, ridicule and scrutinise. But satire has, in truth, been largely unaffected. Journalists who want to criticise Muslims, or draw rude cartoons of Catholic priests, are not sat there wondering whether terrorists will kill them if they put pen to paper.

The real attack on freedom of speech has come from the French state itself and it is directed against those it perceives as potential subversives: the school children who will not say Je Suis Charlie, the Muslim families who are subject to raids by police, the environmental campaigners who want to demonstrate in front of world leaders.

The French people faced down the terror of Islamic fascists. But their own government may in the end prove a more formidable threat to their liberty.

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