More than 3.5 million people took to the streets of France on January 11 to support free speech and honour the victims of terrorist attacks on the offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hedbo and other targets that left 17 people dead, as well as three suspects.
France's largest demonstration in living memory was led by a “VIP square” including French President Francois Hollande, former president Nicolas Sarkozy, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, British Prime Minister David Cameron, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Turkish and Hungarian prime ministers, and representatives from a host of other nations with dubious track records on civil liberties.
United against hate?
On the back of the demonstration, the key message that mainstream politicians and media networks in France have been peddling is that of “tolerance”. One of the major slogans throughout the response has been a France “united against hate.”
On the surface this sounds great, and indeed this discourse has in part helped isolate the far right’s more Islamophobic rhetoric.
Yet it remains essentially a “clash of civilisations”-lite message. This rests on the idea that the West is now in a constant battle, not against Islam itself, but against those “radicalised’ Islamists, for which there can be no real explanation or understanding.
As English writer Richard Seymour points out, radicalisation” means “they have become more 'extreme' in their Islam, more Islamic than before, less 'moderated' by their assimilation to 'Western values', by virtue of being exposed to 'extremism'”.
This discourse of “radicalisation’ has been a constant throughout the post-9/11 rhetoric on terror, and it serves to disguise some fundamental realities.
Accepting this narrative means that we don’t look to the structural roots of terrorism. These include continued imperialist wars and interventions targetting largely Islamic nations and discriminatory policies in Western countries combined, in some cases, with poverty.
It also allows for a blind spot with regard to Western governments’ hypocritical alliances and their own internal crackdown on civil liberties. Last year, for instance, France made it illegal to stage a demonstration in support of Palestine.
Since it relies on simplistic “us and them” rhetoric, such a discourse can easily risk slide into a more overtly racist mindset. It is rhetoric of the “enlightened” West against the “savage” extremists who hate our “freedoms”.
Not only does this ignore the far greater violence of the West ―the illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003, for instance, led to the deaths of more than 1 million people, according to one study ― it also potentially creates a context of legitimisation of Islamophobic violence.
Since the terror attacks, there have been more than 20 attacks on mosques and the Muslim community across France, all underrepresented in the mainstream French and international media.
Liberty against liberties?
Ironically, the actual result of this “liberal” and “tolerant” discourse is a crackdown on civil liberties themselves.
Never allowing a good national emergency to go to waste, the French government deployed 10,000 military personnel and 120,000 security personnel to the streets of France on January 13 in a show of force intended to generate confidence in the power of the state to handle such crises.
In a crackdown on free speech, France has arrested at least 54 people for “defending or glorifying terrorism” in posts on social media.
Abroad, Hollande has seized this opportune moment to declare that the Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier, containing 800 military personnel and nine fighter jets, is ready to be used for military operations against Islamic State in Iraq.
At home, several French politicians are now calling for the implementation of a French “Patriot Act” like the one adopted by the US after the 9/11 attacks.
The Left Front’s Jean-Luc Melenchon responded sharply: “The ‘Patriot Act?’ Do those who mention it even know what it is? Just a law that reduces liberties, which, like all laws of exception, does not work. But it legalises torture!”
He paraphrased Benjamin Franklin, saying: “A people ready to sacrifice a little liberty for a little security deserve neither, and will end up losing both.”
The parties to the left of Hollande's ruling Socialist Party have all condemned the attacks, as well as attempts by the government to use them to push attacks on civil liberties and the far right to push a discourse of hate.
Nonetheless, divisions emerged over how to relate to the January 11 demonstration. The main groups in the Left Front ― the Left Party and the French Communist Party ― called on supporters to attend the rally, but to “keep a distance” from the mainstream politicians trying to hijack what was, in their eyes, a movement for free speech and against community divisions.
Several smaller left parties, including the New Anticapitalist Party (NPA) and some members of Ensemble! (a group in the Left Front) called on the left to boycott the demonstration. They said it would represent a a dangerous alliance of the left and right.
A statement released by the NPA and other small groups put forward thorough analysis of the situation. It highlighted the role of French imperialism, which the more “republican” left represented by Melenchon has largely ignored.
The NPA statement also warned against the French government’s attempts to use the pretext of “fighting terrorism” to escalate French involvement in wars overseas and crackdowns on civil liberties at home, while sneaking through more austerity measures.
On the day, the politics of the march were mixed. On the one hand it was led by an unholy VIP section ― quite disconnected from the demonstration itself ― featuring a range of war criminals and representatives of repressive governments.
Yet to suggest that, since these politicians made a photo opportunity of the demonstration, and were heavily covered by the media, the demonstrations were a unified expression of their politics seems an oversimplification.
There was little sense that attending the rally meant support for right-wing measures, or an alliance with the right. Instead, boycotting the march ran the risk of the left isolating itself from the majority of the French population.
Two members of Ensemble! gave their reflections on the march: “It was not 'behind' a program of Hollande and [Prime Minister Manuel] Valls, still less of Netanyahu, Bongo, Organ, Davutoglu, etc … Marching 'behind' in the sense of supporting is a social relation and not a geographic juxtaposition.”
According to John Mullen, a member of Ensemble!, the left organised more of its members to attend these demonstrations than the far right, and there was a strong presence from trade unions.
Many placards read “Je suis Charlie” (“I am Charlie”), but many also read “Je suis contre le racisme et l’islamophobie” (“I am against racism and islamophobia”).
Much of the Left inside France have been reluctant to criticise Charlie Hebdo itself, and have not sought to challenge the “Je suis Charlie” slogan.
The magazine is politically mixed and represents different things to different people. It has often been hyper-criticalof the far right, anti-immigrant National Front, but at the same time its “provocative” portrayals of Muslims and of the prophet Mohammed clearly draw upon racist tropes and seems intent on tapping into a general Islamophobic cultural milieu.
The view that Charlie Hebdo is not racist since it also satirises Christianity and French politicians fails to recognise the objective power structures that exist in our societies, which fundamentally determine how the cartoons are viewed.
The front cover of the first edition of Charlie Hebdo since the attack, released on January 14, continues the publication’s poor record, depicting a racially stereotypical image of the prophet Mohammed holding up a “Je suis Charlie” sign, with the headline reading “All is forgiven.”
Guardian journalist Joseph Harker remarked: “In depicting the prophet Muhammad it is deliberately offending the vast majority of muslims around the world.”
In the aftermath of the bloodshed, however, critiquing Charlie Hebdo is not the main task of the day. It can become a distraction from the real issue of how to respond to the attacks.
Instead, in a time when anti-war and anti-imperialist movements in the West are struggling to reassert, the response of the international left to the attacks should be to challenge the mainstream narrative of mere “tolerance” and “Western values”.
Instead, the left should point out that the ongoing imperialist wars and interventions in the Middle East and elsewhere, as well as structural injustices within Western societies, are largely to blame for the rise of Islamic fundamentalist terrorism.
This must be combined with a defence of freedom of speech and democracy that both condemns the killers and Western government attempts to exploit the violence to push its own undemocratic agenda.