Charlie Hebdo march proves Paris wouldn’t have the first clue how to become a proper police state

National Post
January 12, 2015

This morning high mass was celebrated at Notre Dame, an obvious terrorist target. There was no visible security around the cathedral at all.

Today was one of those cold and beautiful winter days in Paris that calls to mind a 19th Century painting by Caillebotte. The police had promised “extreme security measures” for the rally: 150 plainclothes officers, 20 teams of snipers, 56 motorcycle teams, and 24 mobile units. When I read this, I didn’t know whether to be moved or horrified. That is nothing—nothing—like what you need to protect a crowd of the predicted size from a determined group of terrorists. Particularly since their sleeper units—we have been told by the same authorities—may recently have been activated. It is deeply moving that Paris simply has no idea how to become a proper police state. And it also just as clear this city must learn what “extreme security” looks like—it doesn’t look like Paris; and it doesn’t look like this.

There is, however, one thing this city does know: It’s what an outrage to everything civilized looks like. And it reacted to it with a breathtaking display of civilization. One so powerful that even the perpetrators of that outrage might doubt they had achieved their intended effect.

I got nowhere near any of the dignitaries who flew in for the rally. The only politician I saw—predictably—was Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a leftist known for his near-magical ability to be visible from every angle whenever there’s a protest. But the politicians are visiting dignitaries weren’t the point—particularly given that the word “ironic” hardly begins to describe the arrival of Turkish President Davutoglu, of all people, to defend the values of freedom of speech, religion, and assembly.

It was the sheer number of people who came out, on frigid winter day, to say that what had happened was insupportable. A slightly tricky word to translate: something like “intolerable,” but with other meanings beyond. That it is hard to translate is also why it’s important. The French take certain things about being French more seriously than most understand. These attacks were not only a devastating shock for their violence and depravity, but because they were an attack on the values of the French republic—words that may mean nothing elsewhere, but mean everything in France.

These were the words everyone used to me—and by this I do mean everyone. I asked as everyone the same question: Why had they come to the rally? “To defend the values of the Republic.” A middle-aged man told me, “We must unite against any form of attack on our liberty.” His wife said, “I am here to defend the Republic’s ideals.” They all said this: to defend freedom of expression, freedom of conscience, and freedom from religion—or of it, if you prefer, but privately and leave us alone with it.

Several told me they had never been to a rally before. “This is the first demonstration I have been to since I was born, that’s how important this is,” said a man in his late sixties. Given that this is France we’re talking about—where demonstrating is as much a national pastime as playing petanque or sampling the new Beaujolais—the number who said this was striking. Another woman said she had come to show her support because “il faut rire.” One must laugh. Like insupportable, the difficulty of translating this properly also makes the point: There are things you do in France and things that you do not. One must laugh. Anything less is insupportable.

Camille Consigny, about forty: “To defend freedom of expression, freedom of religion, and the Republic.” Daniel Porte, probably about 50, told me that he had come to “support values of the Republic.” His wife Esther added that she had come “pour ne pas y être.” In order not be here. An elegant reply.

Joel Houzet also said he had come because what happened was insupportable. It was “against every one of our values. We are here for hope. We are here for fraternity.” A 69-year-old woman, in a wheelchair, said, “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité.” She said that said it all—and it did.

Everyone said it: the values of the Republic. That everyone, of every faith, must be free in this country, and that it was of overwhelming importance to them to be there, to show this to the world. And they showed it, certainly: The whole world has, by now, seen the images on television—and seen just what France thinks of barbarians.

They came with signs: “Je suis flic. Je suis juif. Je suis Charlie.” I’m a cop. I’m a Jew. I am Charlie. Another sign said, “Our freedom is greater than your faith.” An elderly man—on the verge of tears—held a sign that said, “I am here”—in Hebrew. Other stores in my neighborhood had put up signs in Hebrew to show their solidarity. Another man held a sign, as did many others, saying that he was a Muslim—and this was not in his name.

Many signs, of course, said, “I am Charlie.” Some showed the famous cartoon the magazine published in the wake of being firebombed. “Love is stronger than hate.” That cartoon was hardly as treacly as the words might make it sound. The French are not treacly, and Charlie Hebdo was anything but. The genius was the depiction of the lewd and drooling wet kiss between a cartoonist, carrying his pencil, and an equally lecherous man in an Islamic skullcap—against the background of the ruins of their firebombed office.

Others said, “I am French, and I am free.” Another said, “I am a Muslim. Born on French soil. Do not touch my France.” Another said, “Je suis pas manipulable.” I cannot be manipulated. I asked him what that meant: He said it meant just what it said.

Sylvain Victor, a younger man from the suburbs of Paris, told me, “Everyone has been attacked. We are united. That is the first thing. We are here to show we are not afraid.” I asked him if he was sure he wasn’t afraid. He said, “un peu de peur.” A bit of fear, yes. But then he shrugged to say, “Screw it.”

I did not know these streets could be so full. I returned to Paris last year after living for nearly a decade in Istanbul—a megacity of 20 million people. Paris had until today seemed to my eyes strangely depopulated. But today it didn’t look that way today. It was astonishing to me that everyone to whom I spoke said the same thing: that they had come to protect the values of the Republic. These values mean something very deep here.

But how to protect them? They all knew what they were. But when I asked how, specifically, they were unsure. The aging communist, predictably, said the answer must somehow involve freeing Mumia. The mood was such that I was able to explain to him exactly what I felt about both communists and Mumia—and we could both laugh, and agree that what had happened was insupportable to us both, and we were also both on the verge of tears.

A middle-aged woman named Gabrielle Lopez said, “I am here to protect the Republic. To protect our liberty.”

But how, I insisted? How, exactly? I was thinking of that undefended Cathedral, of the hopelessly inadequate police presence. At one moment I thought for a hopeful split second that I had seen one of the promised snipers on a balcony above the street. On closer inspection, I saw that it was just a television camera. I know what a police state feels like. I lived in one for years. France isn’t a police state. It wouldn’t have the first clue how to be. But what short of that could protect everyone here who needs protection?

“I don’t know,” Lopez admitted. “That’s up to them.” By “them,” she meant the politicians. Did she think they would have any better idea?

“I hope so,” she said. Her tone of her voice said “no.”

Yesterday, one of the cartoonists who survived, Bernard Holtrop—his pen name is Willem—said something perfect. It summed up Charlie Hebdo: “We vomit on all these people who suddenly say they’re our friends.” That was exactly what you’d expect from them. It was exactly why they were so important in a world where people are afraid to say anything for fear of causing offence—and where, in particular, they are afraid of saying the obvious.

The rally was mostly quiet, and all the more moving for that. There were occasional bursts of applause—spontaneous, just shows of some kind of solidarity—and calls of “Charlie, Charlie.”

The streets—the whole city—were thronged with quiet, dignified, and civilized people who had come to protect the values of the republic and had no real plan for doing so beyond knowing for sure what those values were.

But they were there in such numbers that I wound up stuck for a good hour on the crossroad of one those old Haussmannian boulevards, the kind lined by staid apartment buildings with terraced balconies, and rows of leafless chestnut trees like somber skeletons. Everyone around me was exhausted and red-eyed, almost to the last. At one moment, though—I don’t know why—the Ode to Joy began pouring from one of the apartments above the street. When that famous overture–and all it represents—came pouring from above, there was indeed something about it that I suspect might have moved even Willem.

Had the sniper I thought I had seen proved to be exactly that, I would have been even more moved.