Cartoonists as cultural heroes? Pencils held high as symbols of free speech? In France, a massive show of solidarity may have been reflected in the mixture of secularists, Christians, Jews, Muslims and others who marched in the streets of Paris. But is all this a fair indicator of what needs to be done in France to reverse the tide of terrorist violence?

Gruesome killings of 17 people in the Islamic terrorist attacks on a cartoon magazine publisher’s office, a kosher grocery store, and another killing led people to embrace a new cultural concept, “Je Suis Charlie” (“I am Charlie”). They signaled their identification with the slain editors and cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo, a weekly satirical magazine with a scant circulation of 60,000 and uncertain financing. Jewish men wore yarmulkes and other Jews (and non-Jews) carried signs declaring sympathy for the Jews who were killed.

Arising from the event, perhaps the biggest public protest in French history (and France has been famous for huge street demonstrations for centuries), was a sense that something must be done to thwart more terrorist attacks and to preserve the right to free speech which these hideous murders appear to have called into question.

But were all these good people—with whom I can easily identify and sympathize—on the right track?

I worked in France for part of the 1970s and considered it a privilege to be there. I also lived in Paris for half a summer in 2003. I go back for work or pleasure whenever I can. The delights of French culture, landscape and social interaction are not overstated: It is a fabulous country, and the French are a wonderful, generous people. Still… I have my doubts.

One day in the summer of ’03, I hung out with an old French friend whom I will call simply Madame. We had met in the 1980s on a walking tour in the English Lake District and had stayed in touch. She was an English teacher in a lyceé (high school) in the lower middle class suburbs of Paris. Her English was perfect, and she was more than tolerant of my less-than-perfect French. Madame visited me once when I lived in Manhattan and I often weekended in the Berkshires. She wanted to see New York and New England because, she said, she so much admired “the American way.” I showed her around town and up in the country, and I believe she went home impressed with the beauty and diversity of these two small slices of the American scene. We sometimes corresponded about books and writers, and always in our letters we made jokes about the apparent foolishness of politicians in our two countries. I thought of her as a warm, kind, open-minded, liberal intellectual.

That is, until the day we sat on a park bench, enjoying the sunshine in the Place des Voges, an elegant 18th century square with classy boutiques, cafes and restaurants on the street level and expensive apartments above. Children romped around the fountain, as amused parents or weary nannies looked on. Young lovers cuddled on blankets on the grass. Old people sat contentedly on the benches, as men tossed breadcrumbs to swarms of pigeons and ladies chatted with friends. We had ice cream, two “boules” (scoops) each, in sugar cones, and I thought this must be paradise. Our most challenging topic of conversation was where to go for dinner. In Paris that question could take all day to resolve.

Then, a young woman walked through the square and Madame made a “tsk tsk” hissing sound, soto voce. At first I thought she was expressing pleasure over her nearly finished ice cream cone, but I saw out of the corner of my eye that she was also shaking her head left to right in the universal signal of “No, no.” I said, “What’s that about?” Madame replied, “She won’t be permitted to wear that scarf much longer. We’re going to stop her.” I hadn’t noticed that the woman, now exiting the square, wore a head scarf in the manner of conservative Muslim women. I asked Madame, “But why won’t you permit her to wear a scarf, if it pleases her or if her religion requires it?” For the first time in our years-long friendship, Madame looked angry, even uncomprehending. She moved away from me several inches on the park bench. “You don’t get it do you, in your weak American liberal way, how dangerous that scarf of hers really is.” I was taken aback. “Weak”? “Dangerous”?

Had I been more sensitive to her feelings, I might have let it drop, but I’m not one to avoid a debate. “Now wait a minute. If we go to Notre Dame Cathedral, we will see a large sign at the portal directing women to wear a head covering, and most women bring a scarf, if they want to enter the church. Why won’t you allow the Muslim woman to wear her scarf? Isn’t it the same thing, just a religious tradition that comes from hundreds of years ago and has little substance nowadays?” Madame’s normally pale face had taken on some color. “Not the same at all,” she said, accentuating the consonants. “Why not, how so?” I asked. “Because this is a Christian nation…” I jumped on this statement immediately. “Hold on! France separated church and state a hundred years ago. Today there is a whole political and cultural movement here— laïcité—that emphasizes secularism. Your constitution and a host of laws forbid discrimination. So why does a Catholic have one set of rights but a Muslim another set—and a more limiting one?”

A young man passed in front of us in the square, perhaps a student, maybe in his early ‘20s. The Place des Voges is a short distance, on foot, from Le Marais, the old Jewish quarter of Paris where these days hip cafes and tiny restaurants serve the delights of Middle Eastern cuisine. Kosher shops are common in Le Marais. Cool though it is, the quarter is also burdened with the memory of a 1982 terrorist attack that killed six and injured 22 at the Jewish restaurant, Chez Jo Goldenberg. An Islamic organization, Abu Nidal, is alleged to be responsible.

The young man wore a yarmulke. “There! There it is again, don’t you see!” I said, “See what? What are you pointing at?” “His hat, that damn Jewish hat,” Madame said. “It has to go!”

I was taken aback and not just because I was once, by marriage, part of a Jewish family and then again, by romance, part of another one. Her philosophical principle, or call it her prejudice, if you will, was laid bare, and my previously liberal-minded intellectual friend, so generous toward me and so good natured in all other respects, sounded now just like the French right-wing extremists I had long thought were the enemies of freedom. I tried again, “But isn’t it his right to dress as he pleases, to worship as he wants to worship? Isn’t that what ‘liberté’ means? And what about ‘égalité’? What if a woman or a man wanted to wear a prominent crucifix as a necklace, or a Buddhist or Hindu wanted to wear prayer beads around his wrist? Do you want to take those freedoms away as well? Why can’t you leave people alone and let them do their own thing…” And then I made the big mistake. I tacked on, “…do their own thing, American style?”

Madame exploded and cursed me. She stood up and made it known to me and to everyone else in the square that I obviously did not understand what it means to be “French.” I should have recognized a lost cause and zipped my lip.  Maybe cancelled our dinner plans and said goodbye, perhaps to see her in another year or so. But I didn’t. Madame dug in her heels; I dug in mine.

“Look, like it or not,” I argued, “France opted for secularism and separation of church and state. I think that means let people do their own thing. Get out of the way. Religions are usually harmless if left alone; it’s when they meet resistance or discrimination that they turn ugly. And, besides, France joined the European Economic Union, willingly adopting the open borders policy which means that immigration is bound to be more fluid. The wealth of France and the educational and employment opportunities here look pretty damn good to Middle Eastern or North African people who have been mired in poverty for centuries. Of course they want to come here. I would. Wouldn’t you? So that’s what France chose as its policy. Now, how can it make any sense to try to strip away from people the culture they bring with them? And the Jews have been here since forever….”

Madame would not let me go on or finish the argument. She pressed her case. “No. France is for the French. You can’t understand this because you don’t speak the language well enough.” That was a low blow. She had always praised and supported my efforts in French, and she knew that in the ‘70s I was a Fulbright lecturer, working mostly in French, at the University of Toulouse. I could hold my own, even if I did not know the current slang and often tangled up my conjugations. I said, “Maybe France was for ‘the French’ a long time ago, but not since the 19th century. There have been waves of immigrants here for at least two hundred years. And much of that immigration has been a spin off from French colonialism in Africa, the Caribbean and Southeast Asia. France has to be a pluralistic society, like it or not. That’s what a modern capitalist state is. You can’t avoid it.”

“Well, we can bloody well control it if we want to. The head scarf has to go. It rubs our noses in a culture we don’t like and don’t want here. The Arabs treat their women like shit. That has to be stopped. As for the Jews, they have always been a French problem.” Her remarks had by now drawn people’s attention and she let her voice trail off. I was relieved she stopped there.

We walked to the nearest Metro station. Our sweet day of hanging out in the City of Lights was obviously over. There was one more outburst before she descended to the subway. “You know, I was attacked in my classroom.” I had not known this. “Good god, how did that happen, and who attacked you?” I asked. “Who do you think? Can’t you put two and two together? Two boys, both of them fucking Arabs. I came very close to being knifed. The principal happened to be cruising the halls after classes, and he passed my classroom door just as they went after me. He may have saved my life or at least a big scar on my face.”

“Madame,” I said, “that is an absolutely horrible thing to have happen, and I’m so sorry. I can understand how anyone would be angry at those guys or even at those types of guys, but even then it’s still hard to see how such anger translates to a national policy of discrimination toward their ethnic group….” Again, she would not let me finish, throwing me a look of disgust and dismissal as she went down the steps to the train. Madame did not look back, did not say goodbye, and never contacted me again.

I doubt that Madame joined the street protest in Paris recently because her solidarity is not with the forces of secular pluralism. She probably by now has aligned herself with the right wing Marine Le Pen whose Front National party captured around 30% of the votes in the last elections. Some pundits and pollsters see a way that this far right party—one that would stop immigration of Muslims and deport thousands of Muslims and other people of color or African/ Middle Eastern origins—could, in the byzantine French electoral system, capture the French presidency and maybe even a majority in parliament. The hijab (Islamic head scarf) was indeed banned, under President Jacques Chirac, in 2004, and this was a relatively more liberal government than that of President Nicolas Sarkozy that followed. Such a restriction will seem mild indeed if Le Pen’s far right party takes power. Thus France drifts ever rightward despite hordes of protesters in the streets defending the liberal principle of free speech.

It is a truism in sociology that poverty breeds crime. A corollary is: Religion-centered education breeds conservative religion-based prejudice. These patterns are as evident in the U. S. as they are in France or Great Britain. The ghettoized French Muslims live largely in high-crime, religiously conservative neighborhoods. Add, then, this fact: Parisian city planning, since the mid-19th century’s reconstruction of the city under George-Eugene Haussmann’s direction (he was the Robert Moses—city rebuilder—of Paris), has preserved and protected the inner cities as the cultural and intellectual hubs of French civilization, while the poorer classes were deliberately ghettoized into the suburbs—just the reverse of many American cities. Paris is now essentially a city surrounded by poor neighborhoods heavily populated with immigrant and first generation Muslims, apparently producing new radicals every day. France competes with neighbor Belgium for the dubious distinction of having exported the most citizens to Syria and elsewhere, for jihadist training. France has the biggest Muslim population of any country outside the ancient Islamic world. These are all facts of French social and economic life.

A poor, young Muslim male, living in one of these bleak and discouraging suburbs, in a cramped, high-rise apartment block, may almost inevitably develop hostility to mainstream “European” French fellow citizens. The “Arab French” and the “French French” all live in the same country, geographically and politically, but they move through different economies. Vastly higher unemployment rates in the suburbs across generations; weaker, less-well-funded schools; less workable neighborhood infrastructure; more violence and crime (burning of cars parked in the streets is common); and essentially nothing to offer in a rehabilitative way for young people who go off the track. It is plain to see, at least for an outsider, that prohibitive, punitive rules about head scarves and yarmulkes won’t solve any of these problems. But the French do not yet seem to have come to terms with these ironies.

France has had until very recently one of the lowest emigration rates of any European country. It is a country with a disproportionate impact, relative to size, on the worlds of culture and thought, not to mention cuisine. All of France would fit inside the state of Texas, but the contribution to world culture by the French people is essentially unparalleled except by the U. K. and Germany. Even when the economy is sour (and it has been stuck in slow- or no-growth mode for decades under the burden of a top-heavy state socialism), the French tend to stick it out and stay home. They love their country, and why not? The same France described here, beset with these social and economic problems, remains one of the top tourist economies in the world. I know. I have consumed and reveled in such pleasures many times, coming away with a deep respect for all that is good about France.

But all of this suggests there is work to be done. France cannot remain a society that defines liberté, égalité and fraternité one way for Caucasian French with some kind of Christian history in their family background, even if secularized now, while applying a different set of meanings for these foundational concepts to anyone else who does not exactly fit that mold. There is a deep division in French culture symbolized by opinions about the head scarf and yarmulke. Murderous terrorists advocating Islamic jihad are responding to these dress restrictions and a host of other perceived insults. While the liberal, secular French defend the right to free expression so dear to satirical cartoonists, the Muslim extremist French are furious at having their religion, their prophet, so rudely mocked in satirical publications and elsewhere. Granted, Charlie Hebdo mocks Catholicism, too, and the Catholic Church, feeling offended, has sued the publisher many times, but always losing in court. No matter, offended Catholics are not encouraged to take up arms and to attack an editorial office or a Jewish grocery store.

Mick Jagger’s rock song, “Sympathy for the Devil,” reminds us that the devil is among us all the time. He may be dressed as an ugly, murderous terrorist or as a smooth-talking slimy businessman. Either way, he’s pleased to meet us and wants our recognition. He knows we are puzzled by his enigmatic, unpredictable “game.” And in the end he tells us, using the still acid question of “Who killed the Kennedys?” that “After all, it was you and me.” The devil is surely on the loose in France now. I fear he will strike again, and soon. I am saddened by this unnerving fact.

But who really is “the Devil” in France? The murderous Islamic extremists, or a systemic poverty that produces such extremists? The innocent Muslim woman walking through the park while wearing a harmless head scarf, or the self-righteous legislators, pundits, intellectuals and Catholic clergy who want to take away her expression of her Muslim religious beliefs?

Whatever else is true about the complex and fraught situation in France just now, I believe this is certain: France cannot have it both ways. Pluralism means both secular and religious pluralism. Egalité means good schools for everyone with equal opportunities in employment. And freedom of expression is precious, but it does not grant anyone a right to scream “Fire!” in a crowded theater. That is called license, and I think the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists clearly indulged themselves in an exercise, not of freedom but of mocking, insulting license (as seen from the conservative Islamic point of view). Do their cartoons provoke any useful dialogue that helps a confused, conflicted French populace move forward toward a more tolerant pluralistic society? I doubt it. Instead, the cartoons spray gasoline on an already robust fire. In the excruciatingly sad aftermath of the cartoonists’ needless deaths, we are still forced to ask, what else did they expect?


  • David Emblidge is an associate professor in the Department of Writing, Literature and Publishing of Emerson College. He may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..