EssaysLiberal Democracy in QuestionRace

A Postcard from France: A Canadian in Avignon

To provide some context for what follows: I live in France, in the small southern city of Avignon. My wife, Audrey, is French, but I’m not. I, like so many others here, am “an immigrant.” Note that all quotes from Facebook pages are my own translations.

Recent events have made the last few days emotionally and intellectually complex. I’ve been, at times, angry, exhausted, bewildered, and blasé. I don’t believe I can present a terribly coherent position on the situation, as I don’t feel particularly coherent. Instead, like many, I feel quite confused. Still, two of my philosophical heroes (Baumgarten and Herder) were convinced of the importance and value of confusion, that confusion is often a more fruitful position than perfect clarity. With this in mind I want to report on the state of my own confusion, and on some of the voices I’ve heard around me of late.

I am who?

The speed at which the nation mobilized around the recent attacks was incredible. It almost seemed as though the event and the broad reaction to it were happening simultaneously. The hashtag motto “I am Charlie,” or eventually “We are Charlie” was absolutely everywhere mere hours after reports started to emerge of the carnage at Charlie Hebdo. From my personal experiences of past crises (9/11, Hurricane Sandy) I know very well how important solidarity can be in such times, and this phrase sounded like a phrase of solidarity. Eager as I was to act, rather than just passively absorb the news, I, a Canadian living in Avignon, was happy to report on my recently (and reluctantly) created Facebook page that I too was “Charlie.”

Twenty-four hours later, the ambiguity of the phrase began to sink in. Audrey, a much more careful thinker than I, started telling me about some conversations she had had with some of her various students (she teaches English to adults), who presented many views on the whole situation that contrasted with my default of unreflective outrage. Some seemed to be of the opinion that the massive response to the shootings was somehow disproportionate (“Why don’t we also react this way to the ongoing and seemingly endless tragedies of the immigrants who keep dying trying to cross the Mediterranean?”). Others complained that the French press were more interested in the deaths of four cartoonists than the other eight (now 13) people killed, including police tasked with trying to defend them. Then somebody else pointed out that not everybody in France is able to be Charlie, that the “we” in “we are Charlie” is in fact a rather specific “we” which does not include everybody.

Majdi Mansouri, a longtime friend of Audrey’s and a Muslim by upbringing (I’ve no idea how seriously he practices his religion these days), posted the following on his Facebook page:

When, 48 hours ago, I wrote [in a previous post] “I am not Charlie, I’m Majdi,” I obviously expected I would have to explain to some people why I cannot and would never be Charlie!!

I have to explain that under the guise of secularism and freedom of expression, I cannot endorse [Charlie Hebdo’s] fury towards an already stigmatized community, nor its repeated insults against the religion of my parents, grandparents, brothers, sisters, friends, just as I cannot accept the reactions of morons: fire-bombs, death threats, etc…

So I am not, and would never be Charlie … and this is only ME!!

Now, I would never have thought that people I meet every day … [would] ask me if I “find it abnormal to support Charlie Hebdo” and if I too am not “outraged by the barbaric acts of the last few hours”!! As if that was not logical and obvious that I, a French citizen of Muslim heritage, was not equally shocked, angry, sad, and scared by the recent sad events that shook OUR country?

His comment was accompanied by a cartoon of three figures: on one side was a sort of terroristy-looking person, saying “You’re with the infidels!”; on the other a representative of the world saying “You’re with the terrorists”; and, in the middle, a rather ordinary looking fellow saying “I’m just a Muslim!”

Obviously, as a sane human, Majdi condemns mass murder, or any kind of aggressive violence, particularly if committed in the name of religion. But expressing condemnation of terror does not and should not mean supporting a publication which openly mocks the traditions of his family. Someone else posted this response to Majdi: “We are not free to say what we want, but I reassure you that when I say I am not Charlie I say it in a whisper or out loud depending on who I have in front of me. Is this normal?” It is very sad that the deaths of those involved with a magazine so adamantly in favor of free speech have led people like Majdi’s friend to have to whisper and watch what she says. The choice of “I am Charlie” as a slogan of solidarity has had the opposite effect of its intent and effectively polarized a community into who can and who cannot take it up. It creates a false dichotomy whereby one feels compelled to side either with Islamophobes or terrorists, neither of which has any rational appeal for anybody, let alone the five or six million Muslims who live here. The point was well made on the 12th in The Guardian by Roxanne Gay: “Demands for solidarity can quickly turn into demands for groupthink, making it difficult to express nuance. It puts the terms of our understanding of the situation in black and white — you are either with us or against us — instead of allowing people to mourn and be angry while also being sympathetic to complexities that are being overlooked.”

This, I think, is the “corner” described effectively by Cinzia Arruzza on this site, and it raises complex questions in which issues of solidarity and community are entwined with issues of free speech and freedom of the press. The key, it seems, is to try to separate these issues. The issue of free “speech” has quite a long and well developed intellectual history, and its arguments are likely too well-rehearsed to go over again. Nevertheless, it seems to me that some of our abstract arguments tend to miss out on our lived experience of the issue. Cartoonist Joe Sacco has, I think, done a great job of bringing this point to the fore. Whatever theoretical rights we might or might not have, drawing pictures of black people eating bananas in jungles or Jews counting money in the entrails of the middle class is just not okay, period. Lampooning a specific person of power (be it pope or president, imam or rabbi) is one thing, and just insulting and provoking people is, to my mind at least, quite another. Having the right to do something (or, for example, to be homophobic or anti-Semitic) obviously doesn’t mean one ought to do it.

But the free speech issue is not as difficult as the solidarity issue. Recently there were national rallies held all over France, including here in Avignon. The French capacity to take to the streets at a moment’s notice is and should be a source of great pride and the envy of the world, yet we (particularly Audrey) were a bit reluctant about going, as it wasn’t at the time entirely clear just what participation involves, nor what such solidarity is solidarity with. Was this an anti-terrorist rally or a pro-Islamophobe rally? We weren’t sure if we wanted to participate in a rally that might further alienate people like Majdi. In the end, watching the news of the epic monster parade in Paris alleviated our concerns. The press were keen to show images of multiple identities, of Israeli, Tunisian, and Palestinian flags along with the omnipresent tricolore, and there were signs of “I am Ahmed” and “I am Jewish” as well. French television stations now show advertisements of people from as many demographics as possible holding up “I am Charlie” signs in an effort to assert the message of solidarity, even if the slogan itself is not particularly inclusive.

But one thing I have not heard being said enough is the extent to which solidarity seems already to exist here. There has been considerable agonizing since the attack about an apparent split between French of Arab descent and French of French descent, which somehow gets totally conflated with issues of European immigration. The image of xenophobic white people trying to build a wall to keep out all the Muslims needs to be balanced with images of how people actually live here.

Avignon is in the south, near Marseille. For anybody interested in debating the rhetoric of “clashing civilizations,” this is a great city to visit. Marseille is a mysterious, ancient, and enchanting blend of French, Italian, Tunisian, Algerian, Jewish, Armenian, Comorian, and lots of cultures in between. Having come from a racially complicated city (New York), I was curious about how all the different communities here got along. I could see that my question somehow bewildered Audrey’s father when I asked it. “It is fine,” he said. “People get along well.” While there certainly are some powerful class divisions, and life is just as plagued with narcissisms of minor difference here as it is anywhere else (it isn’t a utopia by any stretch of the imagination), Marseille is unquestionably a city of tremendous solidarity. While some might or might not identify as belonging to some particular cultural group, almost everybody passionately identifies as “Marseillais,” particularly when it comes to football (OM! Droit au but!). The much more important clash of civilizations in Marseille is between its residents and those of rival Paris. The point is that, here, Muslims are not (necessarily) immigrants. Many different flavors of Muslim have been here for ages and ages, and a new cultural brew has emerged, which seems to be emblematic of the very solidarity the new advertising campaign seeks to encourage.

This, of course, doesn’t mean that everybody here feels they have the same opportunities or can aspire to the same things. Addressing systematic economic inequality is not exactly the same thing as promoting “solidarity,” and is obviously much more important in the long run. But it will be an enormous victory for the separatist ideology of the terrorists if they manage to weaken these uniquely French communities that have come to form in places like Marseille, if they manage to convince people that “France” and “Islam” are, contrary to a century of history, somehow mutually exclusive terms, if they can trap people in their false dichotomies and make them believe they must make a choice between being Charlie and being a terrorist. My sense of things from here is that it will take more than a couple madmen to harm this city’s solidarity. At the same time, of the three goals of the revolution (liberté, egalité, fraternité), fraternité can sometimes be the most fragile, the most difficult to foster, and the easiest to neglect.

Also for you:

Benjamin Evans

Previous post

Seven Steps toward Enlightenment: The Case of the French Killings

Next post

A Tribute to Economist Bernard Maris (Sept. 23, 1946 - Jan. 7, 2015)