Deconstructing the Responses to the Charlie Hebdo Attack

Je Suis Charlie

Yeah, I know, it’s not Asia, but I am a Sciences Po – indulge me. Moreover, in these days of 24-hour rolling news, it’s never too early to start on the analysis, as the pols tweet frantically to gain control of the narrative.

So who’s won?

Not the government, that’s for sure. This could, in other circumstances, have benefited those in charge, with an upswelling of national sentiment etc. etc. No doubt there will be one – it’s beginning now, in fact, and you can follow it in real time under the hashtag #CharlieHebdo – but it won’t help Hollande’s beleaguered cabinet at all. He comes to it with two reputational handicaps that will undermine any attempt to make hay:

1. This follows up on a series of smaller-scale attacks that took place over the holidays, involving Islamic extremists crashing cars into people walking down the street and attacking police officers.  The authorities tried to play the incidents down, with the Interior Minister and the prosecutors insisting that it was the work of ‘mentally unstable’ individuals with ‘long psychiatric histories’, who merely yelled ‘Allah Akbar’ to ‘psych themselves up’ (genuine translations of the official statements – I’m not making this up),  and was definitely ‘not terrorism‘ (one can only imagine how frustrating this must have been for the wannabe terrorists themselves). Bizarre as it may seem to anyone used to US reactions to terrorism, the strategy worked incredibly well. It all happened in the run-up to Christmas, and mass media audiences were focused on the holidays. The only people who tried to make a big deal out of the story were the far (and far-ish) right’s usual suspects, who – perversely – probably succeeded in undermining the very idea that they were trying to promote: that this was a serious national threat. If extremists and paranoiacs believe it, then it must be false, amirite? Kind of like when the KKK holds a fundraiser for Darren Wilson. A sort of anti-Streisand effect. Sometimes you just need to face up to the fact that your rep is just so bad that the best way you can help is by not helping.

Already this image is doing the rounds on Twitter, supposedly to illustrate the government’s lackadaisical position on terrorism:


It’s a quote from Bernard Cazeneuve, the Interior Minister, pointing out that ‘it’s not illegal to support jihad’. Probably. If it were just that, it would be an entirely correct statement, and a manifestation of precisely that freedom of speech for which the Charlie Hebdo journalists died. The problem lies in the verb prôner, which means ‘to advocate in favour of something’.  In everyday speech, however, it more usually implies ‘to advocate in favour of something that you do yourself‘. Uh-oh.

But why was it so necessary to play down the attacks in the first place? Don’t politicians tend to exaggerate the threat of terrorism to consolidate their own power? Often yes. But in the last set of French presidential elections the Front National vote hit 17.9%, and all the indicators suggest that it will be higher next time around. At the opposite end of the scale, the disaffected youth of the banlieues includes a large Muslim contingent (though not nearly as large as the British tabloid press would have you believe) and is liable to riot whenever they feel got at. Which – given the level of institutional racism in French society – is frequently.

Ironically, 2013 saw an unexpected flowering of public fraternity between France’s largely rural, bourgeois Catholic right and the conservative Muslims of the Paris suburbs. United by their shared horror of buttsecks, they came together in vast numbers to protest against the new law in favour of gay mariage. Unfortunately, it seems that while the friendship is unlikely to last, both groups left with a renewed sense of purpose and team spirit, and – more importantly – an awareness of the amount of leverage they were capable of exerting when they really put their minds to being awkward. (They did not succeed in overturning the law, but they did have a huge effect on the right-wing UMP’s internal leadership elections, strengthening the social conservative vote and dividing the party.)

So yes. Minimising the pre-Christmas attacks would have been an excellent strategy, if they hadn’t immediately been followed by a far bigger and effectively un-minimisable attack. As it is, it looks as though the government willfully ignored omnipresent signs of impending disaster and risked lives out of a mixture of timidity and ideological blindness. Realistically speaking, this is probably not the case. The security services have probably been doing their damndest (or, well, you know… their damndest – they’re not generally hugely efficient, and it won’t necessarily be the equivalent of your damndest, but still… points for effort) to put a stop to this sort of thing ever since the original attacks, but the key lesson that 9/11 taught us all is that security is performative. Unlike justice, it might not necessarily be done, but by God it needs to be seen to be done. All those invasive TSA screenings might be next to useless as far as stopping terrorists is concerned, but they give the impression that something is being done. The quiet work done behind the scenes by the Renseignements généraux and others gives the impression that nothing is being done.

As Michael Migueres of the UMP put it: ‘Things are looking black. The Republic is weak, and its enemies are engaged in a war against it that the government refuses to see. France has ceased to be governed, now it is not even being protected.’

2. People just don’t believe the government cares. Not about terrorism, but about them, full stop. The Socialist Party elite are seen as being totally disconnected from the reality of the majority of France’s citizens. When Valérie Trierweiler’s allegations that François Hollande enjoyed taking the piss of the poor in private surfaced, they were not so much the source of mass outrage as of a sort of collective shrugging agreement that, yes, he probably did say it and no, it’s not surprising. It was bad enough – and we’re talking ‘bad’ as in ‘poll-ratings-of-12%-bad‘ here – when people merely felt that the government didn’t care about high taxes, low growth and high unemployment. The risk now is that they’ll be perceived as not caring about terrorism either.

Intriguingly, the government response has mixed aspects of the old, minimising strategy, with more of a ‘strong leadership’ approach. François Hollande was on the scene relatively quickly, which seems to indicate that he has learnt his lesson from previous criticisms about not being hands-on enough, moreover, he immediately labelled the attack as ‘terrorism’, which goes some way towards undoing the effects of previous denials. The overall response to his speech, even on the right, was relatively positive, or at least neutral.

The Instagram from the situation room was less successful, with Le Lab, a young, right-wing new site tweeting it with Buster Keaton poker-faced irony.


Took me several double-takes to realise that’s Athena on the mantlepiece, not Batman

One suspects that in less solemn circumstances it would have been subjected to a similar treatment to the infamous Cameron-on-the-phone-to-Obama tweet.

Moreover, Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo’s attempt to contain prospective vigils and demonstrations was a dismal failure. Calling on all ‘republicans’ (in France this merely means something akin to ‘good citizens’, not Fox News junkies) to march ‘with contemplation, solidarity and silence’ (emphasis, one suspects, on the last of the three) at Place de la République tomorrow night. Spot the mistake? Yes, the Paris Socialists have long been terrible at social media (one of the greatest joys of the younger UMP supporters involves cybersquatting technologically inept Socialist personalities – it’s the little pleasures in life etc.). It is not surprising that they underestimated the speed with which people like to organise mass events these days. Tomorrow night? Fuck that, cried the internet. It’s on for tonight:


Most of the main news outlets are diffusing that call to arms rather than the Hidalgo version.

If you want to show solidarity yourself, protests and vigils are being held across France and abroad: Le Monde has a map. They have already started in many places.

So, if the Socialists haven’t done very well out of it, how did the opposition fare? Pretty badly too, in the case of the UMP. The problem with being in opposition when these things happen is that if you do make a statement you’re a cynical bandwagon-jumper, and if you don’t you’re a heartless shit. While no one could possibly criticise Nicolas Sarkozy’s anti-terrorist credentials (not many people outside France know that he once single-handedly rescued a class full of children from a suicide bomber, a feat would make most politicians 100% fire-proof, electorally speaking), there was a fair amount of oh-Gawd-not-him-again groaning when he made his official speech. Actually, it was a somewhat bland and forgettable effort – again, the only possible strategy to adopt if you know that you’ll be damned if you do and damned if you don’t. It’s worth noting, however, that among the platitudes was a clear challenge to Hollande’s administration: ‘The government must take clear measures against terrorism’. The right will almost certainly pick up on this within the next few days, causing yet more problems for Hollande. If he does introduce new measures, he risks alienating his few remaining supporters. If he doesn’t, he will confirm his reputation for weakness.

Meanwhile, on the other, more socially conservative wing of the UMP, Jean-François Copé tried desperately to burnish his chances for future electoral success, toning down his current highly anti-Muslim reputation by declaring that he hopes that there will be ‘no division and stagmatisation of our Muslim compatriots’. (No chance. Nicolas Sarkozy and a variety of corruption scandals have finished his leadership hopes.)

The biggest winners, however, will undoubtedly be the National Front, and they know it very well. Marine Le Pen has been relatively restrained, hinting delicately that now is not the time to discuss politics, while – of course – discussing politics. She did, however, manage to get in a couple of small I-told-you-sos in the direction of the government’s minimisation policy. Her right-hand man, Florian Philippot, added – with ominious piety – that ‘the time for political debate will come’


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