Letter from Paris

Andia / Alamy

The January terrorist attacks in France’s capital shocked and galvanized its citizens in equal measure. Christopher Dickey gauges the mood in the days that followed.

When the French started talking about the terrorist attacks that shook the country and mesmerized the world for three days in January as “our 9/11,” I am sure many Americans thought to themselves that there was really no comparison. Gruesome as the slaughter had been at the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo and the kosher supermarket, in the end, 20 people had died, including the three shooters. In New York City and at the Pentagon and in a fallow field in Pennsylvania on that day in 2001, nearly 3,000 lost their lives.


But as it happens, I was in New York that heartbreakingly clear and beautiful September morning and for days afterward, and the feeling there and then was much the same as in France this January: the sense that security had been stripped away, that the people who are supposed to protect us did not, that we had been invaded, not so much in the literal sense, although there was that, but in the psychological sense. Evil people were roaming through our home, and we knew not what they might do next. In the following days, those complicated emotions played out in Paris, as they had in New York, in ways that often surprised me.

On the morning that the killing began, Wednesday, January 7, my wife had gone to the first day of the sales at Galeries Lafayette. The place was packed. When I knew terrorist attacks were under way, I thought what a perfect target those crowds would be, and, for a few minutes, when a phone went unanswered, I imagined the worst. The next day, with the killers still on the loose, the long lines at the luxury stores had disappeared. The French were staying home or, at least, off the streets. But many tourists remained oblivious or undeterred. A woman I know who was in Zara on Rue de Rivoli during the national moment of silence told me the Chinese tourists continued to shop like there was no tomorrow or, indeed, like there’d been no day before.

On the Sunday that followed the slaughter in France, more than 3 million people, including 40 world leaders, turned out around the country in marches to demonstrate their unity in the face of terror.

As I joined the masses in Place de la Republique, I was perhaps a little cynical. The French have always loved to take to the streets, whether storming the Bastille, celebrating their liberation from the Nazis, or making a point about any number of much less momentous causes. But that day there was a kind of defiant festiveness and, yes, a spirit of fraternité more often talked about than experienced in this country. Just about everyone was wearing a sticker that said JE SUIS CHARLIE, “I am Charlie.” So I turned to a grandmother nearby and said, “Bonjour, Charlie,” and we had a pleasant talk. She said she thought it was her duty to come. I turned to a dark-skinned man, “Bonjour, Charlie,” and he told me he was from the island nation of Mauritius but lived in Paris and wanted to show his solidarity. Another Charlie said he was a Kurd and told me the same sorts of monsters who attacked in Paris were laying siege to the towns and villages of his people in Syria.

There were many other Muslims in the crowd as well, although not all were calling themselves Charlie. They were not supporting the caricatures of Muhammad published by the weekly, but they wanted to show that, even if a symbol of their religion was defamed, they detested the murderous thugs trying to hijack the faith of their fathers, and they did not and would not support censorship by Kalashnikov.

Then a week after the first attack, the issue of Charlie Hebdo published by “the survivors” came out, and I had to search the street for a copy because, strangely, my local newsstand was closed. Up and down the grand avenues of the city, every news kiosk displayed the latest caricature of Muhammad with the legend ALL IS FORGIVEN above him as he held up a sign, a tear in his eye: JE SUIS CHARLIE, it said. But at every kiosk, the message was the same. There were no Charlies to be had. They’d all been bought even before dawn. Eventually, a day later, I found one up near the Champs-Élysées, sold there with the same perfunctory mercantile spirit as the souvenir Eiffel Towers and the porn mags. By the weekend, there were stacks of them all over the place.

But not at my local newsstand. The friendly, grizzled man who normally sells me Le Parisien and Le Monde had reopened but said he would not be selling Charlie since the distributor had cut him off because he was 29 euros behind on his payments. And so he didn’t get any copies. Business was no good, he said. Maybe he should burn the kiosk, he said, which for some reason is the classic going-out-of-business gesture for newsstands in Paris.

I did not believe him. Nobody in France volunteers the information that he is behind on his debts.

My neighborhood news vendor is Tunisian, and, although I have never asked, I presume he comes from a Muslim background. Perhaps he didn’t want to have to sell Charlie Hebdo because it insulted his faith or, if he has none, because it was an affront to the beliefs of his parents. But he did not want to say that.

In the day-to-day life of this country, so much fall under the category of le non-dit, the things people won’t even tell themselves, and la pensée unique, the single acceptable way of thinking. But that doesn’t make the pains of immigration and assimilation go away. And when a populist politician like the extreme right wing’s Marine Le Pen comes along and says the unsayable and speaks the unspeakable, suddenly a large number of voters, thinking they have found a voice at last, flock to her banner. And paradoxes abound. A poll published one week after the great unity march showed very little unity at all, with the surprise on the politically correct side: Forty-two percent of the French think the feelings of Muslims ought to be taken into account and caricatures of Muhammad should not be published if they take offense.

As I walked away from the newsstand, I could not stop thinking about the fragile hold that North African immigrants and their children and their children’s children have on their lives in France. They make up perhaps 10 percent of the population now. We have no definitive figures because the dogma of French egalitarianism prohibits census takers from asking about race, ethnicity, or religion. Such is the institutional face of the non-dit and the pensée unique. But that only obscures the reality of discrimination, because however well immigrants and their children and their children’s children may speak the language, however well they did in school, however hard they work at their jobs, the message is brought home to them every day in every sort of way that somehow they are not, you know, really French.

If that division in this society is not overcome, I thought as I walked by the clothing stores nearby with their sale signs attracting no one, then we will have trouble here for a very long time. The country may not go up in flames, but there is probably one kiosk that will. Its owner is not Charlie.