Oh, France

My heart belongs to France. I dream of living there again one day – when Chloe and Sophie are adults and independently making their way in the world, and my husband and I have retired.  I wouldn’t require much – a modest apartment in Paris, within walking distance to a park, a decent boulangerie, a vibrant open-air market and a métro stop.

After the events of last week, however, I feel bereft. I wonder if my dream will always remain just that – a dream about a place I’ve continued to idealize because of the magical memories it holds for me. It’s the place where I met my husband as an undergraduate student, where I lived and worked after college, where I  married, where the entirety of my husband’s family still lives and where my imagination wanders when my home here in the U.S. just isn’t all that it’s cut out to be.

France stands at a fork in the road – it can either face its demons and address its problems or open the door further to the forces of hate and intolerance. I wish for the former and I am scared of the latter. But I still have hope.

At dinner the other night, Chloe, her Papa and I had a lengthy and passionate conversation about last week’s terrorist attacks in Paris. Chloe was horrified by the events, but at the same time she thought the few Charlie Hebdo cartoons she saw were insensitive and insulting, if not altogether racist. “I really don’t like it when people look down upon those who believe in God, as if believing in God makes people less intelligent,” she said. “Why can’t people just respect one another?” In the same breath, she also made it clear that her opinion of the cartoons in no way diminished her feelings of shock, anger and sadness about the attacks and her disbelief that people would use the cartoons as an excuse to kill.

We spent time giving Chloe a brief lesson about France’s centuries-old history of political and cultural satire, a tradition that doesn’t really exist in the U.S. I suggested she check out the works of Honoré Daumier, a 19th century artist who spent six months in jail for his caricature of King Louis-Philippe as a pear-shaped glutton. Daumier modeled his drawing on Gargantua, a character created by Rabelais, a 16th century French philosopher and writer who was known for his satirical quill.


We talked about France’s zealous embrace of secularism, which certainly played a role in creating an environment for a satirical newspaper like Charlie Hebdo to exist (if not thrive – until the terror attacks its circulation was a modest 30,000) and gleefully lampoon all religions. But just as France’s steadfast commitment to secularism has arguably taken on racist undertones in its impact on the country’s Muslim population (look no further than the government’s controversial decision a few years ago to ban full veils, itself a limitation on the same freedom of expression that so many are defending today), so too, perhaps, does Charlie Hebdo take its own dogged adherence to liberal secularism into a realm that sometimes feels less like biting satire and more like the racism it purports to denounce.

This is not to blame Charlie Hebdo in any way for last week’s appalling butchery (which would be as unjust as attempts to blame women for getting raped because “they asked for it” through their actions or their words or their clothing).  Charlie Hebdo has the right to offend, the right to provoke, the right to publish imagery that could be interpreted as any number of ‘antis’: anti-Catholic, anti-semitic, anti-Islam, anti-politician, anti-everyone. As Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. wrote in his dissenting opinion in United States v. Schwimmer, one of the touchstones of a free society is “the principle of free thought – not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate.”

As many brilliant writers and artists have pointed out since the attacks (for two particularly eloquent and powerful pieces, check out Joe Sacco’s cartoon “On Satire” in The Guardian and Teju Cole’s essay “Unmournable Bodies” in The New Yorker), feeling sadness, disgust and rage about the murders doesn’t mean we must agree with everything Charlie Hebdo publishes.  Likewise, supporting freedom of the press and freedom of speech does not require us to applaud Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons.

At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter whether I or anyone else agrees with Charlie Hebdo’s content – they have an unwavering right to publish their opinions and their drawings.  The cold-blooded murders that took place were horrific and an assault on freedom of speech and expression. My husband grew up with the the drawings of Cabu and Wolinski before Charlie Hebdo even existed. For him, these famous cartoonists were immortal. I, on the other hand, never paid much attention to Charlie Hebdo when I lived in France, other than to occasionally wonder if a group of 15 year-old boys comprised the editorial staff. I don’t seek it out when we return to France for visits, and were it not for what happened two days ago, I probably never would have given it a second’s worth of thought again.

But now everything’s changed. I look forward to seeing how the remaining Charlie Hebdo staff tackles last week’s events in their next issue. I imagine they will spare no one, including those of us who have embraced the #jesuischarlie hashtag, which would probably have the murdered cartoonists and writers shaking their heads in astonishment and wondering “where in the hell were these people when we were struggling to stay afloat all these years?”

Chloe, her Papa and I discussed all of these things and more. About the idea that we need to tolerate and respect one another’s beliefs even if we don’t agree with them. About my own personal exception to that rule – when people impose their beliefs on us in an attempt to limit our rights. We talked about how the rampages on Charlie Hebdo and the Kosher market are a scourge not just for the victims, their families, journalists, Jews, and everyone who cherishes their freedoms, but a scourge for the vast majority of Muslims who are peaceful, law-abiding citizens.

Chloe remarked that the three killers did more damage to the religion they were “defending” than the “silly cartoons” ever could.  Indeed.

We talked to Chloe about the fact that France is facing many challenges that must be addressed sooner rather than later. The continuing marginalization and segregation of its Muslim population, which is already facing acts of retaliation and heightened suspicion because of last week’s vile attacks.  More frequent anti-semitic attacks that are causing increasing numbers of the country’s Jews to immigrate to Israel. A stagnant economy that is suffocating younger generations and endangering their futures. The terrifying rise of Le Front National, a wolf in sheep’s clothing that has transformed itself from a small, mostly despised group that made no secret of its racist and anti-semitic views into a mainstream political party that now cloaks its hate in language that’s pernicious in its deceptive reasonableness.

Luxembourg Gardens

And yet, there are more than 4 million reasons for hope: all of those people of diverse backgrounds and beliefs who movingly marched together in France (not to mention the hundreds of thousands who marched in other countries) on Sunday to show solidarity with the victims, promote tolerance and diversity, defy terrorism and defend the principles of freedom.  Will this unity last or will it collapse next week? Will the French come together to prevent Le Front National from using the terrorist attacks to cleave further divisions among cultures, races and religions? Will those in power actually have the resolve and fortitude to effect change?  Will these awful events finally cause all of us, myself included, to confront our own prejudices and fears?

As I write this post, I have to believe that human decency and empathy will ultimately win the day. In my guarded optimism, a lovely image of the future has formed in my mind’s eye. I’m sitting on the terrace of our Parisian pied-à-terre 25 years from now with my husband, my daughters and our grandchildren. We are happy. France is at peace and the voices of reason have prevailed over the violent cacophony of hatred and intolerance. Le Front National is but a faint and distasteful memory.  As we sip our wine and watch the sunset above the Parisian rooftops, we recall January 2015 as one of those rare moments when lasting good came from acts of evil and when French people of all backgrounds, colors and creeds united to ensure that “liberté, égalité, fraternité” had true meaning, for ALL of its citizens, once again.






6 thoughts on “Oh, France”

  1. What a wonderful post Jennifer! It’s all things – balanced, well thought out and very very powerful. Coming from a nation (India) – where terrorism was experienced very early on (much earlier than the west. I experienced serial bomb blasts in Mumbai in the 1980’s and early 1990’s and which have continued unabated until this day. I don’t know if you are familiar with siege of the Taj Mahal Hotel in 2008 that continued for days…) the themes that you have touched upon here are very close to my heart. Like you, I too hope that one day – sense will prevail in this world. Religion is often used as a tool to whip up emotions – by those who are only interested in power to further their own ends. Unfortunately they brain wash others and use them (other humans!) as weapons, who believe in their manipulators – it is a tragedy of gargantuan proportions. But. I live in hope! Om shanti!

    1. Hi, Anjali – thanks for stopping by my blog. I remember the Mumbai attack – which was absolutely horrifying. You’re so right about the use of religion to manipulate impressionable people into engaging in horrendous acts of violence. We must live in hope for better days ahead.

  2. What a beautiful and thoughtful post, Jennifer. I, too, love Paris, and this horrendous act of violence has rocked me…again. I’m a New Yorker, so you know what we went through. I live in hope, as you do, that people will be able to live side-by-side, worshipping the God they worship–or not, if that is the case–and still respect and enjoy each other’s differences. Strangely, growing up in an apartment building in NYC in the 1960s taught me that it is possible, for that is how we lived–different, yet the same, and accepting of one another. Perhaps people need to be shaken awake with violence to understand the need and sweetness of acceptance and peace. You are correct, though. Paris is at a crossroad. I pray for that beautiful city.

    1. Thanks so much, Marie, for reading the post and for your thoughtful comment. I, too, live near NYC and remember 9/11 vividly. I think one of the serious challenges all western nations need to face is how to balance the need to suss out those preparing to commit these evil acts while still respecting the rule of law and the predominantly innocent population behind which these criminals hide.

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