What the North should learn from Charlie Hebdo

When I moved to Paris in the summer of 2007, I knew a little bit about the state of modern France. Nicolas Sarkozy had recently carved out an ugly victory by pinging not-so-subtle racist themes to the electorate in an effort to outflank the Islamophobic right wing.

I’d read a couple of Michel Houellebecq novels and was well aware I was landing in a society going through a great deal of cultural stress. Traditional France, most observers agreed, was under siege, from its colonial history and immigration, from the influx of African and Asian immigrants, and from all the forces on the move in 21st century Europe.

It was late July, the height of les grand vacances, when almost all of middle- and upper-class Paris is on annual holidays and much of the city literally shutters itself in the summer heat. As I went apartment hunting through the arrondissemonts, riding the metro from Left Bank to Right, from the pomp of the western monuments and boulevards to the shabby chaos of its eastern neighbourhoods, I thought one thing, over and over: France, you lost.

That is to say, whatever traditionalist, conservative myth of France those observers were debating, it was already on the way out, subsumed by the faces I observed on the Metro and in the streets, shops and restaurants of this intensely multicultural city. I saw Mahgreb, Asian, African visages everywhere. And I liked it.

Impression never changed

Then it was September, and the white faces, tanned, a little plump from vacation hedonism, returned in a flash. But even with its ruling class back in place, my impression of the city as a huge melange never changed.


I’d ended up in Belleville by then, the 19th arrondissement — where some reports now say the murderers who attacked Charlie Hebdo’s office a few days ago, and now terrorizing the city’s outskirts, were based.

Up on a hill in the northeast of the city, it was an amazing place to live, a bustle of immigrant cultures and activities, where African women in elaborate robes and headdresses drifted down the streets like ships in full sail, where Tutsi and Hutu immigrants, Algerian Jews, Vietnamese entrepreneurs, Moroccan restaurateurs  and “bobos” (a type of scruffy hipster/yuppy amalgam) all mixed together, for the most part, without incident.

I used to joke with people, when they’d talk about the occasional outburst of strife between the cultural groups, that the real miracle and everyday reality of Belleville was how so many wildly different people lived together without killing each other.

For a while, I had a job in the posh part of town, over in the 8th arrondissement, which I always thought of as a beautiful, monumental desert, full of $5,000 suits, extensive plastic surgery and antidepressants. Some days I’d walk home from work across the city, down the Champs Elysées.

Faces from across the globe

The monumental sites of Paris were always dazzling, and it was a privilege to walk through them to be sure, but my spirits would always lift when I passed through Place de la République — the site of the mass demonstrations against the Charlie Hebdo massacre in recent days — and start heading up Rue Faubourg du Temple into the messy, melting pot of Belleville, with its dingy tabacs, donair joints and spice shops and mix of faces from across the globe.

After a couple of years, I had to leave Belleville and moved into an ancient neighborhood in the heart of the Right Bank, the Marais. Today, the police are shutting down stores throughout this area, which is the traditional centre of Jewish culture in Paris, (as well as a place known for its trendy boutiques and thriving gay culture).

When I lived there, my work meant I frequently passed by the offices of Charlie Hebdo, emblazoned with posters of whatever scurrilous, sometimes disgusting cover image they were putting out that issue. (I’ve seen more cartoon images of Sarkozy’s anus than I want, let’s put it that way.)

I never met any of the famous, transgressive cartoonists murdered this week, but I saw their work regularly, and seeing their faces in the reports of the last few days reminds me of some of the French journalists I came across during my stay there, shaggy-haired and snaggle-toothed, bespectacled, smoking ratty roll-ups and muttering sly, inflammatory jokes under their breath.

They put out silly, wildly offensive material — offensive to everyone. And this seemed a necessary part of the city and French culture. The Charlie Hebdo tradition stretches at least as far back as the 1960s, when an earlier incarnation of the magazine, then named Hara-Kiri, launched decency-flouting attacks on traditional French culture at its Charles De Gaulle-era height. Even back then they knew, traditional France was losing. Was becoming something rich, strange and different. And it was their duty to help it lose, to help it change.

Lip service to tradition

I left Paris a couple of years ago and returned to my roots in the North. And here’s the thing that strikes me, the local angle, I guess: we pay a lot of lip service up here to tradition, especially to the traditions that white colonial power destroyed or damaged. That’s entirely understandable, and I’m in no way arguing traditional French culture — a mythical, Imperial construct — is analogous to traditional culture here.

But the idea of a pure, unchanging, back-to-roots idea of a culture, or a people, is always reductive, always destructive. No matter what culture you live in, you’re losing if you hold on to it as an idea that will never mutate or become something different, richer and stranger. Because it will. It’s doing so right now, and you can’t stop it.

It’s important to discover and retain a connection to your roots. It’s important to attack and subvert the colonial assumptions that still underlie power in the North. But it’s important to avoid doubling down on your own myths and traditions in a way that leaves you unable or unwilling to accept inevitable change. Satire, critique and wit are important tools of any healthy culture.

So as we view ongoing events in Paris, I hope we can perhaps, while we grieve for those muckraking mischief-makers and equal opportunity offenders, embrace just a little bit of Charlie Hebdo’s “bête et méchant” spirit here in the North. Nous sommes tous Charlie, with any luck.



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