Sunday, January 11, 2015

Je suis...libre

© Simon Poulter 2015

In the end, it wasn't just about a magazine staffed by prototypical reactionaries, goading religious fanatics to carry out their murderous spree. It wasn't just about three dead police officers. It wasn't just about supermarket shoppers slaughtered while fetching in their shabbat supplies.

This was about ordinary people. Men, women, children, grandparents, babies in high-end buggies, the mildly aggrieved and the permanently enraged, the duffel-coated politicos, some who'd never been to any sort of political event before, and those who turned up just to see what the fuss was about.

It was a family day out, full of bonhomie. There were no tears, or none that I saw. There was no anger, no bile of hatred. Kids' faces were painted with le tricolore. There was communal singing of La Marseillaise. They stood, they clapped, they shuffled their feet when they could, they came to a halt again, they chanted "shar-lee, shar-lee, shar-lee". Some attempted to shove their way along. This was a French event, after all.

© Simon Poulter 2015
There were flags of every country - even, bizarrely, one representing North Korea. Christian, communist, republican, Israeli, Palestinian - name the persuasion, there was a flag evident.

Above us, TV cameras poked out of sixth floor windows overlooking the square, gesticulating reporters desperately trying to fill precious live satellite minutes as the estimated million-plus shuffled past at a tectonic pace. Traditional French impatience was suspended as this enormous tide moved like a mud slick from the rallying point at République on up Avenue de la République, in what ultimate direction, no one really knew. Perhaps it was meant to end at Nation, perhaps at Bastille. Even now I still couldn't say.

"Une journée à nulle autre pareille - ran the caption on one of the local TV channels. A day without parallel. Certainly it wasn't just the end to a weekend that concluded the first working week of January. And, by the way, how did that week go for you? Back to the rigmarole of commuting? Back to the disorientating fog of managerial dysfunction? Back to wasting energy trying to unjam the photocopier, again?

And what about all those tedious meetings? Probably, I suspect, they weren't interrupted by thugs spraying bullets about because of something that appeared on the cover of a magazine.

Almost 48 hours after two-and-a-half days that scared Paris, shocked France and stunned the world, this afternoon felt like the forced awakening from a nightmare. Or at least taking temporary reprieve from it.

© Simon Poulter 2015
It is, though, too soon to make any real sense of what happened last week. Of course, we know what happened - we saw much of it on YouTube, on CNN, on the BBC, on just about every video medium on the planet. Or at least we saw the inevitable, bloody denouement. This afternoon, however, wasn't about trying to solve anything. This was about solidarity and, yes, a public wanting to feel better about itself while sending a message. Because, cynics, believe it or not, behind the carnival spirit and cute kids on their dads' shoulders holding pencils aloft, there was a genuine belief in liberté, egalité, fraternité.

Which is why France may know how what happened did so, but it is still trying to consider why. Why its enshrined right to free speech met the infuriated assault rifle of jihad; why the lesions of social and racial division have been abruptly opened; why festering distrust and lingering anti-semitism has resurfaced and where will it go next; and why an underclass living within the boundary of a city famous for its bejewelled avenues should be compelled to upgrade from petty crime to radicalised mass murder.

Freedom of speech and freedom of expression shouldn't cost a thing, let alone someone's life, the sanctity and preservation of which is the common denominator of all religions, all faiths, all belief systems. It allows me to write this and you to read it. It allows for healthy debate, exchange of ideas and, critically, the ability to offer a counterpoint with the only retribution being disagreement.

Freedom of speech allows anyone to ask if Charlie Hebdo had gone too far, as much as for the magazine to go too far to begin with. And what is too far? Who sets that threshold? Who has the true moral authority to say too far is too far? Certainly not the self-appointed executioner emptying his AK47 at cartoonists exercising their right to free speech with nothing more lethal than felt-tipped pens and pencils.

Charlie Hebdo may well have crossed a line of taste or public sensitivity or even the expression of opinion - albeit in the form of a socially provocative cartoon - but did they cross into territory warranting a lethal response? Of course not.

© Simon Poulter 2015

In response to Wednesday's atrocity, historian Simon Schama wrote in the Financial Times: "Magazines such as Charlie Hebdo are in the business of taking liberties, even outrageous ones, but they exist so that we never take the gift of disrespect for granted."

A fair point. But one that takes a higher level than was needed. The Guardian's cartoonist Steve Bell brought things more appropriately down to earth, telling the BBC: "We’ve got to stand up for the right to take the piss out of these monsters, these idiots, these fools, these posturing maniacs who strut around in their black gear as a kind of death cult trying to frighten us all."

That's what today was about. The greatest defence against those who say "you can't say that" should always be "yes, I can, because I live in a society that allows me to chose what I believe and freely say what I think" - no matter how far you test the elasticity of the principle.You can't place any metric against offence. You are either offended or not offended. And if you are, feel free to complain about it. It's your right.

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