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Je Suis Charlie and lessons of history

Jesse Carey
Jesse Carey

Undoubtedly, you heard the news about the attack that occurred in France over the break, but to recap: A satirical newspaper was attacked, leaving 12 dead, sparking a massive manhunt in the city of Paris that ended hours later. Two days later, a gunman took 19  hostages in a kosher supermarket, killing four of them.

In the weeks since the attack, from the streets of Paris to the feeds of social media, a cry has been taken up: Je suis Charlie–I am Charlie. The statement was striking, a stirring elegy for those fallen and a galvanizing shout for the freedom of the press, for freedom of movement; a call of resistance in the face of terror.


The sentiment echoes another famous French maxim: Liberté, Egalité, Fraternity. These words, meaning liberty, equality and brotherhood, resemble all that is good about the new expression: Solidarity, freedom and the unlimited pursuit of the same. The origin of this phrase, like the newly-coined Je suis Charlie, was born out of turmoil and bloodshed, in the case of this particular phrase, in the French Revolution, where it was enshrined in that country’s guiding document, the Declaration of the Rights of Man.

Just like the words above, which were manipulated almost immediately by the new leaders of Revolutionary France, Je Suis Charlie is at risk of being co-opted by those with specific agendas; agendas that run counter to the ostensible meaning of the phrase.

France, in the years and months leading up to the attack, was and is undergoing somewhat of a crisis. For 50 years, immigrants from North Africa and parts of the middle east made their way to France. Unlike America, the policies of immigration in France ensured that illegal immigration was really not a concern.

Unfortunately, and yet predictably, the customs and religion that these immigrants brought with them generated friction within insular French society. This, combined with economic turmoil and plummeting birth rates in Europe has led to xenophobia–especially of Muslims.

This xenophobia has led, in recent years, to the rise of far right groups such as the National Front party, founded by a racist French radical and led by his daughter.

The far right wasted no time in spinning the attack as an example of “Islamisation,” a term that would extend to cover the entire Muslim population of France, and further, the entire Muslim population of Europe.

Thus, right wing groups would co-opt the immediate meaning of Je suis Charlie–a message of unity–to divide the Muslim from the Frenchman, the west from the east, the north from the south.

Following the attack, The National Front set about declaring war on “Islamic fundamentalism,” declaring the need for closed borders, and the creation of administrative detention, a clear example of just how far away from notions of liberty and the lessons of history the group has strayed from.

The newspaper that suffered the attack wasted little time in rebuking these claims, arguing rightly that the actions of radical elements do not, and should not, implicate an entire cultural demographic.


It isn’t simply France that is undergoing this crisis–Germany is faced with much the same predicament, with similar parties on the far right making similar claims about the nature of Islam and the people who practice it as a whole. England too stares down that familiar barrel.

It is in this context that the necessity of the true meaning of Je Suis Charlie becomes clear, and to not let fear override better judgement or allow radical European groups to seize hold of the narrative and to set policy as a result, policy that ultimately runs counter to the principles of supposedly civilized Western Liberal Democracies.

Collegian Columnist Jesse Carey can be reached at or on Twitter @junotbend.

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