I never imagined commenting a hot topical issue on my blog, but the recent events in France are so huge that my mind can’t really focus on anything else right now.
OK. To give you some insight before tackling the Charlie subject, I should explain that I’ve had an ongoing conflictual relationship with France, my homeland. Starting with the basics: where in France do I actually come from? I never know how to summarise it when people ask me (at least once a day). On my mum’s side, they are from Touraine and Franche-Comté, although my mother’s mother was born in Germany, which she was ashamed of during the war. On my dad’s side, they have all been Savoyards for generations. All my relatives are still there but I don’t know the region at all. I was born in the suburb of Paris but I was transplanted to Lozère when I turned 6. Lozère is the least populated French department. I describe it to Americans like the “Midwest of France”. Everyone there is more or less cousins. I was tagged “Parisian” after my first day at school because of my accent. I did all my school there and hated most of it. I haven’t been in 7 years.
I moved to Québec when I was 18 and 2 weeks, and didn’t see the home land for 2 years. This is where I became an adult. Québec shaped my mentality, my open mind, and my critical mind too. The French stubbornness and self-absorption hit me then.
I spent only 3 years of my grown up life in France, so my feeling of belonging got eroded with time. When I return, I don’t really identify. I don’t fit. I am feeling criticised all the time. French always have something to say, and more than often it is unpleasant. France is the home of a bunch of people I love to pieces, and my favorite thing on earth is reading the newspapers at a Parisian café terrace. But beyond that, I couldn’t picture blossoming in my life there, especially after the anti-gay marriage campaign of 2013 which took hundred of thousands of people on the street (including my own mother :)). Back then, I remember this huge sign in one of the demonstrations stating “France needs children, not homosexuals”, and I felt that my place of birth was hating me. It was violent. Something clearly clicked in my head, I understood I would never live there again because if I’m ever going to have kids, I wouldn’t want them to be second-class citizens.
So in the recent years, I’ve grown to feel “francophone” more than French, because I have mixed feelings for my mother country but I still adore my mother tongue.
Wednesday, the 7th of January – the day of the shooting at Charlie Hebdo – I was working from home. One of my French co-workers reached me on Skype: “Have you seen what is going on in Paris? – No, what?” She sent me a link to LeMonde.fr. I switched on France Inter right away and wasn’t able to get much work done for the rest of the day.
I don’t know what time it was when the journalist said on the French radio : “Charb et Cabu seraient morts.” (“Charb and Cabu are reportedly dead.”) Wave of shock. I was surprised at my own shock, because I wasn’t a regular reader of Charlie, but I knew these guys, of course I knew these guys. I knew their post-May 1968 hippyish school teacher looks, their drawing style, their left-wing insolent speech. I wasn’t a regular reader of Charlie but I loved knowing that they were there and existed. They were a huge symbol of the power to tell the authorities and institutions to fuck off, and it was refreshing to know there was this little agitated force somewhere, even though we could find it sometimes questionable or tasteless. It is just the fact that something like that existed that was so good and comforting and unique to our Frenchness.
My flatmate, who is also French and working from home, waited for me and we went together to the gathering at Trafalgar Square that evening. We didn’t even question it. Of course we wanted to be all together, with all the French of London whom I usually avoid like plague. On the way out, we ran into our British flatmate who didn’t quite get our urge to go. We tried to explain him that some kind of 9/11 of press freedom had just happened – before the first drawings showing the twin towers shaped as pencils had even been published. He didn’t understand, but we had to run.
At Trafalgar Square, at the foot of the National Gallery, it was solemn and silent. No one was speaking. In the Evening Standard that night, they were referring to Charb as “Mr Charbonnier”. Oh my God I thought, “Mister Charbonnier”! They didn’t seize the character. He probably would have hated that much reverence.
On the social networks, the “Je suis Charlie” response went viral, like an international spontaneous solidarity momentum. It had been a while that French people hadn’t really stuck together. Some critics soon arose from the unanimity of it. I told an American who was saying that he couldn’t personally relate to Charlie Hebdo: “It’s absolutely normal that you wouldn’t relate to Charlie yourself, because you are not French. What people are trying to say with “Je suis Charlie” is that the core of the nation was touched: our right to be outspoken, disrespectful and irreverent. The basics of Frenchness.”
I believe it is hard to understand for foreigners how much the soul of France was touched, and how representative of a certain French spirit Charlie Hebdo was. The more I was trying to explain that to the people from diverse countries I hang out with, the more it reminded me what I love of my own culture. It reminded me how French I am after all, whether I like it or not. France shaped my critical mind and outspokenness way before any other culture did. I wouldn’t have been shaken to the core by the Charlie events if I wasn’t relating to my culture.
I remembered the “attitude adjustment” I had at work before Christmas, when my manager criticised my “negative attitude” and my way of complaining and communicating about things. I asked him for specific examples. He said it was my overall behaviour, my way of being expressive about things. And probably my way of being irreverent too, because I always make jokes about the fact that he sweats tons even in the winter. I closed this sterile conversation by saying: “Well, I am French. That’s self-explanatory.”
So yeah. I am super aching for France right now. French people – including myself – can be a bunch of loud, narrow-minded, ignorant and overcritical assholes, always complaining and never happy with anything. We are irreverent and indisciplined. It can be unbearable, but it can be awesome too. My grandfather, who knows his stuff about history – he worked with the FFI during WW2, he was in charge of collecting the identity of the dead German soldiers searching their body – says that the French won the war because of their indiscipline, and that in Occupation time, it was their big strength.
France has historically generated numerous ideals. We have a vision and high standards on what life should be. Of course, we tripped in the carpet a couple of times in the last centuries and applied our theoretical humanism more or less successfully. But France still has an ideal of some kind, I believe. Millions of people are marching for peace and solidarity this week end, and although a handful of people desperate to think differently say that there is manipulation behind it and that Charlie was racist, homophobic and questionable, people are nevertheless fierce to defend the press freedom and the multiculturalist society.
After the multiple waves of shock of the last 3 days, I paradoxically start getting reconciled with my own Frenchness.