The Charlie Hebdo massacre

By strange coincidence one of France’s best known novelists, Michel Houellebecq, published Soumission on 7 January this year, the same day as the massacre at the satirical weekly, Charlie Hebdo. His style has been described as depressive realism but miserabilist is more accurate. His nostalgia for public smoking and Stalinism combines with Islamic fantasie. Soumission imagines France under Muslim rule.

Houellebecq and Charlie Hebdo consider themselves part of the left of French politics. Hebdo was founded as Hari Mari Hebdo in 1968 by those involved in the pre-revolutionary situation that broke out in May of that year. Always virulently anti-establishment, it was banned in 1970 for its mockery of De Gaulle when he died, immediately being relaunched as Charlie Hebdo.

Contrary to George Galloway, Charlie Hebdo has never been consciously racist. It has exposed the Front National and French fascism in articles that would not have been out of place in Searchlight. At the same time, its politics have always been anti -Zionist, but the feature that will be most alien to the British left is the vehemence of its anti-religious stance. This assumes a prominence that it never would in a similar British publication, even though, to be fair, Charlie Hebdo treats all creeds with equal disdain.

To judge by the tone adopted by the ‘survivors’ issue, it is unlikely that these attitudes will change: the front page once more depicted Mohammed in unflattering terms and its comment of the presence of Hollande, Cameron, Sarkozy and Netanyahu on the demonstration following the attack was ‘recupere par les cons’ (co-opted by the bastards).

Looking at events from a different angle, we might ask why working class men from a colonial background end up committing such an atrocity against potential allies. The answer lies in French Imperialism and French republicanism.

It says much about the French Republic’s fear of religion that women were the last in the western democracies to receive the vote (in 1946). It was denied them on the basis that they were more likely to be under the influence of Catholic priests and, therefore, more inclined to vote for rightwing confessional parties. This was inexcusable even though it is true to say that since 1789 the enemies of democracy had always been a coalition of monarchists and Catholics.

Matters reached crisis point with the Dreyfus affair of 1894 – a Jewish artillery officer was found guilty of selling military secrets to the Germans unleashing wave of anti-Semitism, in which the clergy was prominent. The military refused to back down when it became obvious that another officer was the real culprit. One outcome was a 1905 act passed separating church and state. All Catholic teaching orders were banned, no religious education would take place in state schools, and no religious symbols were allowed in classrooms (like crucifixes on walls or on chains round pupils’ necks).

It must also be remembered that France is a relatively recent political construction and not a homogenous ethnic entity. Nice and its environs only became part of France in 1860. Alsace and Lorraine were ceded to Germany in 1870. And, large minorities spoke Breton, Basque or Catalan. Yet primary instruction was in French and secular. French citizens are required to owe allegiance, not to their region or church, but to the state. Furthermore, France has been repeatedly the destination of successive waves of immigration including eastern European Jews, Armenian refugees, Portuguese, Poles, Italians and republican Spaniards

A large part in this assimilation was played by the French educational system. But two other institutions also were at work: the French Communist Party (PCF) and, ironically, the Catholic Church. A further irony is that many of these immigrants felt no discomfort in participating in both while sending their children to state schools. The outcome was that by the 1980s, around 25% of French people were immigrant descendants but often the only indication would be their names.

Obviously, for those brought up as Muslims, the Catholic Church had no attraction. The PCF’s decline removed another force for integration. French imperialism suffered a crushing defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, resulting in loss of its Indochina empire and forcing it to concede independence to Morocco and Tunisia along with its colonies elsewhere in Africa.

France, however, decided to hold on to Algeria leading to its War of Independence (1954-1962), with atrocities committed by both sides. Somewhat reluctantly, the PCF mobilised support for the liberation movement while the French Socialist Party formed the government of the time that waged the war. Yet, as late as 1986, the French left was able to mobilise massive demonstrations against the murder in police custody of student, Abdel Moussekine, arrested while demonstrating against education reforms.

1989 was a crucial point – three schoolgirls were suspended for wearing the hajib, allegedly contravening the 1905 act. Lionel Jospin, former Trotskyite and then education minister, tried to avoid the issue by declaring it was up to schools to decide what action to take on individual basis. This led to prolonged confrontations between teachers claiming to defend secularism and oppose women’s oppression and the Muslim community (some of whom reacted by adopting the niqab).

Until then, this female dress was more or less unknown. Before, most immigrants followed the Maliki tradition, a very relaxed form of Islam compared to the puritan Wahhabism that emanated from Saudi. But under its influence and other factors like repeated French interventions in North and central Africa and combined with global events such as the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, militant forms of Islam began to rise in France.

The role of the judicial system here needs recognising. Condemned to unemployment and segregated in large ghettos around Paris, the best the Kouachi brothers could look forward to was delivering pizzas, dope dealing, and intermittent incarceration. With this, France’s prisons have become seminaries for violent sectarianism.

Charlie Hebdo sees itself as acting in the tradition of socialist anti-religious propaganda but given the French left has little to offer young French Muslims, today this is perceived as part of the West’s attack on Islam. The left needs to ask itself: ‘what is the social content of French radical Islam?’

We can recall Trotsky’s remarks on Marcus Garvey, a West Indian who migrated to the USA in the 1930s and led a mass movement of black Americans wishing to return to Africa. Trotsky drew attention to an incident where racially harassed black woman retorted, ‘Just wait till Marcus Garvey takes over’. She was not thinking of the future situation in Africa when she said this. So if the French left is able to paralyse French imperialism, combat racism and unemployment, the worst excesses of Islamic fundamentalism would start to wither away.

David Fowler holds a PhD in French from the University of Stirling and is an SSP member.