Once a Slogan of Unity, ‘Je Suis Charlie’ Now Divides France

PARIS — In the hours after the 2015 Islamist terrorist attack on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, a slogan emerged to mourn the dead and defend free speech, spreading like magic across France and the globe through its unifying force.

“Je suis Charlie.”

Pictures of the slogan, “I am Charlie” — in white and light gray letters on a black background — inspired millions who marched in France and were joined by world leaders from Western and Muslim nations alike. Hollywood A-listers like George Clooney proclaimed, “Je suis Charlie.” So did Maggie on “The Simpsons.” All standing together as Charlie against terrorists who believed that the magazine had insulted Islam with its cartoons lampooning the Prophet Muhammad.

But the once unifying slogan has become one of division in France — framing complicated debates in everyday conversations and popular culture, on social media and even as part of school curriculums.

“I am Charlie” gave birth to “I am not Charlie,” giving rise to a question that demands picking camps: Are you or are you not Charlie? The answer puts people on either side of France’s major fault lines, including freedom of speech, secularism, race, national identity and, of course, Islam.

The slogan’s metamorphosis exposes the polarization of political discourse in France, further deepened by the decapitation of a middle schoolteacher and two other recent Islamist attacks that followed the republication of the caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad by Charlie Hebdo in September. But as it took on a life of its own, the slogan itself helped sharpen France’s divisions.

“I wish this slogan would cease to exist because in the form it’s taken today, it deepens the divide,” said Joachim Roncin, the graphic designer who created the slogan, which he saw as a “security blanket: ‘Je suis Charlie — we’re in it together.’”

Today, someone who is Charlie is likely to be white and supporter of the caricatures’ publication. At its extreme, the person may back a strict secularism that at times is a cover for anti-Islam. Someone who’s not Charlie is often nonwhite and opposes the cartoons’ publication. The person could go as far as justifying Islamist terrorism or a ban of all criticism of religion.

Once a slogan that transcended political cleavages, “Je Suis Charlie” has now been largely embraced by the right and created splits on the left.

Gérôme Truc, a sociologist at the National Center for Scientific Research, said the slogan had been steadily weaponized as part of “a political fight that seeks to generate divisions, to distinguish those who are with us and those who are against us.”

The slogan put “oil on the fire” burning in France, Mr. Truc said, referring to issues that he said the country had failed to resolve over the past five years, like Islamism, freedom of speech and the place of religion in public life.

Its potential explosiveness was on display during a recent interview that President Emmanuel Macron gave to an online youth-oriented news site, Brut. A reader with an Arabic name, Karim, asked him, “I’m French, I love my country. But I am not Charlie. Am I allowed to be?”

Mr. Macron replied that Karim was, but then added: “I think we must get away from the slogan.”

On Wednesday, a court in Paris found 14 people guilty of aiding in the 2015 attacks on the Charlie Hebdo headquarters and on a Jewish supermarket. Yet even if the verdict brought legal closure, the caricatures’ effects on French society continues to be felt.

When Charlie Hebdo first published the cartoons in 2006, the conservative president at the time, Jacques Chirac, denounced their publication, calling for “tolerance and the respect of all faiths.” In 2015, the government led by the President François Hollande, a Socialist, responded to the series of attacks that year, including one at the Bataclan concert hall, with a strong message of national unity.

This fall, in the wake of the three recent attacks, Mr. Macron emphatically defended the republication of the caricatures as the “right to blasphemy.” That stance led to protests in Muslim nations, was met with criticism or silence in the West, and left France isolated.

Vincent Tiberj, a sociologist at Sciences Po Bordeaux university, said that French public opinion had been shaped less by the nature of the attacks than by the political discourse and actions that followed.

After the 2015 attacks — which killed about 150 people, compared with four in the three attacks this fall — the government’s emphasis on national unity led to an increase in tolerance toward Muslims, Mr. Tiberj’s research showed. But he said that the political reaction after the recent attacks, with language that appeared to conflate the religion of Islam with Islamist extremism, risked fueling divisions.

Those fissures have widened in the arc of a changing “Je suis Charlie.”

Mr. Roncin, 44, the graphic designer, created the slogan within an hour and a half of the 2015 attack on Charlie Hebdo. He wasn’t a reader of the magazine, but when he was growing up there were regularly copies around his home. His father, a child of the May 1968 social revolution, liked the magazine’s anti-establishment spirit, he said.

Feeling that the attack was “taking away part of my childhood, part of what formed me,” Mr. Roncin uploaded the slogan on Twitter to his 400 followers. About seven minutes later, the first hashtag #JeSuisCharlie was created, according to a study on Twitter hashtags.

Within hours, it had ricocheted across the globe and Mr. Roncin was inundated with interview requests from the news media. That evening, tens of thousands gathered in Paris’s Place de la République, many holding signs with the slogan, which they had printed on home computers.

But even in the first hour after his Tweet, Mr. Roncin noticed some critical messages on social media. A hashtag #JeNeSuisPasCharlie popped up, the first sign of a politicization that would eventually turn his creation into “a slogan of the right,” he said.

He wasn’t the only one made uneasy.

Christophe Naudin, 45, survived the 2015 terrorist attack on the Bataclan concert hall, where 90 were killed, by hiding for more than two hours in a storage room.

Mr. Naudin, who grew up in a politically aware family, remembers his grandmother passionately defend the author Salman Rushdie, who was threatened with death after offending many Muslims in his novel “The Satanic Verses.” Mr. Naudin said he had subscribed to Charlie Hebdo in 2006 to show support for the magazine’s decision that year to publish cartoons of Muhammad.

But he said he had canceled his subscription last year after growing increasingly uncomfortable with the magazine’s editorial tone. The magazine sometimes produced content that he considered Islamophobic, said Mr. Naudin, who teaches history at a middle school and recently published a book, “Diary of a Survivor of the Bataclan.”

A cover illustration on the August 2017 Barcelona terrorist attack and an editorial by the magazine’s editor, Laurent Sourisseau, appeared to conflate Islam with Islamism, Mr. Naudin said.

The magazine did not respond to multiple interview requests. In response to charges of racism, Mr. Sourisseau, told a French newspaper that part of the left was trapped in strict ideological concepts and censored itself. “We have to say things even if they’re unpleasant,” he said.

The “Charlie” slogan pushes the French into two extremes, Mr. Naudin said, adding, “We have unfortunately reached a point of no return where nuanced speech is no longer audible.”

The slogan has even made it into the classroom.

In early October, Samuel Paty, a teacher in a middle school near Paris, organized a class on free speech around what he called “Dilemma: To be or not to be Charlie.” Days after showing two caricatures of Muhammad from Charlie Hebdo, he was killed by an Islamist extremist.

Being Charlie meant supporting the freedom of the press, the publication of the caricatures and the right to blasphemy, according to handwritten notes taken by two students who attended the class in question and provided copies to The New York Times. Not being Charlie meant believing that the magazine is not respectful of religion, publishes blasphemous caricatures, provokes Islamists and risks provoking attacks.

The students debated, they recalled, and then were asked to agree on a proposed solution.

At the bottom of their class notes, their proposal read: “Refrain from publishing that kind of caricature.”

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