France strikes an optimistic tone

Still reeling from January’s attacks, soul-searching is under way for a more inclusive – and hopeful – France.

Cartoon Illustration/Denis Pessin for
The caption reads: 'What's to be done with French optimism?' [Illustration/Denis Pessin for]

Paris, France – A quick glance at French media post-Paris attacks that killed 20, including three gunmen, seems to find that the initial collective unity has already given way to bickering, finger-pointing, and jockeying for political position.

This is partly true, helped along by a healthy dose of national pessimism often held aloft as a core component of the French identity; a sort of “I think, therefore I am depressed.”

As researcher Claudia Senik put it in her oft-cited 2011 study The French Unhappiness Puzzle: “It has now become common knowledge that the French are much less happy and optimistic than their standard of living would predict.” Previous polls indicated the French held less hope for the future than people living in active war zones such as Iraq and Afghanistan.

Yet it looks as though recent events may have served as a wake-up call, a way to move away from a well-worn narrative and start over. Much like the ambiance in post-9/11 New York City, there is a palpable change of energy on the streets and in the cafes, more eye contact, less general impatience, a bit more awareness of each other. Parisians have repeatedly been overheard saying – without a hint of their usual irony – they are proud to be French.

The surviving staff of satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo struck a sanguine tone in the opening editorial of their first post-attack issue.

“We’re even going to try to be optimists, even though it’s not the season to do so,” it said, suggesting the tragedy might at last bring an end to “legitimising or tolerating communitarianism and cultural relativism, which open the way for one thing only: religious totalitarianism”.

Penned by Editor-in-Chief Gérard Biard, who was on vacation in London when the gunmen decimated 60 percent of his editorial team on January 7, the editorial shared a two-page spread with a dozen drawings by the murdered cartoonists. One particularly prescient one signed by Tignous showed three bearded Muslim men strategising.

“We mustn’t touch the people at Charlie Hebdo,” one man depicted said, while another responded, “Otherwise they’ll be passed off as martyrs, and once they get to heaven, those bastards will nick all our virgins.”

Remaining ‘Charlie’

The French Optimists League, which recently posted an essay on its website titled “How ‘to be Charlie’ and above all, how to stay that way?” also sounded poised to mobilise the troops.

The republican march was a healthy reaction by the French people, right and left... The mood wasn't at all anti-Muslim; I saw no hostility. The most important thing is that people were there.

Denis Pessin, French cartoonist

“Yes, ‘being Charlie’ in recent days has been a rallying cry, reminding the world of our refusal to give in to the terrorists’ hostile takeover of the collective consciousness,” wrote the League’s Secretary-General Yves de Montbron.

“But it was only a first step. Because it’s important today to ‘remain Charlie’ and in order to do so, attempt by all means to make the best out of what has happened.”

De Montbron’s three-step plan, “far from being blindly naïve in the face of the unacceptable”, includes setting aside weaknesses and divisions in order to capitalise on strong points and the common energy that unites all humans.

From there, de Montbron suggested giving up on ruminating over things we cannot control, focusing instead on facing our individual and collective responsibilities and seeking “effective and positive solutions”.

‘My most optimistic drawing yet’

One of the demonstrators at the historic January 11 Paris march was veteran press cartoonist Denis Pessin, a long-time contributor to Le Monde, who now has a regular column at

Describing his initial reaction upon learning of the attack at the Charlie Hebdo offices, he told Al Jazeera: “It was like learning that the members of your favourite football team have all just died in a plane crash.”

Although friendly with some of the journalists, Pessin said: “I never wanted to work for Charlie Hebdo, even though I liked them as people. I didn’t always agree with what they said or did. I think they pushed things a bit too hard, but they had to do it, fight for their right to do it, otherwise we’d be lost as a free society.”

In response to critics who said Charlie Hebdo pushed its luck by repeatedly depicting the Prophet Muhammad, he acknowledged their right to be offended. “Personally, I’ve always tried to stay clear of hurting anyone unjustly with one of my cartoons,” he said. “I see it my job to mock the powerful, especially politicians.”

But he drew the line at using violence in response. “Wolinski, Chabu, Charb, Tignous, Honoré … these guys were not racist,” he said. “Anti-clerical, anti-conformist, yes, but not anti-Muslim.”

As a non-practising Jew, Pessin was equally appalled by the killings at the kosher supermarket. “We don’t really know enough about who’s behind all this yet,” he said. “But if something like this happens again, I worry that satirists will find ourselves self-censoring, and that’s the worst thing that can happen.”

RELATED: France: To be or not to be ‘Charlie’?

Despite this concern, Pessin said he sees hope in France’s collective mood. “The republican march was a healthy reaction by the French people, right and left,” he said. “The mood wasn’t at all anti-Muslim; I saw no hostility. The most important thing is that people were there.”

After the rally, Pessin said he couldn’t sleep, but at 3am inspiration struck and he delivered what he called “my most optimistic drawing yet”.

Pessin offered context for those who have never experienced the local mindset firsthand. “French people are always seeing the bad side of things. We’re notorious for complaining all the time.”

But given what the public has gone through, he said that could be changing.

“Up until now my approach has always been a pessimistic one,” Pessin said. “And I’m realising that it’s not healthy. But it’s a lot harder to make optimistic cartoons,” he laughed, and then closed the conversation with one of his favourite jokes.

“An optimist and a pessimist run into each other on the street. The pessimist says, ‘Oh la la, things couldn’t be worse.’ And the optimist responds, ‘Sure they could.'”

‘We’re all in the same boat’

In recent remarks to the press, Prime Minister Manuel Valls suggested that France has been suffering from what he called “territorial, social and ethnic apartheid”.

“These last few days,” he said, “have highlighted the troubles that are eating away at our country … the divisions and tensions that have been brewing for too long”.

These are strong words from a reigning prime minister in a country ill accustomed to frank talk about race, ethnicity or religion.

Referring to riots that shook some of France’s poorest suburbs in 2005 and “left scars that are still there”, Valls drew a picture of the “social misery” and “daily discrimination” experienced by those who “don’t have the right family name, skin colour, or because they are women”.

That evening, Valls and Cazeneuve awarded French citizenship to the kosher supermarket employee credited with saving multiple lives during the hostage siege there, praising him for his heroism and courage.

“Yes, I helped Jews get out. We’re brothers,” said Lassana Bathily, a Muslim from Mali. “It’s not that we’re Jewish or Christian or Muslim, we’re all in the same boat.”

After receiving a medal and a passport, Bathily, who had been trying to obtain French nationality for years without success, addressed the room, which also included the ministers of education, justice and leaders of the major religions: “Long live freedom, long live solidarity, long live France.”

‘Rise to the occasion’

Despite the surprise appearance of Front National party leader Marine Le Pen in the op-ed pages of the New York Times, she and former president Nicolas Sarkozy could turn out to be big losers in their latest attempts to divide and conquer French public opinion before the 2017 elections.

UMP party leader Sarkozy recently called Valls’ “apartheid” comment “appalling” on French television, adding the Socialist government’s decision to create 2,680 new anti-terrorism jobs would take too long to implement.

“This is a war against our civilisation, our way of life, of dressing, of thinking, and of speaking,” Sarkozy said.

Government spokesman Stéphane Le Foll deflected the opposition’s criticism and stuck to the unity message.

“We’re not going to discuss the use of one word just because Nicolas Sarkozy brought it up,” he said. “We should rise to the occasion of events that brought together several million French people.”

That message is shooting back to the far-right FN as well. In the UK’s Telegraph, columnist Anne-Elisabeth Moutet aptly described the ultra-nationalist party’s past success in early polls.

“A vote for ‘Marine’ was rarely a happy decision, more of an ‘end-of-my-tether’ one. A country that marches with signs saying ‘I am Charlie, I am Ahmed, I am a Jew; that kisses its policemen and gives a standing ovation to its government is, to borrow an Internet expression, no longer in that head space,” she wrote.

Follow Christine Buckley on Twitter: @christibuckley

Source: Al Jazeera


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Published On 14 Jan 2015
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