How the Charlie Hebdo attack changed France

Most of France supports the limitations on their liberties in the fight against terrorism – for now.

Policemen walk past spray painted on the sidewalk reading: "Je suis Ahmed," in the red, white and blue of the French flag near a plaque commemorating late police officer Ahmed Merabet in Paris [AP]
Policemen walk past graffiti on the pavement reading: 'Je suis Ahmed', referring to the police officer Ahmed Merabet shot dead on the day of the Charlie Hebdo attack [AP]

“I owe you the truth – we are not done with terrorism. Our services constantly thwart attacks,” said French President Francois Hollande in his New Year’s Eve address to the nation.

As wishes for the New Year go, this is a decidedly sombre one. Indeed, how could anyone in France express joy or even hope for some respite when Paris, still reeling from last November’s attacks which left 130 people dead and another 350 injured, is about to witness a whole week of memorial services to remember those three days last January when France lost its innocence?

On January 7, 8 and 9 last year, France’s most cherished cartoonists, three of them in their 80s, and their colleagues at the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, were killed, three members of the police force shot dead, and consumers of a Kosher supermarket targeted and killed for being Jews.

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The murder of those 17 French citizens by French-born jihadists was followed by the largest march on the streets of France since the liberation of France in 1944, and before that, since the national funeral of Victor Hugo in 1885.

Four million people – including two million in Paris alone – marched to show unity. Heads of state from around the world, among them both the Palestinian and Israeli leaders, but with the notable absence of US President Barack Obama, joined the march in Paris to show support.

What France does best

Big marches and demonstrations are among the things that France does best; January 11 will remain in history as an emotionally charged and powerful display of both resilience and defiance. However, one year on, France may have lost more than just its trademark insouciance.

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Today, tens of thousands of armed forces members, deployed at home, are patrolling the streets of France and protecting vulnerable sites such as synagogues, but also mosques, churches and faith schools.

As for the overworked and overstretched French police, they now have a new task, that of protecting hundreds of personalities such as philosophers, writers, and moderate imams...


As for the overworked and overstretched French police, they now have a new task, that of protecting hundreds of personalities such as philosophers, writers, and moderate imams who are critical of the leniency shown by past French governments towards radicalism. The Franco-Tunisian Hassen Chalghoumi, imam of Drancy, northeast of Paris, known for his fight in favour of a more inclusive Islam, needs round-the-clock protection.

Much more has changed in France. The country is living in a state of emergency, one which confers considerable additional powers to the police, the details of which are to feature in a proposed revision of the constitution. To be adopted, the bill needs the support of at least 611 of the 925 French parliamentarians, and will be debated early in February.

Among the amendments to the constitution under consideration is the deprivation of citizenship for dual nationals who commit terrorist acts. This symbolic measure, supported by 85 percent of the French people, according to a recent poll, has divided French parliamentarians, beyond their own affiliations to the left or the right.

Many argue against it, arguing that dual nationals shouldn’t be specifically targeted and that instead “national degradation” – the stripping of civic rights and imprisonment – should be applied to anyone who commits terrorist acts, stopping short at depriving citizens of their citizenship.

Risky suspension of civil liberties

Of course, the state of emergency is seen by many as an unbearable – or certainly risky – suspension of civil liberties, and the environmental militants belonging to the ecological cause’s most radical fringes were the first to experience it in the run-up to the COP21 summit in Paris. They not only braved the ban to march but threw bottles at the police. The Force was not on their side and some of them were consigned to house arrest for weeks.


Most of the French people, wary of more attacks, are for the moment supportive of the government’s approach, accepting the limitations on their liberties in the fight against terrorism.

For the moment, living in security feels more important than the right to demonstrate.

However, as time goes by, Hollande, whose presidency comes to an end in May 2017, will have to tread very carefully. The state of emergency must remain a temporary measure; if this is not the case, the definition of democracy in France will have to be amended too.

Agnes Poirier is the UK editor for the French political weekly MARIANNE, and a political commentator. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.