It would be impossible to be ignorant of the events that have pushed France to crisis point in the past couple of weeks. As the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris were attacked, I was on a plane making its way to Charles de Gaulle airport. I got off the other side, picked up my luggage, made my way across Paris on the metro and back to Rouen after a few delayed and cancelled trains. But it wasn’t until I was sitting in the back of a taxi listening to the radio that I learned the full scale of what had happened that day, Wednesday 7th of January 2015.
Being in France as the violence continued and as the nation rallied in the aftermath has been… pretty much indescribable. The march in Rouen was 35000 strong – and we’re not a massive city. Another Erasmus student pointed out the different stance his country had taken on the attacks and that of France through the medium of a Twitter. Trending in his home country was ‘#stopislam’ and yet in France ‘#islamisnottoblame’ was gathering support at lightning speed. This exposure to different cultures, viewpoints and sometimes glaring gaps in our fundamental beliefs is something that’s part and parcel of an Erasmus year. It shapes you without you realising and as much as I am LOATHE to say anything even nearing ‘I found myself’ , you’ve got to acknowledge that learning about other people’s beliefs forces you to think about your own. The attacks on Charlie Hebdo have thrown light upon the extent of our support for the right to freedom of expression. It’s something that is protected strongly by the ECHR, but we’ve also had to consider its limitations and whether they should be state imposed or governed by our own morals. For me, this isn’t a tough question but other people may feel just as strongly about the opposite response to mine. And we’ve got to respect that.
My lectures the week after the sieges were also quite profound experiences. The prof for Droit Comparé recalled where he was when the Berlin Wall fell, when 9/11 happened and, finally, when news broke of the attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices. For French people these events are all part of recent history and they are on the same scale of importance, they all have or will define the country’s future in the same way. Despite the importance the French have placed on the support of the international community, I’ve felt like a bit of an intruder at times. Standing in class to watch the press conference of Ahmed Merabet (the police officer who was shot)’s brother was extremely intense. He spoke of the fact that these attacks should under no circumstances be used as an excuse or an opportunity to propagate racism and you could have heard a pin drop in the moment’s silence that we had afterwords. This was a Fundamental Liberties lecture and so all of the students are demonstrably already committed to the freedoms of individuals, and no doubt moreso after recent events.
You may also have heard the story of the Malian shop assistant Lassana Bathily who saved several people at the kosher supermarket in Porte de Vincennes by hiding them in the walk-in freezer and turning it off. He has since been awarded French citizenship and there is a significant movement to award him the Legion d’Honneur, the country’s highest honour. But there has been a darker side in the response to the attacks both in France and further afield. Despite calls for the contrary, attacks on Muslims have spiked and all over my university campus the #JeSuisCharlie slogan has been countered with #JeSuisMohammed from members of the community who feel malaligned by the recent press coverage.
Police presence has also been increased. I’m not even in Paris, but just this second I looked out the window of the café I’m sitting in, only to see a member of the army patrolling the street with a really big gun. I may be living in a regional capital but we’re not that big, not that intimidating… And yet there are still ramifications for us. This is my experience of living in France post-Charlie. It’s surely not going to be the same experience as everyone, but I can say with certainty that what has happened will have impacted on everyone in France in one way or another. I don’t know if it seems like something far and distant to everyone living in the UK, but here it’s one of those things that you constantly sense at the back of your mind.