Wednesday afternoon, I am quickly looking through Facebook when I see a post with a link and just this comment: “truly horrible…” Something has happened and it’s there. The news. I can’t believe what I am reading.
Two gunmen have attacked Charlie Hebdo, a weekly satirical newspaper, during their editorial meeting. 12 dead.
I am shocked.
Charlie Hebdo was, no… is, satirical, irreverent, without taboos, politically inappropriate, controversial, an agitator, and one of the best representatives of the French concept of ‘freedom of speech’. Known for its caricatures of Mohammed, the newspaper was attacked in 2011 and has been under police protection for years.
Part of a long tradition of French satirical newspapers, a tradition that started in the Age of Enlightenment, the era that gave us the French Revolution, Charlie Hebdo comes from beliefs that are deeply anchored in French society and culture — the mocking of politics, religion and self-righteousness exactly where it hurts the most.
Can we laugh at everything? It is a question asked of every French high school student during their philosophy exams. Is it responsible for provoking religious and racial tensions? Can we, in France, have freedom of expression and try to limit it if it goes into the bounds of blasphemy and racism, or is it simply too offensive or provocative? Charlie Hebdo’s answer is clear. It’s a right. It’s a duty.
The French community in Hanoi is united by a common understanding — every single one of us is shocked.
The French Embassy organise a tribute on the Thursday and the French owners of the RockStore host a get-together on the Friday.
At the Embassy the atmosphere is solemn and dignified. We light candles, speak softly and smoke cigarettes in the garden. Questions like ‘how are you?’ seem stupid and out of place, the answer is impossible and I apologise as I ask the question myself. We exchange our memories of Charlie Hebdo, the cartoonists Cabu, Wolinsky and Tignous. What is “your Charlie”? When did you read it for the first time? You too read Wolinsky when you were young?
Friday, braving the cold, rain and traffic, I arrive at RockStore. There are big signs ‘Je suis Charlie’ on the wall and an invitation to draw some cartoons. There are some people from the Embassy, French tourists, some young expats, different nationalities, but not a lot. It’s really bad weather outside, but we are together and it’s important. The emotion from the day before has cooled down a bit.
There are debates already taking place. What are the consequences of what happened? How will it affect society, the French Republic?
Charlie Hebdo wasn’t a big part of my life; I am not one of their readers. But they represent ‘freedom of speech’ and their presence is assuring. Nothing was sacred to them. They have courage and are rebellious. And like most French, I happy they are here. — Julie Vola