On the morning of 7 January, two men wielding AK-47s entered the newsroom of the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo. With cries of “Vengeance for the Prophet Mohammed” and “Allah is great”, they killed 12 people, including two police officers. Even though the gunmen initially managed to flee the scene, the police were able, the same day, to identify the jihadist Kouachi brothers as the suspects behind the attack. Next morning they were declared wanted. A terror attack of such magnitude had not been seen in France since the unrest tied to the Algerian independence movement. On the day of the attack on Charlie Hebdo, another shooting took place in the suburb of Fontenay-aux-Roses, where some were wounded, but none killed. The gunman was apparently Amedy Coulibaly, a Kouachi sympathiser, who continued to run amok the following day, killing a female police officer on the street. 9 January marked the final act of these events. First, police tracked down the fleeing Kouachi brothers, who were killed in the subsequent shootout. But as if this were not enough, Amedy Coulibaly took hostages at a Jewish grocery store at Porte de Vincennes. Four people were killed there.
It would be no exaggeration to say that the whole of France was in shock. First and foremost, this was a true conflict of values, which once again underlined terrorism as a form of communication. Watching from the sidelines, it might have seemed like the whole issue was a confrontation between the freedom of speech and radical Islam, but, in reality, very different social processes—which could be described using the term “moral panic”—were set in motion. So what is it about?
A moral panic is an intense feeling expressed in a population about an issue that appears to threaten the social order.
“The extreme historical examples of the results of moral panic were the anti-Semitic riots in medieval Europe or witch-hunts. In modern times, the subject is approached both in the light of pop culture and in research exploring the perception of crime or terrorism. Stuart Hill viewed moral panic precisely from the angle of state and crime, and pointed out the danger that, among other things, the media may contribute to public expectations according to which the state should adopt a “firm hand”.1 Some American sociologists have similarly described the US reaction to 9/11 as moral panic.2
Immediately after the attack on Charlie Hebdo, many interest groups spoke up, trying to rhetorically monopolise the treatment of the situation. Sheikh Harith al-Nadhari, leader of the Yemen-based al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, spoke via YouTube, announcing that the attack was provoked by insulting Prophet Mohammed. The terrorist group ISIS, on the other hand, released a video stating that Amedy Coulibaly was one of their “soldiers”. Amongst other things, in this pre-recorded video, Coulibaly got the chance to speak, announcing that he synchronised his attacks with the Kouachi brothers. In the context of France’s internal affairs, the Front National and its leader Marine Le Pen quickly issued statements trying to present the entire tragedy as proof of the correctness of their earlier anti-immigration policies.
As for the government, it was feared that, on one hand, French society could become spontaneously more radically anti-Islamic, and, on the other, as a reaction to the former, previously moderate Muslims could become more radical. At the same time, it was impossible to look past the predominant narrative, which was of course an attack on the freedom of speech. When we examine the actions of French government communications, steps were taken in several directions, and we can discern two different messages. First, “Je suis Charlie”, or the position that the terrorist attack would not be allowed to break the underlying values of the French Republic. France has been a secular country since 1905, and its primary values are democracy and the freedom of speech. Valeurs républicaines or “the values of the republic” became the key phrase. At first, this message brought together the entire political spectrum, from the Front National to the socialist president François Hollande and prime minister Manuel Valls, and even further to the left. On the other hand, they had to take into account the Muslims, who they tried to involve in a positive way; their distancing from terrorism was highlighted, since “Islam is a religion of peace”. As a variation, a Twitter post by the Lebanese activist Dyab Abou Jahjah—“Je suis Ahmed”—gained popularity. This position was the first to nuance the prevailing attitude of “Je suis Charlie”. Commemorating Ahmed Merabe, a French Muslim police officer killed in the attack on Charlie Hebdo, the text read: “I am not Charlie. I am Ahmed, the cop who was killed. Charlie ridiculed my culture and my faith. And I died protecting his right to do so.” The magazine L’Express added another line at the end, to make everything clear: “I am Ahmed. I am a citizen too.”
The most important act of state communication—psychological defence—were the mass demonstrations (“the republican marches”) in support of the freedom of speech on 11 January, the first Sunday after the attack. The result was a rare expression of unity that was apparently attended by four million people and many national delegations from all corners of the globe. In French towns, public authorities bought advertising space just to support the message of “Je suis Charlie”. During the demonstration, it was noticeable that the senior figures arriving from abroad had their group photograph taken away from the main mass of people for security reasons, and who walked in the front row of the solidarity march was negotiated in advance. From the final result we see that Angela Merkel is next to Hollande, and Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the President of the Palestinian National Authority Mahmoud Abbas are also there. It is remarkable that Sergei Lavrov, the Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs, was pushed to the back, and that American senior officials were absent from the photograph (although John Kerry, the US Secretary of State, arrived in Paris to support the freedom of speech a few days later).
In a way, this event marked the apogee of the country’s strategic communication, since immediately afterwards a second round of controversy began. Even during the organisation of the demonstration, the contest of “who is the greatest republican” had started in the French political arena. For example, Marine Le Pen and the Front National did receive an invitation, but chose not to be in the same picture with mainstream politicians and organised separate demonstrations in the provinces using the same banners. The left wing also accused Hollande of making use of the tragedy. At first, it was considered natural that, a week after the attack, the next issue of Charlie Hebdo printed 8,000,000 copies, thanks to help from the public authorities, and the number of subscribers grew from 10,000 to 200,000 within a month. But at the same time, French mainstream media began to suggest that the pendulum had perhaps moved too far to the other extreme, so that “Je suis Charlie” had become a tool used for subduing non-conformism.
Once again, there were consequences to deal with on the real political scale. The renewed publication of the Mohammed caricatures the week after the attack triggered protests around the Muslim world, from Indonesia to Nigeria. Two weeks later, there had been a total of 150 attacks on French citizens and companies. The security threat continued, and, as a result, prime minister Manuel Valls said in an interview that France was “at war with terrorism”. This, however, had far too familiar a ring to it. So when the free press posed the somewhat alarming rhetorical question of why the French intelligence could not prevent the tragedy of Charlie Hebdo, the government responded with promises to make security measures more effective. In reality, this meant suggestions of strengthening surveillance at airports and hotels but, first and foremost, on the Internet, used by the terrorists for coordinating their activities and recruiting new members. At the same time, here and there across France even clearer aftershocks underlining the controversies were felt. For example, when the scandalous black comedian Dieudonné, known for his anti-Semitic statements, posted a message on his Facebook account reading “Today I feel I am Charlie Coulibaly” (a nod to one of the terrorists), he was charged with “glorifying terrorism” pursuant to the so-called Gayssot Act of 1990 and the 2014 amendments to the Penal Code. The court of first instance in Paris found Dieudonné guilty and fined him €30,000. It is worthy of mention that Dieudonné had been previously convicted for anti-Semitic statements.
The author of this article was in Paris on the day of the verdict, and heard some polemicist from the mainstream media finally ask the rhetorical question: “Why is it that, when you insult one black person, it’s called racism, and insult one Jew and it’s anti-Semitism, but when you trample 1.6 billion Muslims under your feet, it’s called freedom of speech?”
The rise in François Hollande’s and Manuel Valls’ popularity after the attack was ironic, yet unsurprising. According to the results of a survey published on 19 January, Hollande’s previously low popularity rating recorded a rise unheard of in the history of French public opinion surveys. Analysts judged it to be the result of his very clear defence of republican values. The increase was comparable only to François Mitterrand’s rise in popularity during the First Gulf War. However, a month later the popularity was on the decrease again, as “the Charlie effect” began to wear off in the community.
Today, the aftershocks of the Charlie Hebdo attack are far from dying down. Its effect can certainly be seen in the subsequent legislative initiatives giving new powers to security structures, while public diplomacy tries its best not to fan the flames in relations with Islamic countries. For Estonia, the most obvious effect was that, relatively speaking, the threat of radical Islamist terrorism pushed the contemporaneous Ukraine conflict into the background in the French media. Cinema owners complained that the number of people visiting cinemas declined by almost half during the weeks following the attacks, since people did not want to leave their homes. Moral panic thus reached the resignation phase.
1 Hall, Stuart et al., Policing the crisis: Mugging, the State and Law and Order. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013 .
This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.