Millions marched in Paris on Jan. 11 in defense of speech freedom following an attack on a satirical newspaper and a subsequent shootout that left a total of 20 dead. COURTESY PHOTO
Don't look now (unless you somehow find yourself duly compelled), but I’m off to France for most of July to help recast a big farmhouse outside Bordeaux into a bigger live-in education and community center. The project is in the southwest commune of Brossac, and this is great for two reasons: I'll get a hard-won taste of true rural life (Brossac, a farming town, holds just over 500), and my workmates come from around the world, which means I'll be that much less conspicuous amid my totally suckworthy French.
Tiny, windswept Brossac is a cultural solar system away from Paris, the Western world's premiere historical landmark – but even as six months will have passed, both locales will operate in lockstep following the horrific Jan. 7 massacre of 17 innocents and the police killings of three perpetrators of the crimes. What began as a mass murder at a controversial Paris newspaper morphed into the latest installment in religious fervor gone mad, with satirical cartoons of Islam’s prophet Mohammed fueling two battles of almost Shakespearean proportions. Nearly 90,000 French forces were involved in the aftermath, with French Prime Minister Manuel Valls declaring Jan. 10 that France is at “war” with radical Islam.
Charlie Hebdo (“Charlie Weekly”), the paper at the center of the tragedies, normally circulates 30,000 copies every Wednesday. This week’s edition was to have rolled out at an unbelievable 3 million, a figure eclipsed by the nearly 4 million (about a third of Paris’ metropolitan population) who on Jan. 11 swelled the country’s streets in defiant, jubilant defense of freedom of expression the world over. Some 40 world leaders walked among the crowds, arms linked in a rare show of unity (President Obama's absolutely unbelievable absence notwithstanding).
“Je suis Charlie,” or “I am Charlie,” became the mantra of choice in Paris and in cities from Beirut to Tokyo, and “Le Marseillaise,” the French national anthem, totally hit the top of the charts. In the blink of an adoring public eye, France’s 9/11 had morphed into a political Woodstock.
The upshot from the bloodshed wasn’t lost on San Diego, whose House of France in Balboa Park was the scene of a hastily arranged candlelight vigil on Jan. 8. On the day of the Paris rally, about 125 showed their solidarity at the park – and perhaps no presence was more reassuring than that of Taha Hassane, director and imam at the Islamic Center of San Diego, who participated in both rallies.
“I’m against injustice,” he said in a published report. “I’m against crimes committed in the name of my faith, in the name of the God that I worship, in the name of the prophet that I follow. Extremism and terrorism have no religion, no culture except the culture of hate.”
French President François Hollande isn’t highly thought of by his people, but it’s a cinch he carried himself every inch the statesman Jan. 11, when he declared that “Today, Paris is capital of the world.” And so it has been for centuries as the signature city of about 40 peace treaties since 1229. By contrast, little Brossac became a commune in 1793 and has never had more than 1,200 residents at one time.
But this is one of those cases where size, thankfully, doesn’t matter. Paris, Brossac and every French city in between stand shoulder to shoulder as this moment’s true leaders of the free world. Just as I’m elated at their courage, I am sorely shaken amid my own devastation at the attack on a free press and the loss of life.
I am rapt with anticipation of my trip and my hosts’ colossal resolve, writ bold and extra-large Jan. 11 on the world stage.
And even as my French is well-near hopeless, I am beside myself with pride for a nation that fuels mankind with its almost unimaginable presence, dispensing hope and humanity as freely as an impoverished world can scare draw its sustenance.
Je suis Charlie.
Martin Jones Westlin is editor of La Jolla Village News, sister paper of Beach & Bay Press.