January 15, 2015

After Charlie Hebdo: Real unity against violence means unity against imperialism

Photo from the January 11th National Unity march in Paris
By Adrien Welsh

Adrien Welsh is a member of the Young Communist League of Canada and chair of the YCL-LJC International Commission. He is currently living in Paris, France.

On Wednesday, January 8th, 12 people were killed - among them, two police officers - and 11 others were wounded after the offices of the weekly satirical Parisian newspaper Charlie Hebdo was the target of an armed attack at around 11 AM. The famous satirical cartoonists Jean Cabut, “Cabu”; Georges Wolinsky and Stéphane Charbonnier, who collaborated with the newspaper L’Humanité (historically linked to the French Communist Party) were also victims.

The assailants managed to leave the headquarters of the newspaper and struck again by murdering a police officer in the south-west suburb of Montrouge the next morning. Three days later, members of the Jewish community were held hostage in a Kosher supermarket in Vincennes near Paris  as well as in Dammartin-en-Goëlle. After a three-day man-hunt, the three suspected murderers, Said and Cherif Kouachi and Amedy Coulibaly, were killed. In a video, the latter claimed to have been working together with the Kourachi brother but separated for a “greater impact”. He also claimed the original attack was meant to be a revenge for the people France had killed in the Islamic State of Syria.

This is the deadliest attack in France since 1961, when a bomb placed by the Secret Army Organization (OAS) - an ultra-right and colonialist paramilitary group fighting to maintain French colonialism in Algeria - exploded under a train, killing 28 people.

It didn’t take long for solidarity actions to be organized. Satirical journalists and caricaturists around the world started to draw tributes for their peers. On the evening of this tragedy, thousands of people around France and all over the world gathered to mourn the victims. In France, there were more than 100 000 and about 3000 in Montréal and Toronto that gathered and held the sign “Je suis Charile” (I am Charlie).

Political declarations also came fast enough. French President François Hollande called for “national unity”, saying that “our best arm is unity. Nothing can divide us, nothing should divide us, nothing should separate us.” He called for the French people to gather in the streets and identified this attack as a “direct, savage attempt to attack [France’s] dearest republican principle: freedom of speech.” The Socialist Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, invited Nicolas Sarkozy, the former President and his rightist party UMP as well as other political formations to the “Republican March” that was organized on Sunday January 11th. Other rallies were organized throughout the country that same day and gathered about 3.7 Million people in total, of which 2 Millions were at the Paris March. This was, according to the French government, the rally with the highest turnout on record. Two routes had to be organized for security reasons for the 3 km march between Place de la République and Place de la Nation. The crowd was so big that it was practically impossible to walk in these large areas of Paris.

This high participation isn’t just the work of the Socialist Party as most of the major political formations reiterated the call to go into the streets. Sarkozy’s Party also called for “national unity” and called for participation in the march, saying that everybody “attached to the values of our Civilization, whatever their partisan choices are, have to be united against barbarity.” They also go further, saying that “no compromise is possible [...] on the freedom of speech. [...] In front of this threat, our Nation must raise its vigilance and develop protection measures for the French people [...]”. Sarkozy himself declared, “Civilized men have to stay united against barbarism. [...] It is a war declared on Civilization.”

Marine Le Pen, leader of the ultra-right National Front Party
To the right of Sarkozy, the ultra-right and xenophobic party Front National declared that combating jihadism is not only a question of foreign policy, but also “an internal threat” and that France needs to reorient its foreign policy. They were the first ones to use this tragedy as a political manoeuvre reiterating their will to organize a referendum on bringing back the death penalty, to better control France’s borders, to fight against the “decadence of France” and the cancellation of budget cuts to policing made  in the last few years. Although its leader Marine Le Pen called for the whole nation to be united “first in pain, also in the deep feeling that France was attacked” as well as being “united” in its culture, values and way of life, the FN didn’t participate in the Paris Republican March on the 11th of January, denouncing their exclusion from the political exploitation of this tragedy by “sectarian parties”.

International support was also important at the Paris March, no less than 40 foreign heads of state attended: Mariano Rajoy from Spain, David Cameron from Great-Britain, Matteo Renzi from Italy, Benjamin Netanyahu from Israel, Mahmoud Abbas from Palestine, Angela Merkel from Germany, etc.

Many countries also issued solidarity declarations as important demonstrations were organized around the world (for instance in Montréal, Berlin, Washington and London where thousands of people gathered in solidarity with the victims).

In Canada, last Thursday Harper declared that “the international jihadist movement has declared war”, with the clear intention of using this tragedy in order to justify the latest imperialist war in Iraq and any future wars. In an election year, this can only be beneficial for his Conservative Party as the other bourgeois parties do not have coherent anti-war positions but have recently raised some criticisms of sending Canadian troops to Iraq.

International progressive movements also condemned these attacks. Statements were issued, for example, by the Communist Party of Portugal and by the World Federation of Trade Unions who outline the danger of a political exploitation of these events that would further divide the French working class along religious lines.

Back in France, the general feeling, according to those marching on January 11th, was that freedom of press was attacked and that the people should therefore be united behind republican values. It might sound great, but a more critical analysis of the situation has to be carried out. 

Of course, this is a terrible act that needs to be firmly denounced. There is no excuse for these violent reactionary religious ideologies. They certainly have to be defeated through unity, but certainly not through unity behind the ruling class which is, in many respects, responsible for what has just happened.

This tragedy has a lot to do with France’s implication in different imperialist wars (Mali, Libya, Iraq, Central African Republic, Afghanistan, etc.) and with the austerity policies implemented by the current and previous governments which have contributed to a general mood of social and economic distress, as well as paving the way for the emergence of an ever more organized ultra-right.

The Hollande government’s implication in this affair is also particularly important: since the beginning of its mandate, its goal has been to frame the debate on certain topics so fundamental issues aren’t discussed. This was the case with Hollande championing the same-sex marriage laws, while he attacked and disorganized labour through austerity measures. This ability to appear progressive on some social questions, while ramming through austerity in a way that even the right would be envious of, also gives power to ultra-right forces which are happy to mobilize on a reactionary social platform built on homophobia, Islamophobia, racism, etc. and who appear to be the only genuine opposition to the system.

This has to be understood from a completely electoral perspective: in order to win the next national elections in 2017, the only prospect for Hollande and for his Socialist Party is to ensure that it will go up against the ultra-right in the second round of the elections.

If we try to define who will benefit politically from the Charlie Hebdo attacks, we have to admit that Hollande is not in a bad position at all. With a popularity rating barely above 10% a few weeks ago, he managed to organize the biggest supportive rally in French history! Internationally, many EU high representatives were saying that Hollande’s reforms were going too slow; and now they have all marched along with Hollande!

The crowd was marching behind the President, and a big chunk of the G8 leaders, under the banner of “national unity”, for the values of the republic, singing the national anthem, flags in hand and chanting slogans like “vive la France!”, “liberté, égalité, fraternité”, all of these being symbols generally associated with right-wing rallies. But it was also quite shocking and contradictory to see people with pacifist placards saying “no to violence” while simultaneously, French troops were killing people in Iraq.

Of course, this demonstration was staged by the government and its message carefully managed. It will be much more difficult now to oppose France’s imperialist foreign policy. Also, while the media will keep talking about these events, the government will have no problem voting through the new budget, which is quite ironic since one of the items is that working on Sundays will be extended. Would the attacks have taken place a few months later, the crowd would probably have been reduced since people would have been working.

The general feeling of the people, as it is generally depicted, is that these attacks consist of an attack on the freedom of the press. Actually, when analysing more deeply this proposition, we see that this sentiment was more what the government wanted the people to think, as opposed to what the spontaneous reaction was. The first person to have set the tone is Prime Minister Manuel Valls who declared, “they tried to attack France in its heart” immediately after the attacks.

But this has to be cleverly analysed as well. What happened isn’t just about attacking a satirical weekly newspaper - which had, in many respects, a nasty editorial line dividing people through its Islamophobic and other extreme anti-religious rhetoric. This wasn’t the first attack: it was the fourth one in about a month with others in Joué-lès-Tours, Dijon and Nantes, which occurred in the last week of December. Neither was the attack against Charlie Hebdo the only attack perpetrated by the Kouachi brothers and Amedy Coulibaly. It wasn’t anything more than an attack perpetrated by a very small reactionary Islamist group, but the slogan of freedom of press was used by the government knowing that it would be a useful propaganda tool.

The truth is that now Charlie Hebdo is the symbol for freedom of the press, when in fact the newspaper that has been the most censured in France, that was forced to be clandestine for the longest period, that was attacked repeatedly by ultra-right groups to the point that a militia had to be organized for its distribution in the 1960s - 1970s, is L’Humanité, the journal of the Communist Party of France.

Another important point that has to be addressed in this affair is the strong international support for Charlie Hebdo, with literally several thousand people marching in the major cities around the world. In comparison, 153 journalists have died in Syria, but they didn’t get the same treatment as their peers from Charlie Hebdo. Probably because they were killed by the allies of imperialism fighting against Syria’s Assad government.

All bourgeois governments actively supported the French government in some way. For instance, Montréal’s mayor, Denis Coderre, took part in the gatherings in support of the victims saying “tonight, we are all French”. The tragedy will be used worldwide by different governments to further justify an increasingly aggressive imperialism. The reaction of these governments will certainly not be to defend the freedom of the press from people like Amnesty International’s beast in Europe, Viktor Orbán, the Prime Minister of Hungary, who is said to be the one who killed freedom of press in Hungary. Or defending freedom of the press from Benjamin Netanyahu who assassinated 17 journalists last summer in Palestine, or King Abdallah of Jordan, just to name a few. All of these men marched with Hollande on Sunday the 11th. The presence of the General Secretary of NATO at the march represents more truthfully what this march was all about...

Of course mourning the dead is important, and it has to be reiterated that we need to struggle for this to never happen again. But it is equally important to denounce the ruling class and the policies it has implemented, which were an important element in the build up of division in the working class. It is the capitalist class, that is responsible for fomenting war abroad and racism at home, which creates the groundwork for fundamentalist violence, which has to be fought.

Of course people should be united and march in the streets in such events. The whole world is amazed at how many people walked down the street up to the Place de la Nation on January 11th. But what is needed now is unity in action, unity in the struggle, unity against austerity measures and for a people’s alternative, not a traitorous and dangerous redirecting of the people’s anger by the ones who are responsible for imperialist aggression, for exploitation, for the economic crisis. All of these being important elements which foster the rise of the ultra-right, fascism and Islamism.

The forces and the will of the people are there. If 3 million people would have marched against the pension reforms, against the railway reform, against the imperialist wars in which France is taking part, or against the upcoming austerity budget, these attacks probably wouldn’t have been perpetrated. Neither would they have had to gather to mourn the victims. But the fact is that Hollande, Sarkozy and all the capitalist political forces cynically used people’s consternation to suit their interests..

And now, some people such as Valérie Pécresse, former Minister for Higher Education and Research under Sarkozy, have called for a French version of the Patriot Act. One day after the march, deputies voted for an internet censorship law which will allow the government to shut down internet websites without needing the approval of a judge. Meanwhile, attacks against the French-Muslim community intensified immediately following the attacks on Charlie Hebdo. These include grenades being thrown at a mosque in Le Man, a bomb at a restaurant next to a mosque in Villefranch-sur-Saone, gunshots fired at a mosque in Port-la-Nouvelle, and a dismembered pig left outside a prayer center in Corsica with a note: “Next time it will be one of your heads”.

This is a foreshadowing of what is to come in the next few months. While Islamophbia will increase dividing the people, this mobilization will be used, under the pretext of “freedom” and “security” as a way to increase the aggressiveness of French imperialism around the world, and to implement attacks on democratic rights and civil liberties. On a political level the results will be the assimilation of any opposition to the government and the funneling of support towards the national union of butchers governing the French people, and towards the ultra-right.

As the final edit was being done of this article, France announced that it would be increasing its military presence in Iraq. Hollande announced he would be sending the “Charles De Gaulle” aircraft carrier along with 2000 troops, 21 fighter jets, 4 helicopters and a surveillance aircraft to Iraq.

The French Council of the Muslim Faith has documented 54 attacks on the French Muslim community in the last week, using figures from the French Interior Ministry.
- Comments


  1. "Imperialism" is referred to throughout the article, but not one simple example. It seems like the "phantom menace".

    1. Examples of imperialism? Well right now the US is bombing:
      And France is currently involved in Iraq and Mali.


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