I lived in France for a year when I was a student. I still speak the language reasonably well and visit the country at least once a year. We in England may not always understand the way that they conduct public life, but one thing is absolutely clear: there is no other country in Europe, apart from the UK, which is so fiercely committed to freedom of speech. Charlie Hebdo is a product of that culture. It mercilessly lampoons those of whose views and actions it disapproves. Its editorial team are / were generally men of the Left and therefore not my natural soul-mates.
It is strongly anti-clerical. This is a proud French tradition; their cataclysmic revolution was born in the aftermath of the Enlightenment, and the Catholic Church was as much of a target for the revolutionaries as were the King and the aristocracy. The Catholic Church in France opposed the first revolution, then supported Napoleon’s dictatorship, the restored Bourbon monarchy after Napoleon fell, the Second Empire of Napoleon III and the Vichy regime. It was always an opponent of democratic progress until relatively recently. Our own revolutions of the 17th century were the product of the Reformation and therefore were driven at least in part by religious belief and the struggle for religious freedom. Our revolutionaries were opposing kings who were believed to be overly reliant on foreign support: Charles I’s French Catholic wife and James II’s loyalty to the Pope and to Louis XIV.
Cartoons are a much more important feature of French life than we are used to on this side of the Channel. Go into any branch of FNAC and you will find a whole section dedicated to them – both for children and adults. Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons were what so enraged the Islamists because they poked fun at aspects of Islam and also because they drew pictures of Mohammed, which is considered sinful in some interpretations of that religion. Sometimes the cartoons were a little tasteless and often rather crude. We have no equivalent in the UK – Private Eye is more restrained and Viz, though often crude, tends not to be political. What happened yesterday was a coldly calculated attack on free speech, which the Islamists will no doubt defend as punishment for the magazine’s determination to offend them. But if you live in a truly free society there is no right not to be offended. If you don’t like Viz, or Private Eye, or Charlie Hebdo, just don’t buy them.
But that won’t satisfy those who apparently deliberately targeted the cartoonists yesterday. The truth is that Islamists oppose everything that Western societies believe in. They are totalitarians. If you oppose them publicly, you make yourself a target. Our governments need to appreciate this, and to accept that there is no realistic way of negotiating with these people, there is no reasonable compromise, no middle way. If we are to preserve the kind of free society that previous generations fought to preserve, we must agree that today, we are all Charlie, whether we agreed with that magazine’s views or not.