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France

Charlie Hebdo's neighbours debate free speech three years after attack

© Mehdi Chebil, FRANCE 24 | Lidya Tchilinkirian points to the portraits of Charlie Hebdo cartoonists that were defaced with Hitler moustaches near the the satirical paper's former office.

Text by Mehdi CHEBIL

Latest update : 2018-01-06

As France commemorates the third anniversary of the Charlie Hebdo attack, the residents of the Parisian neighbourhood where the shootings took place have mixed feelings about whether or not they are still “Charlie”. FRANCE 24 met some of them.

When she sees the graffiti with the murdered Charlie Hebdo cartoonists’ smiling faces, Lidya Tchilinkirian breathes a sigh of relief. "The little Hitler moustache that someone had drawn on the faces of Charb, Cabu, Wolinski and Tignous has finally been removed. Just in time for the commemoration of the attack,” says the pensioner as she walks by the satirical paper’s former office, where jihadist gunmen killed 11 people on January 7, 2015.

As France prepares to mark the third anniversary of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, the defacement of commemorative graffiti in rue Nicolas Appert is a sign that the "Je suis Charlie" spirit has diminished since the January 11, 2015 demonstrations where millions of people took to the streets across the country to support freedom of expression.

"In the days following the attack, there were candles everywhere, people burned incense sticks and the smell was actually annoying for some of the people living in the neighbourhood", Tchilinkirian told FRANCE 24.

Three days before the official commemorations, which French President Emmanuel Macron and Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo are expected to attend, there were no flowers nor candles in rue Nicolas Appert.

"I still feel very much Charlie,” says Tchilinkirian forcefully. "I don't buy the paper regularly but I'll try to make an effort this year. It's a shame that these people, who lost their brothers, now have to pay private security guards to express their opinions.”

‘Charlie’s neighbours’

Lidya and a dozen other locals, "Charlie's neighbours" as they call themselves, gather three times a year at Le Poulailler, a typical Parisian bistro a stone's throw away from the satirical paper's former office. Over a glass of wine, they share stories about the attacks – everyone remembers exactly where they were and what they were doing on that day – and think of creative ways to help the neighbourhood move on from this terrible day.

That doesn't mean that Le Poulailler is an unequivocal "Je suis Charlie" stronghold.

"Personnally I don't feel Charlie anymore," says David, the bistro’s chef, who prefers not to give his last name. "Of course there was a time of mourning and I did buy the first issue Charlie Hebdo released after the massacre. Everyone has a right to express themselves but this paper is definitely not my cup of tea.”

The waitress, Sarah Ernoult, understands that some people feel uneasy about Charlie Hebdo. She mentions the paper's cover about the little Aylan, a Syrian child who washed up dead on a beach in Turkey, as something that really shocked her.

"It was easier to say 'Je suis Charlie' just after the attack. Back then it felt like everybody was Charlie. Even if I don't share their opinions, I think that we need people like them. In this neighbourhood, we live with Charlie everyday. So yes, in the end I'm still Charlie,” explains the young woman.

To be or not to be Charlie

Charlie Hebdo's former offices are located in a liberal neighbourhood of Paris, where nobody disputes the necessity to protect freedom of expression. But critics insist that one can be in favour of free speech without kowtowing to the "Je suis Charlie" mantra.

Ermindo Brunacci, a massage therapist who has his practice in the same street as Le Poulailler, doesn’t try to conceal his feelings about the satirical paper.

"I'm not fond of Charlie Hebdo, neither its form nor its function (...) They are targeting the Muslims and, if we talk about freedom, I feel they are criticising the Muslims' freedom to believe,” Brunacci told FRANCE 24.

Since Nicolas Appert street became a pilgrimage site for Charlie Hebdo lovers, the massage therapist says that he has been confronted several times by people asking him to justify his "Je ne suis pas Charlie" stance.

"My answer is simple," says Brunacci. "I ask them to respect my freedom of expression. I have the right to be or not to be Charlie."

Date created : 2018-01-04

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