After Charlie Hebdo, should French ‘unity’ include the far right?

The gruesome attack on Charlie Hebdo has rallied the French political class, including the magazine’s former critics, behind the banner of “national unity”. But the leader of France’s National Front says she has been left out.


Wednesday’s shooting, in which 12 people were killed, including some of France’s most celebrated cartoonists, triggered poignant and spontaneous demonstrations across France, where many held aloft pens to voice support for freedom of expression.

The outpouring of grief and solidarity underscored France’s attachment to a cherished tradition of satirical cartoons that goes back to the French Revolution.

It also belied the inherently controversial nature of Charlie Hebdo, whose brash, provocative drawings have long been at the heart of debates about just how far freedom of expression should go.

While the cartoonists’ preferred targets were corrupt politicians and greedy businessmen, they were unapologetic when it came to mocking religions, a practice that outraged some Muslims whose faith forbids depictions of the Prophet Mohammed.

Tunisia-born Georges Wolinski, one of the murdered cartoonists, joked that he would like his grave to bear Charlie Hebdo founder Cavanna's words: "“People think Wolinski is a fool because he behaves like a fool, but the truth is he really is a fool”.
Tunisia-born Georges Wolinski, one of the murdered cartoonists, joked that he would like his grave to bear Charlie Hebdo founder Cavanna's words: "“People think Wolinski is a fool because he behaves like a fool, but the truth is he really is a fool”.

Charlie Hebdo’s irreverent tone has not always been to the liking of French officials wary of stirring anger among the country’s large Muslim population.

In 2012, the magazine’s decision to publish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed in the wake of violent – and, in many Arab countries, deadly – protests over an amateur anti-Islam video earned it a rare rebuke from the French government.

“Is it pertinent, intelligent in this context to pour oil on the fire?” asked French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius at the time. “The answer is no.”

But there were no such calls for editorial restraint after Wednesday’s attack, with French politicians of all stripes rushing to defend the principle of freedom of speech and praise Charlie Hebdo’s struggle for “liberty”.

‘Sacred union’

Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, a Socialist, mourned the slain as “martyrs of freedom, of freedom of the press, the pillar of democracy'', and called upon all freedom-loving people to hold a solemn march in their memory Thursday.

Prime Minister Manuel Valls said the attack had “struck at the heart of the Republic”, while the country’s leading Muslim organisation, the CFCM, condemned a “barbaric act against democracy and freedom of the press”.

On the right, former president Nicolas Sarkozy slammed “an abject act that strikes the human conscience” and a “savage attack on one of our dearest republican principles, freedom of expression”.

In the spirit of unity, President François Hollande invited his arch-rival to the Elysée Palace, in what was Sarkozy’s first visit to the seat of the presidency since he lost power in 2012.

The former president, who is back at the helm of the opposition UMP party, accepted Hollande’s invitation to attend a rally in support of Charlie Hebdo and national unity on Sunday.

Using a phrase from World War I, the French press have described the rare showing of bipartisanism as a return to the “union sacrée” (“sacred union”) – an ironic wording in a country known for its staunch secularism and strict separation between politics and faith.

By Thursday afternoon, most other parties had followed suit, with the notable exception of the National Front (FN). Its leader, Marine Le Pen, said she had not received an invitation. She denounced the FN’s “exclusion” from the rally and proclaimed “the end of national unity”.

The Socialist government has yet to confirm that her party was not invited.

Earlier, Le Pen had told reporters that she trusted the government would have the wisdom to invite “the representatives of a party that polled 25% of the vote in the last election”, referring to last year’s European polls, in which the FN came first amid record-low turnout.

The question of whether to invite France’s far right presents a dilemma for Hollande’s Socialist government, which is traditionally averse to any dealings with a party it deems “un-republican”.

By failing to invite Le Pen’s party, the government exposes itself to claims it undermined its own call for unity. If it chooses otherwise, it will incur the wrath of the FN’s many foes.

The boundaries of the Republic

“There can be no exclusion from national unity,” said Prime Minister Valls on Thursday, though adding that this unity must be built around certain values “that are profoundly republican – of tolerance, of a refusal to associate [Islam with extremism]”.

The latter remark was widely interpreted as a suggestion that the FN did not meet these requirements.

François Lamy, a former Socialist minister, said “only republican parties, which refuse to stigmatise and stoke fear”, should take part in Sunday’s rally, implying that the National Front was not welcome.

The 1995 Charle Hebdo cover featuring a handcuffed Jean-Marie Le Pen with a call to ban the National Front.
The 1995 Charle Hebdo cover featuring a handcuffed Jean-Marie Le Pen with a call to ban the National Front.

Warnings such as Lamy’s have gained particular resonance at a time of mounting anxiety over an increase in both Islamophobic and anti-Semitic attacks across France.

On Thursday, police said two mosques were hit by gunfire and grenades in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo shooting. No injuries were reported.

The National Front has been accused of fanning tensions with its repeated rants against immigration and Islamic fundamentalism. France is home to Europe’s largest Muslim population, a large part of which is made up of first- and second-generation immigrants.

True to form, Le Pen provided her critics with further ammunition following Wednesday’s attack by calling for the reinstatement of the death penalty, which was abolished in 1981.

Charlie Hebdo itself has always been a steadfast opponent of the far right, which it routinely depicts as a clique of racist and fascist thugs.

In 1995, the left-wing magazine ran a cover with a cartoon of a handcuffed Jean-Marie Le Pen – Marine Le Pen’s father and the party’s founder – along with a call to ban the FN, “whose aim is to make the Republic disappear”.

According to Jérôme Sainte-Marie of polling institute CSA, inviting the National Front to Sundy’s rally would mark “an important change in French political life”.

“Acceptance of the FN in the republican fold is at stake,” he said, in remarks carried by the AFP news agency. “If they are integrated at this highly emotional time for our nation, by what right can they later be rejected again?”

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