At 11.52am on 7th January, less than 25 minutes after 12 people were murdered at the offices of Charlie Hebdo, Joachim Roncin tweeted three words. Je suis Charlie.
“It’s strange and disturbing because I’m still the same person,” says the 39-year-old French magazine designer, speaking to us by phone from Paris. “I’m wearing the same clothes, sitting at the same desk at Stylist, and working on the same computer. Everything’s the same except for, well, people see me differently now.”
At one stage on the day of the attacks #jesuischarlie was being tweeted 6,500 times a minute. Three and a half million tweets included the hashtag in 24 hours. Many of these tweets carried Roncin’s original design – a white ‘Je suis’ and a grey ‘Charlie’ in a font echoing the typography of the satirical magazine’s masthead.
It only took him a couple of minutes to create the slogan and the logo. It’s the work he’ll always be remembered for.
“I tweeted it because I had no words and I was so astonished,” Roncin recalls. “It felt a bit like my childhood had been killed. Nobody really read Charlie Hebdo yet it’s a cultural institution. Cabu (staff cartoonist Jean Cabut, who was killed in the attacks) presented a kids’ TV show when I was a child. My father threw stones at the police in May 1968 so I was raised in this kind of countercultural spirit. Charlie Hebdo taught me to be irreverent.”
7th January, says Roncin, was a very odd day. Not least because there were gunmen on the loose in central Paris, which had gone into lockdown, and because the Charlie Hebdo offices were just a few minutes’ walk from where he lived with his young family. Everybody around him was scared, sad and confused, but he was also fielding calls from journalists seeking a scoop on that ‘Je suis Charlie’ guy.
“The AFP dropped the bomb,” Roncin recalls, explaining that the news agency were the first to publish his name in connection with the slogan, which was ubiquitous on social media by mid-afternoon. “I talked to Stylist’s editor-in-chief and she urged me to think carefully before talking to the media. Also, I was getting huge anxiety because it was potentially dangerous. If there was a focus on me and my face was everywhere, I could be the next target. But mostly it just felt strange because something horrible had happened, the killing of people first at Charlie Hebdo and two days later at the kosher supermarket, and I was experiencing this increasing momentum of fame. It would be cynical to say I’m proud of what I did because it’s based on something horrible happening.”
“If you say something cannot be said there’s no democracy any more”
– Joachim Roncin
On the afternoon of 7th January, Roncin joined thousands of Parisians in Place de la République. There were signs carrying his logo everywhere, but it was only just beginning. Within days, George Clooney had worn ‘Je suis Charlie’ as a badge, Helen Mirren had held it as a sign, and Maggie Simpson had waved it as a flag. At the unity rally on the following Sunday numerous world leaders, including several who repressed free speech in their own countries, asserted that they too were Charlie. And on the cover of the ‘survivor’s issue’ of Charlie Hebdo, which ended up getting a print run of nearly eight million, the cartoon character with the turban and the beard held up a familiar sign. The prophet Muhammad, according to the survivors of the massacre, was Charlie too.
But it’s not the case that everybody was Charlie Hebdo. Some people argued that Roncin’s slogan created an unhelpful division, making it difficult to condemn both violence and the magazine’s decision to publish offensive images. The hashtag #jenesuispascharlie – “I am not Charlie” – gained momentum on social media. In newspaper columns and letters pages people debated the meaning of Roncin’s slogan.
Its creator is clear on what it stands for. “The subtitle of ‘Je suis Charlie’ is that Voltaire quote: ‘I may disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,’” he says. “We have the right to blaspheme in France. I have the right to say the president is a dick. I have the right to call the pope an asshole. This is a free country and if at some point you say something cannot be said there’s no democracy any more. ‘Je suis Charlie’ is about believing in whatever you want to believe in. My views are very clear. I’m pro-Republic, I’m pro-democracy.”
As the days went on and social media handled the rapid global distribution of #jesuischarlie and its various spin-offs, Roncin began to feel like he was “stuck in a Kafka novel”.
“Maybe somebody else could have earned a lot of money from all this, but that person wasn’t me” – Joachim Roncin
“Every day I woke up and there was something bigger than the day before,” he recalls. “One morning there was a huge ‘Je suis Charlie’ in Times Square, then the Twitter offices put it in huge letters on their wall. And I was harassed by the entire planet over that period. The media kept calling me over three weeks – CNN, Al Jazeera, the BBC, everyone. I refused all of them because I thought it was quite indecent. It’s not about me, it’s about something really horrible happening.
And if it hadn’t been me it would have been somebody else. They wanted to make me some kind of spokesperson but I knew I should not become one.”
He did accept one offer, however. Roncin is half-Ukrainian and couldn’t resist the chance to meet the country’s embattled president Petro Poroshenko, on the condition that no photos were taken. “One day I’m working on magazine covers and two days later I’m talking to the president of Ukraine about the crisis in his country and he’s saying I might be able to work there as a spin doctor or something,” Roncin says. “Maybe somebody else could have earned a lot of money from all this, but that person wasn’t me.”
Indeed, many people tried to profit from his slogan. Roncin required the help of lawyers, all working pro bono, to help him fend off the 150 or so opportunists who attempted to register ‘Je suis Charlie’ as a trademark in France. “The trademark office received applications from people who wanted to use the slogan in the category of ‘rifles and guns’,” Roncin reveals. “I spoke to the director of the trademark office and he agreed with me that the slogan belongs to the people, that it cannot be a brand.” Similar attempts to trademark the slogan in Benelux, the EU and the US were also blocked.
Since January he’s been doing some work with nonprofit freedom of speech organisation Reporters Sans Frontières (Reporters Without Borders) and he’s also been working on a graphic novel about the bizarre Charlie Hebdo experience. He jokes that he’s losing followers on Twitter because he isn’t tweeting like a celebrity (“people are waiting for me to have another good word about something horrible”) and he’s excited about one day being able to tell his six-year-old son the whole crazy story of when dad said something that everybody in the world repeated. But does he have any regrets?
“I went through some horrible and complicated stuff, and it was a real mindfuck, but it was nothing compared to the horror the families and friends of the victims went through,” he replies. “To lose one person feels like the world has stopped turning. But on that day there were people who lost twelve friends in just a few seconds. If I could turn back the clock I would tweet ‘Je suis Charlie’ ten thousand more times.”
Filmmaker, writer and activist
On the evening of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, as Parisians gathered in Place de la République to hold a spontaneous vigil, Rokhaya Diallo sat in a radio studio and cried.
The 37-year-old French woman was on the panel for a special edition of RTL programme On refait le monde. During the discussion of the day’s tragic and shocking events, Le Figaro journalist Ivan Rioufol declared that French Muslims had a duty to express their opposition to the attacks.
“He wanted to know if I was against the attacks,” says Diallo, who is of West African descent. “I was shocked and I cried. I’ve been working on this radio station for years and he knows me, and suddenly I wasn’t a journalist but some Muslim who had a duty to reassure him that she wasn’t a terrorist. I don’t usually mention I’m Muslim because it has nothing to do with my work. But this time I needed to say that I’m a Muslim. I’m not just a concept, I’m an actual person. Muslims live and work alongside non-Muslims. But only Muslims get asked if we are against terrorism.”
Diallo first came to the public’s attention in 2006 as the founder of Les Indivisibles, a collective of activists that used humour to mock racial prejudice. Every year the group held an awards ceremony, the Y’a bon, to hand out gongs – presented with a large dose of irony – for the most racist statements of the year by public figures. More recently she’s made two documentaries, Les Marches de la Liberté (The Steps of Liberty), about civil rights in France, and Networks of Hate, about the distribution of hate speech on social networks. She’s an author of books on racism and social justice, and a regular on French TV and radio. She has been a long-standing public critic of Charlie Hebdo, but she says it’s become more difficult to speak freely since January. “It feels like a witch-hunt to find people who’d said negative things about Charlie Hebdo,” she says. “I’ve been invited on TV so many times and asked to justify my position. I have a feeling like I’m on trial. Before January I wasn’t usually presented to audiences as a Muslim, but since that day I’ve been presented as a Muslim over and over again.”
The media and politicians, she believes, “want to shut down every voice that doesn’t say ‘Je suis Charlie’”, a slogan she finds confusing. “Does it mean supporting the people who were killed and their families or does it mean you embrace whatever Charlie Hebdo says?” she asks. “For me, satire is meant to target people who have power and Muslims are the poorest and least powerful people in France. There’s an Islamophobic climate and the government and many political parties already target Muslims. I don’t see the point in making fun of people already at the lowest level in society.”
In March, Diallo’s views on Charlie Hebdo got her excluded from a debate on violence against women. The debate’s host, Frédérique Calandra, the Socialist party mayor of Paris’s 20th arrondissement, claimed that a person who wants to scrap laws forbidding Muslim women from wearing the veil in public places cannot be a feminist. Calandra also criticised Diallo for refusing to express solidarity with Charlie Hebdo after its offices were firebombed in 2011 (nobody was hurt on that occasion) and for Les Indivisibles’ call for Qatar to buy the magazine so it would stop publishing cartoons of the prophet Muhammad. Calandra evidently didn’t get the joke.
“The attacks didn’t change France. They revealed the cracks that were
already there” – Rokhaya Diallo
This clash of feminist ideologies is perhaps indicative of a larger debate over French national identity. It’s a concern to Diallo that many people believe Islam is not compatible with Frenchness, an argument often made by the far-right Front National party, who under Marine Le Pen’s leadership gained a quarter of the vote in March’s local elections. “The January attacks help [the Front National] create fear, the idea there’s a war of civilisations,” Diallo says.
Diallo believes that January’s attacks in Paris were less about a fundamental clash between Islam and the West than they are about poverty and police aggression in poorer parts of France. “Every time there is violence there are roots and reasons,” Diallo argues. “I don’t want to make excuses for the attackers but we need to try to understand how people can feel that the only future they have is being a terrorist,
when they know they’ll either go to jail or get killed by police.”
Most people living in the banlieues, the working class suburbs of Paris, are of ethnic minorities. Saïd and Chérif Kouachi, the perpetrators of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, were raised in these rundown neighbourhoods. They’re also where the worst of the rioting took place in 2005, which began when two boys, Zyed Benna and Bouna Traoré, were killed by electrocution while hiding from police in a power substation. Our conversation with Diallo takes place two days after a Rennes court acquitted two officers of failing to help the boys. “It all creates a real feeling of injustice in the banlieues,” says Diallo. “People there feel like some lives simply don’t matter.”
Diallo cites statistics compiled by the Collective Against Islamophobia in France that suggest there has been a significant rise in attacks on Muslims following the Charlie Hebdo and kosher supermarket attacks. She believes the authorities should do more to protect Muslims, particularly Muslim women who have been
the target of the majority of attacks, and she’s very critical of prime minister Manuel Valls’ refusal to use the word ‘Islamophobia’. Valls recently told interviewers that the word was a weapon used by people to silence critics of Islamist ideology. “There’s a debate in France about whether we should use the word ‘Islamophobia’ but you can’t fight things if you don’t name them,”
What’s missing, Diallo argues, is trust between people and the police in poor, largely non-white areas. “People in these neighbourhoods know that Arabs and blacks are several times more likely to be stopped by police than white people,” she says. “We have an issue with police brutality here, especially in the banlieues – the officers sent there are the most likely to be brutal because they want to experience action, so even when nothing is going on they create reactions and make arrests.”
Diallo has just returned home from a trip to the United States and she sees parallels between what’s happening in Paris and in cities such as Baltimore and Ferguson which have experienced large-scale rioting following the deaths of African-American males from police violence. “Of course we don’t have as many guns in France so people aren’t dying in the same way, but we have similar histories of race relations,” she says. “At least in the United States they speak about race. In France we are still in denial.”
“We act like there is no racism here, like there’s only French or non-French people,” she continues. “But universalism, the idea that citizens are no different from one another, is a fallacy because it ignores racism and its consequences. There’s still no official anti-racism policy here. We’ve been debating the hijab for 25 years but we still have no real solutions. We think that saying ‘liberté, égalité, fraternité’, will make them true, but it’s all ideology, theory and debate in France, and no political will. It’s a kind of magical thinking.”
Did France change for ever on 7th January? “The attacks haven’t changed France,” Diallo replies. “They just revealed the cracks that were already there.”
Director of the American Jewish Committee in France
On the afternoon of 9th January, as news spread that four Jewish hostages had been murdered in a siege at a Paris kosher supermarket, Simone Rodan-Benzaquen was shocked and horrified. But she was not surprised.
“I expected something like this would happen,” the director of the AJC’s Paris office says. “I knew a terror attack would target not only the Jewish community but also democracy and the French republic.”
The frequency and scale of anti-semitic attacks has been rising since March 2012, when an Islamist gunman struck government and Jewish targets in southern France. Mohammed Merah killed three soldiers and four people in a Jewish school in Toulouse, including three children. “But it’s not simply a problem of the last three years,” explains Rodan-Benzaquen, who was a human rights advisor in the French foreign ministry before joining the AJC. “The situation has been getting worse for the past 15 years. Before 2000 there were around 80 anti-semitic acts a year in France. Now it’s 300 to 400. That’s one every day and Jews are only one percent of the population.”
As the head of an organisation based in New York, Rodan-Benzaquen sometimes finds herself reassuring Americans that the situation in France and Europe isn’t a repeat of the 1930s. Governments are protecting rather than persecuting Jewish people. Yet she does need to make it clear that life is scary for Jews in some parts of France. Graves in Jewish cemeteries have been desecrated. The security guards and police officers that used to stand in front of Jewish schools have been replaced by soldiers. “There’s a feeling of knowing it’s going to happen again, but not knowing where or when,” Rodan-Benzaquen says. “It’s reassuring to see greater security at Jewish sites, but it makes us painfully aware that we can’t be protected at all times.”
This anti-semitism isn’t coming from the top. It’s coming from the bottom of society” – Simone Rodan-Benzaquen
Rodan-Benzaquen thinks the French government was in denial about the scale of the problem of anti-semitism until the Toulouse killings. In recent months it has impressed her with its commitment to protecting Jews, but she believes there’s a problem in wider society. “This isn’t anti-semitism coming from the top,” she argues. “It’s coming from the bottom, the poorest sections of society, and it seems that much of the rest of society is indifferent to it.” It’s difficult to evaluate the breadth of public concern over anti-semitism. Millions marched for unity on the week of the attacks, but how often was “Je suis Juif” heard amongst the collective cries of “Je suis Charlie”?
“It’s hard to say this but there’s a feeling among many Jews that if it had only been the supermarket attack we wouldn’t have had many people in the streets,” she says. “A few months earlier a Jewish couple [in Créteil, a Paris suburb] were robbed and the lady was raped, and maybe 95 percent of people at the protest that followed were Jews. But having the two attacks linked reminds people that anti-semitic attacks aren’t only about Jews. They are a signal that something is profoundly wrong in society.”
As violence against French Jews has increased, the number leaving has risen steeply. According to the Jewish Agency, an organisation promoting emigration to Israel, more than 7,000 moved in 2014, compared with under 2,000 in 2011. They predict the number will top 10,000 this year. Jews feel deeply conflicted and confused over their future. “We wake up in the morning feeling like we want to leave, that there’s no future, that our kids are unsafe,” Rodan-Benzaquen says. “And then an hour later we’ll feel that we’re French and love our country, that we’ve been here for generations, that we must not let the terrorists win. So many Jews are so very torn.”
On 16th February, a day after a Jewish man was shot dead at a Copenhagen synagogue by the gunman who failed to kill Lars Vilks, Binyamin Netanyahu called for European Jews to move to Israel. His assertion that Jews were unsafe was criticised by French prime minister Manuel Valls, who promised his government would fight anti-semitism. “If 100,000 Jews leave France,” he declared, “France will no longer be France.”
In such a tug of war, who should French Jews listen to? “It’s complex and personal,” says Rodan-Benzaquen. “On one hand there’s a feeling that after everything Jews have been through we should stay. And it’s not just about anti-semitism. If you care about France, Europe and democratic values it’s a fight worth fighting because while it starts with anti-semitism it doesn’t necessarily end there – what does it mean when a democracy can no longer protect a minority? That said, many Jews feel unsafe and it’s important for them to know they have the option of Israel.”
Anti-semitic attacks rose sharply in the weeks following the violence, as did attacks against Muslims. Is it time for Jews and Muslims to work together? “There’s potential for cooperation when it comes to tackling the far-right, the Front National,” says Rodan-Benzaquen. “But otherwise it’s difficult. There’s no one Muslim community and in France we don’t really think in terms of communities because we’re meant to only see Frenchness.”
The AJC offices were closed for a week after the killings due to safety concerns. It’s now been five months since the siege and the AJC – along with the Hyper Cacher supermarket – have reopened, albeit with additional security. Life goes on, but fears still remain.
“As a representative of a Jewish organisation I’m exposed and every time I go to a Jewish event there are security considerations. I’ve lost count of how many threats we’ve received on Twitter,” Rodan-Benzaquen says. “Sometimes the thought crosses my mind: what if somebody finds out where my kids go to school?
“Those kind of thoughts don’t stay in my mind for long but I can’t help them from happening,” she admits. “It’s not possible to just forget about this.”
At 3pm on Valentine’s Day, a lone gunman sprayed dozens of bullets into a Copenhagen cafe during a freedom of speech event. He killed one man but failed to hurt his presumed target, Lars Vilks.
“Hiding is my new lifestyle,” says the 66-year-old artist from an undisclosed location in Sweden. Vilks has been a prime target for Islamists since 2007 when he drew a cartoon depicting the prophet Muhammad as a head on the body of a dog. Following February’s attack he now has to move between safe houses. “I can leave the hiding place once a day,” he says. “Everything has to be planned.”
A Google image search for Vilks reveals a man with unruly grey hair and piercing blue eyes in black-rimmed glasses. In portraits he stares fiercely at the camera, projecting defiance and bloody-mindedness. There are photos of him at home carrying an axe. In conversation his matter-of-fact tone belies the strangeness of his day-to-day life, a world dominated by his security – bodyguards, police officers and meticulous planning for every outing. His answers are to the point,
The 14th February shooting took place at an event called “Art, Blasphemy and Freedom of Expression”, held at the Krudttønden cultural centre. Inna Shevchenko, the leader of Ukrainian feminist group Femen, was talking when a man suddenly opened fire from the street. Vilks’ bodyguards bundled him into a storage room where he was hidden under a table and surrounded by armed police. The gunman, later named as Omar el-Hussein, shot dead 55-year-old film director Finn Nørgaard before fleeing the scene in a hijacked car.
“Everything was normal and then the shooting started” – Lars Vilks
Vilks believes the attack was inspired by the Charlie Hebdo shootings and that he was the principal target. “It was a total surprise because I’d been several times to Krudttønden to talk about art and freedom of speech,” he recalls. “Everything seemed normal and suddenly the shooting started. I have a person sitting a few metres from me wherever I am and they have just one task, to keep me safe.”
It may be only one task, but it’s a big one. Isis, al-Shabaab and al-Qaeda have all called for the artist’s death, the latter offering a $100,000 bounty to anybody who “slaughters him like a lamb”. Vilks has been the target of at least three failed assassination attempts, most infamously in 2011 when Colleen LaRose, the American known as ‘Jihadi Jane’, was arrested in Philadelphia for her part in an online plot to murder Vilks which never produced a physical attack. In 2010, a few days after he was headbutted by an audience member at a university lecture, two men attempted to burn down his house. The arson attempt only caused minor damage, but Vilks was recently told by police that he will probably never return home. “It’s over,” he says, the slightest tremor of emotion appearing in his voice for the first time. “The home is over.”
Vilks has long used his art to push against the limits. He once depicted Jesus as a paedophile, but that controversy couldn’t have prepared him for what came after the publication of his Muhammad cartoons. The drawings had been rejected by a gallery in the Swedish town of Tällerud due to security concerns; the Nerikes Allehanda newspaper published them in defence of freedom of speech. Several countries including Pakistan and Iran lodged complaints with the Swedish government. “Usually when drawings like these are made nothing comes of it,” Vilks says, explaining that it was an unlikely chain of events that led to him becoming a divisive symbol of freedom of speech.
Before his life changed in 2007 he was perhaps best known as the creator of Nimis, a tall, abstract sculpture constructed from driftwood and hidden in the Kullaberg nature reserve in south-west Sweden. It took two years for the authorities to discover it and order its removal on the grounds that it was constructed without permission, prompting Vilks to declare the land containing Nimis an independent micronation, Ladonia, with its own currency, monarchy and national holidays. He’s been tending to Ladonian state affairs for 20 years and still updates its website. He regrets that it’s no longer possible to work on his sculptures. “Going out in the fresh air and doing physical work has always been part of my lifestyle and now I can’t do that,” he says.
Permanent police protection began in 2010 when it was clear that Vilks’s life was in danger. Under the newly intensified security setup it’s possible for him to leave his safe house but intensive planning and the utmost secrecy are required every time. Attending social events comes with other complications. Following his surprise attendance at a recent event in Malmö there was a debate on social media about whether he should be welcomed or shunned for putting other people’s lives in danger – does the venue have a duty to tell visitors he is there? “People are not sure what to do when they see me,” he says. “Should they leave when they see me? That’s something I have to get used to.”
He wants to keep up public appearances as “a matter of principle”, but it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find hosts prepared to take the considerable risk. A recent talk in the Finnish parliament building was cancelled (he blames political rather than security reasons) and finding a gallery prepared to spend the money on security to exhibit his work is pretty much impossible. He’s busy, he says, because there’s plenty of painting and writing (he still works as an art critic) to be getting on with, but he’s been separated from his archives and most of his art materials. He can travel abroad but it’s complicated – the Swedish have to make security arrangements with their foreign counterparts in advance. He hopes to eventually settle in one place. Life on the move can get tiring.
With characteristic stoicism, Vilks says that he’s never been scared. And on the topic of freedom of speech he’s unsurprisingly resolute. “Freedom of speech is a basic law and a human right,” he argues, saying it’s an artist’s job to push boundaries. Hasn’t his persistence become a drain on taxpayers, who have to pay for his round-the-clock security needs? “I can do nothing about my situation,” he replies. “I have been given this security. If you don’t want freedom of speech you have to get the laws changed.”
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