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The French Media’s ‘Charlie Hebdo’ Narrative Isn’t for Everyone in France

Children from Saint Denis paying tribute to victims. Image tweeted by @leducentete. Used with permission.

Children from Saint Denis paying tribute to victims. Image tweeted by @leducentete. Used with permission.

The March for Unity drew 1.7 million people to the streets of Paris on January 11. Many parents brought their children, who carried posters and drawings, apparently made at home. France is still trying to grasp the meaning of recent events, which makes explaining it the younger generation a difficult task. Yes, the satirical cartoons were sometimes offensive; yes, defining the freedom of expression is a constant struggle that requires nuanced discussion; and, yes, the French need to get better at living together and understanding each other.  

One testimonial blog post from Marie, a school teacher in Saint-Denis, a northern suburb of Paris that's home to many minorities, hit a chord with many readers. In her text, Marie reacted to a report in the newspaper Le Monde that claimed children in Saint Denis welcomed the attack on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo because of the blasphemous nature of its cartoons. Marie worries this approach to reporting discriminates against minority children. Of her students’ reactions to the Charlie Hebdo murders, Marie writes:     

Ils m’ont demandé de regarder des dessins publiés par Charlie Hebdo. Je les ai projetés au tableau, nous les avons analysés ensemble. Celui-là il est marrant madame. Celui-là, il est vraiment bête. Celui-là, il est vraiment abusé.

Le dessin de presse, la caricature, comme les textes de satire, reposent sur la nécessité impérieuse d’une réflexion, sur une recherche de l’implicite qui s’acquiert avec le temps, avec l’esprit critique, avec la lecture. J’ai rappelé à mes élèves quelque chose que je leur dis chaque semaine, que l’intelligence est ce que nous avons de plus précieux, que c’est grâce à elle que nous pouvons comprendre non seulement les mots et les images, mais aussi ce qu’ils cachent, ce qu’ils suggèrent, ce qu’ils ne disent pas d’emblée.

Toutes et tous ont compris. Aucun ne m’a dit : « C’est bien fait », « Ils l’ont bien cherché », « Je suis bien content-e ». Aucun. Je n’ai pas eu besoin de les mener à dire quoi que ce soit. Ils l’ont dit eux-mêmes. Les enfants de Seine Saint-Denis ne sont pas des idiots.Et moi non plus, enseignante, je ne suis pas idiote. Je ne baigne pas dans la démagogie dégueulasse dont on nous pense souvent coupables.

Lorsque je vois qu’un quotidien national, quelques jours après l’attentat contre Charlie Hebdo, part investiguer dans le 93 pour savoir comment ont réagi les élèves, je m’interroge, parce que l’odeur qui émane d’une telle démarche n’est pas très agréable à sentir.

Pourquoi le 93 ? Aucun de ces terroristes ne venait de Seine Saint-Denis. Aucun. Pourquoi le 93 ?

Pourquoi, tiens, n’allons-nous pas enquêter pour savoir les horreurs qu’ont dû proférer les collégiennes et les collégiens dont les parents votent Front National ? Pourquoi les journalistes ne sont-ils pas allés se poster devant les écoles de Béziers ? De Fréjus ? D’Hayange ? D’Hénin-Beaumont ? Pourquoi ne nous donne-t-on pas le droit de nous indigner des propos qu’ont très certainement tenus ces enfants qui, malheureusement pour eux, sont tout aussi imprégnés des idées de leurs parents et de leur milieu que la poignée d’élèves séquano-dionysiens ?

Je regrette vraiment qu’aujourd’hui les élèves du 93 soient stigmatisés, au lendemain de l’attentat terroriste, et je ne comprends pas pourquoi les médias choisissent de titrer, dans un geste racoleur qui me fout sérieusement la gerbe, « Les élèves de Seine Saint-Denis ne sont pas tous Charlie ».

Les élèves de Seine Saint-Denis n’ont surtout rien demandé. Ils aimeraient bien qu’on leur foute la paix, pour une fois, qu’on arrête de braquer les projecteurs sur eux dès qu’un bas du front islamiste vient dire ou commettre quelque chose d’effroyable.

Enfin, je suis triste parce que je sais que vous allez en prendre plein la gueule. Non, tous les enfants de Seine Saint-Denis ne sont pas d’accord avec l’intégrisme islamiste. C’est même le contraire. Certains ont écrit spontanément des plaidoyers pour la liberté d’expression. D’autres ont eu des remarques plus intelligentes que certains adultes. D’autres ont lu « Liberté » de Paul Eluard en sanglotant.

En braquant les caméras et les dictaphones sur une poignée de crétins, on oublie l’intelligence des autres et la sienne.

My students asked to see some of the cartoons published by Charlie Hebdo. I projected some on the board and we analyzed them together. The reactions varied from:  “This one is funny, teacher.” “That one is really stupid though.” “They might have gone too far with this one.”

For any newspaper's cartoons, caricatures, or satirical texts to work, they must be based on the understanding that a superficial layer is being be peeled off, and the readers are willing to look for the implicit meaning behind the drawings. This analytical process only works over time, with a critical perspective on what we read. That day, I reminded my students of something I tell them every week—intelligence is what we should value most because, without it, we cannot understand not only words and images, but also the concepts they conceal and suggest, or what they imply only after some consideration.

Everyone nodded in agreement. No one said to me things such as the victims “had it coming,” or “I'm glad it happened.” No one. I did not have to steer them to saying anything. They said it all themselves. The children of Saint-Denis are not stupid. I'm not stupid either. I do not believe in the disgusting naiveté that we teachers are often accused of. When, just a few days after the attack on Charlie Hebdo, I see a national newspaper publish an investigation of the minorities living in the 93 [the administrative denomination of the Saint Denis area] to find out how the students reacted, I know what they are looking for. I cannot help but wonder because this kind of journalism stinks like rotting fish.

Why the 93? None of these terrorists came from Saint-Denis. None. So why the 93?

Why not inquire about the horrific comments by students whose parents supported [right-wing political party] Front National? Why don't journalists go stand in front of the schools in [cities with right-wing mayors like] Béziers, Fréjus, Hayange or D'Henin-Beaumont? Why are we deprived of the right to be outraged by comments from kids who are as influenced by their parents's ideas and their environment as the handful of students of Saint Denis?

I really regret that the students of Saint Denis are being stigmatized in such manner, the day after the terrorist attack. I do not understand why media outlets would choose to pull on such a sensationalist thread. Seeing the newspaper headline, “Students of Saint-Denis Are Not All Charlie,” just made me so sick. 

Students in Seine Saint-Denis didn't ask for any of this. If at all possible, they would just like to be left alone for once, without the media turning the spotlight on them the moment a group of terrorists does something terrible. 

The article's headline saddened me because I knew when the tragedy happened that my students would be facing a wave of hateful comments. No, the children of Saint Dennis are not on the terrorists’ side—quite the contrary. Some students wrote texts and poems about the freedom of speech; some expressed comments that were far wiser than the many adults in this country. Some read “La Liberté” from Paul Eluard and wept.

When the media put the spotlight on the comments of a few idiots, we insult the intelligence of the other children and our own.     

Below are more drawings collected by Global Voices constributor Sara Abrougui from schoolchildren in Strasbourg, in tribute to the victims:

A drawing by a student showing a rifle surrounded by blood stream in the shape of a heart - via Sarra Abrougui

A drawing by a student showing a machine gun surrounded by blood stream in the shape of a heart – via Sarra Abrougui

"Killed for drawing tolerance and freedom" children drawing from Strasbourg

“Killed for drawing tolerance and freedom” children drawing from Strasbourg

" it is the ink that should flow, not blood"

” it is the ink that should flow, not blood”

"A pencil against  a rifle"

“A pencil against a rifle”

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