We’re all Charlie now… | Frederic Depetris

Despite the horror of last Wednesday’s massacre in Paris, Frederic Depetris, deputy head of the French diplomatic mission to Malta, is confident that European values are still strong

Frederic Depetris (Photo: Chris Mangion)
Frederic Depetris (Photo: Chris Mangion)

Last Friday, when I made my way to the French Embassy for this interview, the hunt was still on for the gunmen who had murdered Stephane ‘Charb’ Charbonniere, editor of Parisian satirical comic Charlie Hebdo, and nine members of staff.

Since that time, the terrorists have been killed after a bloody hostage crisis; retaliatory acts of violence have been reported in various parts of France… and while not necessarily directly connected with Wednesday’s attack, the following day another Islamist extremist network – Nigeria’s Boko Haram – perpetrated an attack that left a staggering 2,000 dead.

This took place after my meeting with Mr Depetris: but it gives an indication of the sheer scale at which things are developing on the international front. Clearly, this is a critical moment for the countries affected by terrorist attacks such as Wednesday’s carnage in Paris. And as the intended target was not just a French magazine, but also an underlying principle that lies at the very heart of post-Enlightenment Europe: the freedom to express opinions, even when these are offensive to others… that includes all people around the world who cherish human rights.

Even so, the principle at stake is particularly dear to the French Republic, which was founded on the battle-cry of ‘Liberte’, Egalite, Fraternite’ in the late 19th century. Yet it bears mentioning that France (and indeed, all of Europe) in 1789 was a far more homogenous society than it is today. The changing demographics since the days of the Enlightenment also imply that France has meanwhile assimilated people from different cultures, where such concepts are perhaps alien or mistrusted. So it is my unpleasant duty to open fire with an uncomfortable question. Does Wednesday’s attack, and all it represents, also suggest that the Republican ideals of France may not be working in today’s more heterogeneous country? Does it indicate, in brief, that the main aims of the revolution may have failed?

“I don’t think so,” Depetris begins. “On the contrary, I think the reaction and expression of solidarity, in Europe and around the world, is the living image of this belief in such values as freedom of speech and expression. And these were also among the aims of the revolution. I would say it signifies the success of such ideas since the 18th century. As you mentioned, these values are very intimately linked with the emergence of the French Republic… it goes back to Voltaire, who said he would die for your right to speak, even if he disagrees with what you say. It is one of our core values, as French President Francois Hollande reaffirmed yesterday. And we will keep on fighting for it. I was very pleased to see that French citizens who gathered yesterday in Place Republique, in Paris, were saying the same: ‘We are not afraid’. It was one of the slogans… we will keep saying what we think, we will defend our freedom of speech and of the press. These are the same values that were epitomised by these cartoonists who were killed. I’m also very pleased to see that the ones who survived the attack, members of the editorial staff, have declared they will publish the next issue of Charlie Hebdo.

In this respect at least, the attempt to stifle freedom of speech not only failed but also backfired. Depetris tells me that the print-run of the next issue of Charlie Hebdo will run into a million copies: far more than its usual circulation. “It’s a statement, to show that freedom of speech is alive and well, and that they will keep saying what they think. It is very encouraging also to see all these spontaneous gatherings, in France, but also around the world outside the French embassies… even here in Malta.” [A public vigil was held in St Julian’s on the same day]. 

“What this suggests is that we are all in the same boat. Our values were attacked, but we will defend them. I would like to thank again the Maltese government for its strong message of solidarity. When the Prime Minister said yesterday ‘Today we are all French’, it was really, really appreciated: here at the embassy, but also in France.”

At the same time, there is an uncomfortable reality underpinning all that has occurred. We must acknowledge that random acts of terrorism are not the only thing to worry about now. There are indications of a spread of violence, and even by Friday there had already been retaliatory attacks aimed at Muslim targets. There are also political movements throughout Europe that will no doubt exploit the fear and outrage provoked by this attack to foster a culture of hatred and intolerance. Against this backdrop, is France gearing up for a ‘clash of cultures’, of the kind that right-wing groups are always happy to predict?

“It’s true that after such an attack one of the main threats we have to deal with is an increase of hatred and mistrust among the population. The French President was very clear on this issue: we are and we should remain united, one people. Among us, of course, we are different. Different religions, different provenance, different social levels. But we are all French citizens. We should all live together under Republican rules. It is important to reaffirm that the values of the Republic of France, as a nation and a democracy, is to respect any kind of religion, any kind of free way of thinking, and that people are supposed to live together under these common rules.”

Depetris also reasons that the anti-Muslim sentiment, while expressed by many loud voices, is not necessarily as widespread as it is sometimes portrayed. 

“I was pleased to note that it was not just politicians, but also French citizens interviewed in the streets who were in favour of reaffirming this unity. They were very committed to avoid any kind of racist comments or hate speech against Muslims. Because these extremists are ultimately a threat for the Muslim community in France. It is not targeted so much at the French people, it’s more directly against the Muslim community.”

There are an estimated 5-6 million Muslims living in France today, and by all accounts the vast majority are either indifferent or opposed to the sort of extremist violence we saw on Wednesday. It has, in fact, been argued that the purpose behind the attack on Charlie Hebdo was specifically to change all this: to provoke retaliation against moderate Muslims, in the hope of precipitating more violence and facilitating the recruitment of more volunteers. Nor is it just Islamist terror cells who stand to benefit: in times of open racial hostility, the radical right also has a field day when it comes to recruiting and convincing. Does the government of France expect a dramatic escalation of violence… such as, for instance, when the 2005 race riots of a Parisian suburb spread throughout the country, and precipitated a state of emergency? 

“We should certainly be aware of this danger, and avoid such retaliations. That is why it is really important that speeches or public comments by the authorities impart the same message. I think it will be the case. This Sunday there will be a big demonstration in Paris, and in major cities across the world, which will be attended by all political parties committed to defend the Republican values. It’s important to show this unity among the political spectrum and society at large...”

At the same time, part of the consequence of a terror attack like this is that fears normally associated with extreme factions may be given far wider credence. One such fear concerns the fact that European demographics suggest Islam is a fast-growing religion in Europe. This may also be in part due to a falling birth-rate in most European countries; either way, the argument goes – and I must stress that it is made by others – that in time, Europe will be forced to cede more and more of its principles, as immigrant communities make more demands.  

Are Europeans justified in worrying that the values we cherish so much may be threatened by the long-term implications of demographics change?

“I wouldn’t say so, no. France has one of the highest birth-rates in Europe…”

Well, the country does have a certain reputation to defend… 

“Perhaps,” he replies with a laugh. “But when we look at the birth-rate, the statistics show that migrants have higher birth-rates when they arrive, but by the next generation it drops to the same level as the national average.

“I am aware there is a theory spreading – ‘Le Grand Remplacement’…” [The Great Replacement – which argues that at the present rate Europe will be ‘taken over’ by Islam in a few decades] “It’s playing with fire and playing with fear. They want to attract an audience by saying we should be afraid of this … but we shouldn’t be afraid of this, because first of all the links between the two sides of the Mediterranean are not only one-way. Things can change, and the migration flows are not the same as 20 years before or 30 years before.

“Most migrants to France used to come from Italy and Portugal. Now it’s completely different: they come from all over the world, from China, Africa, etc. Immigration to us is an also an added value. But we may have difficulties thinking this way in the light of the economic crisis…”

Meanwhile, speaking of efforts to ignite inter-cultural hostilities in France: it must be pointed out that there may also be grievances beyond the immediate goals of terrorism. Racial tension has often been felt in France before, as the aforementioned 2005 riots confirm. More recently, the ban of the Burqa likewise sparked a controversy over minority rights. Like it or not, this also points towards a subtext of discontent underpinning race relations in France, and no doubt all over the rest of Europe, too. 

Regardless of Islam, there seems to be many within the Muslim community who feel they are a downtrodden or side-lined minority. Could it be then, that the emergence of radical Islamic groups such as Al Qaeda and ISIS is the tip of the iceberg of a much deeper malaise?   

“I hope not. But I don’t think so. You mentioned the burqa issue: but it was only an extreme minority of Muslims who were concerned with this law. The overwhelming majority of Muslims is perfectly integrated in the French community. It’s just a few people who could be tempted by radicalism, who are drawn to extremist speeches, and who could choose to radicalise and commit these kinds of crimes. These few exist; but they are first of all criminals, not Muslims. They are criminals, and they try to invoke some kind of ideological background to justify their acts; but we cannot confuse the Muslim community with the behaviour of such criminals. Of course, what is happening around the world… the Syria crisis, Al Qaeda and ISIS networks and attitudes… they are all part of the background. The French government is well aware that this is an issue that has global ramifications.”

Yet the emergence of ISIS, at least, is widely associated with the aftermath of the Iraq war: which in turn suggests that the conditions for the same unrest which we all agree now threatens Western core values, were in fact created by western military involvement in the Middle East. There are, of course, limits to this argument: it is impossible to say what would have happened had Saddam Hussein not been toppled in 2003… especially in view of the Arab spring. But many argued against the Iraq war at the time precisely on these grounds: that it would result in global destabilisation. Is this a case of reaping what one sows?

Depetris acknowledges that the situation in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East is connected to the causes of the terrorist attack in France… but only because the terrorists want the two issues to be linked.

“I think it’s linked, for instance, on the internet and social networks, because the people trying to recruit young jihadists are making this kind of amalgam: that ‘we have to fight against Western countries in Iraq and Syria”… “the West is responsible for all your suffering”… and they use hatred killings to incite others to commit crimes in Western countries. In that way, yes, there is a connection. But the issue of radicalism in Europe, and what is happening in the Middle East, are very different.”

Either way, one immediate effect of the Charlie Hebdo attack was to dramatically increase vigilance levels in France: where the country’s terror threat alert system – Vigipirate – has been raised to maximum. As Depetris earlier mentioned, the values under attack are not cherished only in France, but also in the rest of Europe. The entire EU may well be considering whether or not to step up anti-terror efforts… which may also imply expanding government control in sensitive intelligence gathering and security areas. Are there any plans to respond to this threat level by strengthening anti-terror legislation in France? And does he expect there will be any talk in this direction by other European governments? 

“Maybe it’s too early to say. But there is, and it still exists, a link between European countries. We do have very regular meetings in Brussels, and there is the means to exchange information, for intelligence services to cooperate and to establish networks. In the field of the fight against terrorism of jihadists, this kind of European network already exists, and it works quite well. In fact, we don’t know all kind of affairs that happen, but we can be sure that previously, a bomb or terrorist attack would have been prevented by the work of the European police and armed forces. It’s working. But we can’t expect 100% prevention. These kinds of attacks occur and we must be vigilant; but we have avoided many others, and I hope we will continue to do so.”

Lastly, we have been talking a lot about values… and one value which was very central to Charlie Hebdo – part of its entire raison d’etre, in fact – is perhaps best encapsulated by the French word ‘laiciete’. We tend to translate that as ‘secularism’, and the word is much used in the local context: where we have had a few issues touching on separation of Church and State over the years. Everyone seems to have their own definition of the word... so it would be nice to have a French perspective on what is, ultimately, a concept intricately linked with the  French identity.

How would he define laiciete? 

“Well, you’re right to mention that secularism is linked with France: it is directly linked to the law of the separation of Church and State, which dates from 1905. It was the occasion to reaffirm our Republican consensus on laiciete. What does it mean? That the French Republic does not recognise one specific religion, since all religions are recognised equally. You can worship, you can practice your religion… of course we all agree to that… provided you make it a private issue, not a public one. Public spaces in France are not supposed to be part of religious discourse or used for religious propaganda. But obviously – and this is respected everywhere – you are free to believe whatever you wish.”