Tendance Coatesy

Left Socialist Blog

The March for Liberty and Republican Unity in France: Bravo!

with 20 comments

 A Paris le 11 janvier.

Contre le terrorisme, la plus grande manifestation jamais recensée en France.

Je suis Charlie!

Watching the march yesterday was profoundly moving.

The Tendance has expressed our love for Charlie, our dismay at the murders of our beloved comrades who worked there, and the anti-Semitic killings.

There are many comments to be made but some of them have been better made than by myself by Olivier Tonneau.

On Charlie Hebdo: A letter to my British friends (extracts)

Olivier starts by talking of the attack on Charlie, and how the news was reacted to in the UK.

A wave of compassion followed but apparently died shortly afterward and all sorts of criticism started pouring down the web against Charlie Hebdo, who was described as islamophobic, racist and even sexist. Countless other comments stated that Muslims were being ostracized and finger-pointed. In the background lurked a view of France founded upon the “myth” of laïcité, defined as the strict restriction of religion to the private sphere, but rampantly islamophobic – with passing reference to the law banning the integral veil. One friend even mentioned a division of the French left on a presumed “Muslim question”.

 As a Frenchman and a radical left militant at home and here in UK, I was puzzled and even shocked by these comments and would like, therefore, to give you a clear exposition of what my left-wing French position is on these matters.

  Firstly, a few words on Charlie Hebdo, which was often “analyzed” in the British press on the sole basis, apparently, of a few selected cartoons. It might be worth knowing that the main target of Charlie Hebdo was the Front National and the Le Pen family. Next came crooks of all sorts, including bosses and politicians (incidentally, one of the victims of the shooting was an economist who ran a weekly column on the disasters caused by austerity policies in Greece).  Finally, Charlie Hebdo was an opponent of all forms of organized religions, in the old-school anarchist sense: Ni Dieu, ni maître! They ridiculed the pope, orthodox Jews and Muslims in equal measure and with the same biting tone. They took ferocious stances against the bombings of Gaza. Even if their sense of humour was apparently inacceptable to English minds, please take my word for it: it fell well within the French tradition of satire – and after all was only intended for a French audience. It is only by reading or seeing it out of context that some cartoons appear as racist or islamophobic. Charlie Hebdo also continuously denounced the pledge of minorities and campaigned relentlessly for all illegal immigrants to be given permanent right of stay. I hope this helps you understand that if you belong to the radical left, you have lost precious friends and allies.

Charlie is something I came to treasure when I was a radical left activist in France – there were more people like me in Britain than you might imagine Olivier!


  This being clear, the attack becomes all the more tragic and absurd: two young French Muslims of Arab descent have not assaulted the numerous extreme-right wing newspapers that exist in France (Minute, Valeurs Actuelles) who ceaselessly amalgamate Arabs, Muslims and fundamentalists, but the very newspaper that did the most to fight racism. And to me, the one question that this specific event raises is: how could these youth ever come to this level of confusion and madness? What feeds into fundamentalist fury? How can we fight it?


Of course, freedom of speech has its limits. I was astonished to read from one of you that UK, as opposed to France, had laws forbidding incitement to racial hatred. Was it Charlie’s cartoons that convinced him that France had no such laws? Be reassured: it does. Only we do not conflate religion and race. We are the country of Voltaire and Diderot: religion is fair game. Atheists can point out its ridicules, and believers have to learn to take a joke and a pun. They are welcome to drown us in return with sermons about the superficiality of our materialistic, hedonistic lifestyles. I like it that way. Of course, the day when everybody confuses “Arab” with “Muslim” and “Muslim” with “fundamentalist”, then any criticism of the latter will backfire on the former. That is why we must keep the distinctions clear.

And to keep these distinctions clear, we must begin by facing the fact that fundamentalism is growing dangerously and killing viciously. Among its victims, the large majority are Muslims who would surely not want to be confused with their killers. So I return now to the question: what is the cause of the rise of fundamentalism?

A friend told me that it was “the West bombing Muslim countries”. I am deeply suspicious of a statement that includes two sweeping generalizations and is reminiscent of Samuel Huntington’s theory of the “clash of civilizations”: the western world vs. the Muslim world. The only difference between George W. Bush and a leftwing stance would be that whilst Bush sided with the western world, the leftwing activist sides with the Muslim world. But to reverse Huntington’s view is a perverse way of confirming it. So let us try to address the issue otherwise.

It is obvious that the rise of fundamentalism is intertwined with the complex series of tragedies that unfolded from colonialism to the present times, including the Israel/Palestine conflict. Yet I think we should recognize one thing. Just as the Christian religion caused an enormous lot of problems in the West for centuries, problems which were not always peacefully resolved, Islam has caused enormous problems in the Muslim world to a lot of people, too. Anywhere in the world, the space for individual rights has always had to be opened by rolling back religion a few miles. And this is something that the Muslim world has begun doing as early as the nineteenth-century, with difficulties not dissimilar to those experienced in the Christian world – for those who would like to explore the parallel, I recommend reading Sami Zubaida’s excellent book Beyond Islam.

Few people even know today that there was a period, beginning in the mid-ninetieth century to the mid-twentieth century, called the Nadha (Rebirth, or Renaissance), which saw a wide-ranging process of secularisation from Morocco to Turkey. Few people care to remember that, in the 1950s and 60s, women wearing the veil were a small minority in Tunis, Algiers and even Cairo. This does not mean that they were not Muslims, mind you. Just as in the West, where a lot of Christian girls started having sex before marriage or taking the pill, principles were evolving, with some inevitable tensions.

Much as it offends the Edward Saïd vision of cultures as bound to devour or be devoured, the Nadha was fuelled by ideas developed by European thinkers and enthusiastically endorsed by local students and intelligentsia – and before you accuse me of Western paternalism, let me stress two things. First, “ideas developed by European thinkers” are not “western ideas”. The anti-colonial movement referred to Marx, Freud and Robespierre, who had – and still have – fierce critics in the West. Second, at the very same time as the anti-colonial movement was drawing inspiration from the history of struggles in Europe, Claude Levy-Strauss was transforming the Western understanding of civilization by studying other cultures, just as Leibniz had extensively studied Chinese language, law and politics in his quest for Enlightenment. Peoples are neither homogeneous nor self-enclosed units: within peoples, people organize themselves and oppose themselves around principles and ideas.

 The spirit of the Marche des beurs is that of Charlie Hebdo: justice for all citizens, including migrants and minorities. Now let me fast forward. Last year, a film was produced, commemorating La Marche des beurs. The producers asked famous rappers to collectively record a promotional number. One of the rappers threw in the verse: “I demand a Fatwa on the dogs at Charlie Hebdo”. He also contrasted “our virtuous veiled girls” with “the make-up wearing sluts”. Yet there were many women in the Marche; none of them were taking a religious stance and few of them were wearing the veil. How could a secular movement for equality be rewritten in religious terms? This raises the question of the rise of fundamentalism in France.

I was there in Paris with thousands to greet La Marche des beurs….


 France has a long tradition of secular Islam, fully compatible with the laws of the Republic, but at war with fundamentalists. In the nineties, the Paris Imam was shot by fanatics whose violence he denounced; more recently, the Imam of Drancy, who expressed displeasure with Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons but firmly denounced the fatwa issued against them by Al Qaida, was himself condemned to death by the terrorist organization and is living under the protection of the police.

I often read in the English press, or hear from British friends, that French laïcité is a “foundational myth” – as if France lived under the illusion that religion could be eradicated once and for all. This has nothing to do with laïcité properly defined. Laïcité does not deny anybody the right to express their religious beliefs, but it aims to found society on a political contract that transcends religious beliefs which, as a result, become mere private affairs. The beurs who marched on Paris in 1983 were performing a laïc demonstration. They were not the only ones to demand that the Republic be true to its own principles. In a beautiful book titled La Démocratie de l’Abstention, two sociologists trace the heartbreaking story (at least it breaks my republican heart) of how the French citizens who arrived from the former colonies vote massively: they are proud of their right to participate in democracy. They try to convince their children to do the same; but the latter are not interested. Decades of social segregation and economic discrimination has made it clear to them that the word ‘French’ on their passport is meaningless – there is no equality, no freedom and clearly no fraternity.



To conclude. I firmly condemn the bombing of Middle-Eastern countries (or any country for that matter) by Western governments. I vote for political parties that condemn it, and I demonstrate against it. I was shocked when such demonstrations were outlawed by the French government – but happy when the same government recognized the Palestinian state. In these demonstrations, I walk with people of all colours, origins and religious creed – we take a political, not a religious stand. And I despair to think that a fraction of the population of my country refuses to regard me as their ally because I am no friend of religions. Being aware of the root causes of the madness that took hold of these young people, I detest politicians who have done nothing to resolve the deliquescence of the banlieues, to fight routine discrimination and control police persecutions. These issues play as big a part in my view in the rise of fundamentalism in the French youth as do events in the Middle East; that is why, had I been in France today, I do not know if I would have wanted to march together with Angela Merkel and David Cameron – much less with Netanyahu and outright Nazis such as Viktor Orban.


To repeat: there more of us here on the UK left who think like you than you imagine Olivier!






Written by Andrew Coates

January 12, 2015 at 11:34 am

20 Responses

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  1. Thanks, Andrew, for continuing to host, in part, discussions on religion & its usages, secularism, & oppression in the current capitalist world.

    In addition to the vid of Richard Seymour’s Thursday interview I linked to in the ‘Seymour Scums’ thread, on Saturday he said this about the march:
    “If you want to be ‘Charlie’ now, you have to march with the establishment – which is to say, in this context, the empire.”

    Seems if the interests of rulers & ruled coincide, albeit temporarily, the ruled are not supposed to acknowledge the fact. Instead they’re to sit it out, thereby on the sidelines with the Front National.

    The common interest is the capacity to dissent – although it is to be hoped that those opposed to exploitation & oppression want to broaden & deepen dissent, & that it results in emancipatory action, not just discourse. In other words, somewhat different from the safety-valve function that rulers much prefer.

    The Principal’s view was echoed the following day by Richard Fidler, a socialist particularly interested in Québec, who ended his article this way:

    “Above all, we must not allow ourselves to make the same mistake made by the Charlie Hebdo assassins — identifying the source of their oppression with its ideological representation, not its material, class basis. And allowing ourselves to be coopted into demonstrations of solidarity with their oppressers in the name of ‘freedom of expression’ or other trite phrases stripped of their social context.

    “In 1968, when France was immersed in the largest general strike of its history, a government official dismissed Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a leader of the student movement that had sparked the strike, as ‘a German Jew.’ The students responded by marching en masse through the streets of Paris shouting ‘We are all German Jews.’ A valuable historical precedent, all too often forgotten today.

    “Je suis Charlie? No, today we are all Muslims.”

    Jara Handala

    January 12, 2015 at 1:01 pm

  2. Thanks Jara.

    There’s a lot more than Seymour’s eruptions around.

    I was very struck by comrade Olivier’s article.

    One of my first articles in the British left press used illustrations from Cabu (one of our martyred dead) – against the Front National.

    Andrew Coates

    January 12, 2015 at 2:36 pm

  3. All very reminiscent of Third Period Stalinism, and we know where that ended. Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky were all thoroughly soaked in the principles of the Enlightenment. Yes, it sticks in one’s craw seeing the European leaders leading a demonstration, but that’s not to say that socialists don’t have a legitimate interest in free speech and thought. Richard Seymour wrote an answer to his critics in which he whined on about the scapegoating of Muslims etc, but he finished up by saying that he didn’t know why these particular Muslims had attacked these particular targets, in which case. I would suggest he shuts up if he doesn’t understand what is going on.

    Sue R

    January 12, 2015 at 2:46 pm

  4. Olivier did make that point about the leaders.

    As you say clapped out Seymourites and their mates are not Marxists, or any form of democratic socialist.

    But it was the sheer joyous dignified celebration of freedom amongst the crowds that struck me the most.

    Andrew Coates

    January 12, 2015 at 2:53 pm

  5. On the surreal spectacle of the march being led by the sort of people that CH liked to have in its satirical sights, Martin Rowson is very good in today’s Guardian:


    January 12, 2015 at 3:10 pm

  6. I do not think people cared about that Francis.

    Coming from a newspaper, the Guardian, which has published articles saying that the murderers who went to Syria to slaughter religious minorities and fight our Kurdish comrades were like Spanish Civil War volunteers for the Republican side, it is in poor taste to say the least.

    Indeed the moral authority of the Guardian on this issue is less than zero.

    Andrew Coates

    January 12, 2015 at 3:44 pm

  7. Here’s the best version of “La Marseillaise” I can think off where it perfectly sums up democratic values against fascist ones –

    When I’ve watched it recently, my eyes really do fill up.

    john r

    January 12, 2015 at 4:02 pm

  8. Jara, these people are fools – beneath contempt.

    I suppose freedom of expression sounds very “trite” to the families of our beloved martyrs.

    Andrew Coates

    January 12, 2015 at 4:07 pm

  9. A few questions about the demonstrations in different French towns, not just Paris, that readers may have info on:
    1) did any group associated with ‘the left’ or trade union in France refuse to take part;
    2) did any participating groups march under their own banners; &
    3) if so, what did they say?

    Andrew, on the matter of defending & exercising liberties in capitalist societies, far too many people are glib, including those who should know better. Such individuals should perhaps spend some time learning from those who have lived under capitalist & Stalinist dictatorships – but that would mean listening.

    It also raises the crucial question of the institutional defence of those liberties. How can we argue convincingly in today’s conditions – with the puny organisational capacities available to workers, socialists, & anarchists – that those liberties can be guarded by any institution other than ones of the capitalist state? The same problem arises with criminal investigation & punishment, & indeed it has led some to argue that those raped shouldn’t use either the police or the courts.

    We need an updated conception of both what counts as a freedom in encouraging human flourishing, & how freedoms can currently be defended. Vigilantes on council estates just doesn’t cut it – nor calls for armed workers’ militias. We need to devise ways to challenge the platitudes of the social capitalists like Miliband, those inhabiting the shells once occupied by social democrats.

    Jara Handala

    January 12, 2015 at 5:41 pm

  10. The Holocaust denier Dieudonné s’en mêle: http://www.liberation.fr/culture/2015/01/12/je-me-sens-charlie-coulibaly-le-parquet-ouvre-une-enquete-sur-dieudonne_1178936

    French judicial authorities have opened an enquiry into his comments which some describe as being a justification of terrorism, “Les propos de @MbalaDieudo sur sa page Facebook sont inadmissibles et intolérables en république, c’est simplement l’apologie du terrorisme.”

    Andrew Coates

    January 12, 2015 at 5:42 pm

  11. ‘Dieudonne M’bala M’bala: Friends turn on France’s black, anti-Semitic comedian for forming political party with far-right activist’, Independent, Monday 29 December 2014

    Wonder if Dieudonné’s latest provocation is a cynical attempt at winning back supporters?

    Also, this website has been shared on twitter:
    “The French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo has received a lot of attention after the recent attacks at their office. Some of the criticism directed at Charlie Hebdo is uncalled for and inaccurate. This website tries to explain the cartoons within the context they were published so that they may be better understood.”

    Dan Wat (@watdanwat)

    January 13, 2015 at 2:30 am

  12. Jara, the NPA refused, not because they did not back Charlie but because of the nature of the State involvement.

    “Le NPA avait décidé de ne pas s’associer à la marche qui s’est tenue aujourd’hui à Paris pour ne pas participer à l’instrumentalisation et à la manipulation orchestrée par Hollande et Valls au nom de « l’Union nationale » construite pour tenter de faire croire à des intérêts communs entre ceux d’en haut et ceux qui subissent leur politique.”

    The NPA had decided not to join the march taking place today because they did not want to be associated with Hollande and Valls’ orchestrated manipulation in the name of ‘national unity’ – a means to make it seem that there are common interests between those at the top of society and those who have to suffer the consequences of their policies. ”

    (*Note yes, that really is one sentence…)


    They had previously made this statement:

    “rench revolutionary socialists denounce attack on Charlie Hebdo

    Submitted by AWL on 7 January, 2015 – 20:12
    Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste

    The French revolutionary socialists of the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste (NPA) have denounced the attack on the office of the satirical paper Charlie Hebdo (7 January 2015) and called on people to join the protest demonstrations across France.

    Barbaric, reactionary madness

    To the attack at the offices of the newspaper Charlie Hebdo, we respond with indignation and anger at this indiscriminate, murderous violence against journalists and workers. The attack was about deploying terror against freedom of expression and freedom of the press, in the name of reactionary and obscurantist prejudices.

    We have often discussed, debated, and even polemicised with the illustrators and journalists of Charlie Hebdo, and we shared struggles with them too.

    The NPA sends its solidarity to the relatives and families of the victims, and to the journalists and employees of Charlie Hebdo.

    We will not be part of any “national unity” with those who call up racism, fan hatred against Muslims and foreigners, or use this event as a pretext for new draconian laws. They bear a heavy responsibility in the xenophobic and poisonous atmosphere that prevails today.

    They, like the attackers, are enemies of democracy and freedom, enemies of the working class and ordinary people, and enemies of a world of solidarity.”


    One thing is clear: the NPA defends Charlie.

    Andrew Coates

    January 13, 2015 at 11:22 am

  13. There is a complete failure here, in Tonneau, in the mainstream media and the fringes to understand what is really happening. The AQ/ISIS bigshots behind Coulibaly and the Kouachi brothers used them, played with them, threw their lives on the scrapheap. They couldn’t give tuppence for religious niceties, anti-racism, etc. This may help …


    January 13, 2015 at 4:06 pm

  14. I completely agree, they couldn’t give tuppence for anti-racism ….because they were racists.

    As the article rightly says, one thing stands out, the “complete selfishness” of the murderers and those behind them.

    Andrew Coates

    January 13, 2015 at 4:22 pm

  15. Thanks a lot for the info, Andrew.

    Had a quick look & found these:

    http://johnmullenagen.blogspot.co.uk/2015/01/report-from-rally-in-paris-sunday-11.html (member of Ensemble!, part of Front de gauche; updated Monday, 12 Jan; “[i]t seems that the NPA was present in other towns but not in Paris (because of the presence of the heads of state); “[t]he initiative for the rallies came initially from the trade union movement, but was then taken up by Hollande and left and right mainstream parties”)

    http://www.npa2009.org/communique/communique-dal-du-moc-du-npa-et-du-pcof (Saturday, 10 Jan, statement by boycotters: Alternative libertaire, Mouvement des Objecteurs de Croissance, Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste, Parti Communiste des Ouvriers de France; seems NPA prefer being the big fish in a puddle so small it’s invisible)

    Jara Handala

    January 13, 2015 at 5:18 pm

  16. A very accurate summary Jara!

    I noticed earlier today Alternative Libertaire’s statement, “Charlie Hebdo : l’union est une farce.”

    Compare and contrast with the statement by the leader of the PCF today,

    “Pierre Laurent : « Contre la haine, nous visons l’unité populaire pour les libertés »

    Against Hatred, we stand for popular unity for our freedoms.”


    The PCF participated fully in the marches for republican liberty.

    From this distance (which in fact is not far) I’d have thought that this is the better approach.

    Andrew Coates

    January 13, 2015 at 6:29 pm

  17. Some small anti-capitalist groups were at Sunday’s Paris gathering. In their way they tried to engage with others, handing out a leaflet heavy with words – must have been double-sided A4 – advocating “the ruthless struggle against [. . .] violent religious fanaticism”:
    https://libcom.org/library/proletariat-has-take-struggle-against-religious-fanaticism-which-reinforces-state-increa (anonymous translation)

    No report of the response they got.

    Jara Handala

    January 16, 2015 at 5:07 pm

  18. I’d have gone – I’d have gone to the London protest if I’d lived there.

    There were simple emotions of solidarity and love for Charlie at work.

    It’s fine if people want to make more detailed political points but that, I imagine, was how many people felt, and still feel.

    Andrew Coates

    January 16, 2015 at 5:22 pm

  19. It’s sad that the march gathered so many figures and representatives whom the editors at Charlie Hebdo would have rightly abhorred. Given the nationalist tinge that the #JeSuisCharlie hashtag has been given over the last week, I would have preferred if French officials had said #JeSuisCharlemagne instead.

    Ross Wolfe

    January 16, 2015 at 6:55 pm

  20. You are right Ross, but as I said, the emotions running through people were incredibly strong.

    As le Monde’s Saturday supplement puts it, Charlie is part of a whole generation’s experience.

    I happen to be part of that generation.

    Andrew Coates

    January 17, 2015 at 10:23 am

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