French Seattle reacts to Charlie Hebdo attacks

French Seattle Charlie Hebdo reaction
(Photo from Flickr by Valentina Calà)

France is still reeling from the attacks on the satirical publication ‘Charlie Hebdo’ last week. But Seattle’s French community was just as shaken by the events, which they say were a challenge to the core beliefs of their home country.

“It was a maelstrom of emotions,” said Olivier Fontana, head of the Union of French National Expatriates in Seattle, “I remembered watching [Jean “Cabu” Cabut] when I was six years old on TV and then boom, somebody killed him because they didn’t like what he said.”

Véronique Savoye, head blogger at frenchgirlinseattle.com and a dual citizen of America and France, shared similar sentiments.

“Attacking public figures the way those men did, yes they were irreverent and yes they were pains in everyone’s derrieres, but really they were artists and cartoonists. They used words, they used pencils.” she explained. “The French people were horrified.”

Savoye says that when she heard about the attacks she felt isolated. Her first reaction was to surround herself with French people who might be sharing the same feelings.

She fought traffic to attend the vigil for the cartoonists held downtown Wednesday night. She explained that, like other French people at the vigil, she was not only shocked and saddened because of the deaths, but also because freedom of the press — a freedom that the French hold in the highest esteem — was challenged.

“Whatever benefits of the life [the French] have now they’ve had to fight for them,” Savoye explained. “Nearly four million people gathered for the rally on Sunday and of course they were sad for the victims. But more than that, they were hurt because they want to be able to speak up. That right was challenged and we felt that very deeply.”

French Seattle vigil for Charlie Hebdo
A French flag, flowers, and a quote from Voltaire about press freedom, at a vigil on Pier 66 Wednesday night. (Photo courtesy FrenchGirlInSeattle.com).

Fontana explained that he is proud of his compatriots, and proud of the way they are fighting for their right for free speech.

“Knowing the French we don’t really like people to tell us to shut up. That’s the best way to keep us talking,” he explained.

He believes that these attacks will not quiet the French people but instead reaffirm their beliefs.

The devotion was demonstrated by the new issue of Charlie Hebdo released Wednesday featuring more caricatures of the Prophet Muhammed, with 50 times the normal circulation.

Fontana explained that the right to free press directly related to the French motto “Liberté, égalité, fraternité,” — “Liberty, equality and brotherhood.” He says he believes that liberty and equality can be mobilized through freedom of the press.

“Its the foundation of everything in France, its on every coin on, every bank note, in every city hall, its on my high school diploma, everything has those three words that pertain to our freedoms,” Fontana said.

“We talk about the melting pot but we haven’t melted into the pot in France”

The illustrations Charlie Hebdo published might seem extreme to some American consumers, but Andrea Taylor Brochet, the communications representative from the Seattle Alliance Francaise feels that is normal in France, and that the French are less concerned with being politically correct than Americans are.

She believes the French people don’t hesitate to say what they think, and that they are encouraged to share their opinions.

“Everybody has been talking about how those guys depicted the Prophet and how a lot of people resented that, but the truth is they did that to every religion,” Savoye explained. “If you look online you will find them making fun of the pope, you will find them making fun of the Jews, and I think its pretty easily accepted in my homeland. There are some people in France for sure who are anti-Muslim, you’ll find that in many countries, but Charlie Hebdo were not those people.”

French Muslims
Close to ten percent of France is Muslim, but economic, cultural and ideological rifts divide the minority from the predominantly Catholic mainstream. (Photo from Flickr by Jorge Royan)

Nohra Belaid, owner of Inès Patisserie on Capitol Hill, whose French family has roots in Algeria and Lebanon, says she hopes that her French countrymen will only judge the individuals directly involved in these terrible events, and not look down upon the French Muslim community as a whole.

She points out that the men who committed these attacks were born and raised in Paris. Belaid believes the desire to join these extreme groups is rooted in the vulnerabilities of minority individuals who do not feel at home in their country, and join extreme groups because they feel welcome there.

“The problem is bigger than just these three poor souls [who committed the attacks],” she explained, “these guys are just a catalyst. The discussion that is more interesting to me is the assimilation of a community within a country. We talk about the melting pot but we haven’t melted into the pot in France. That is the day I am looking for in the next weeks and months and years at home. We need to make these people feel like this country is their home.”

Amaury Coin, a French citizen and intern at the Canoe Island French Camp says that although he cannot be home in France right now, the people from all different beliefs and backgrounds marching together in his come country for freedom of the press give him hope.

“I can’t understand why religion is still used as a way of terror and hate but when I see these massive marches with hundreds of thousands of people in France and around the world, all united after the horror, hand in hand no matter what their beliefs are, I imagine there’s still hope. Hope for a more peaceful world; hope that freedom of speech remains. Hope that our liberty isn’t taken away.”

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