Max Blumenthal on Je Ne Suis Pas Charlie
MAX BLUMENTHAL (VOICEOVER): What does it mean to be Charlie in France today? And what about the French citizens who declare that they are absolutely not Charlie? What’s on their minds? And are they even free to express it? These were a few of the questions we set out to answer as we explored the tense landscape that has unfolded across France since the January 7 attacks.
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay.
That was a clip from a new documentary that’s running on The Real News, Je Ne Suis Pas Charlie. This is a documentary film about the killings at the Charlie Hebdo office, where the staff were executed. It sparked an outrage of protest in Paris, where people came in their tens of thousands saying “We are Charlie”.
Well, now joining us to talk about we are not Charlie and what the significance of that means in the studio is Max Blumenthal. Max is an award-winning journalist and best-selling author. His latest book is The 51-Day War: Resistance and Ruin in Gaza.
Thanks for joining us, Max.
MAX BLUMENTHAL, JOURNALIST AND AUTHOR: Good to be with you.
JAY: But this ain’t about Gaza, which is–usually the Middle East is your wheelhouse. But you were in Paris. What sparked this film?
BLUMENTHAL: Well, it is about Gaza. And Gaza and the Israel-Palestine situation is not limited to a geographic space of land in an area that’s about the size of New Jersey. I mean, this is an international crisis. And this is–in many ways this film is about the reverberation of this crisis into the French landscape, along with the immigration crisis, the crisis of French citizenship, the crisis of French nationalism, the economic crisis in France. It’s all wrapped up in this phrase “Je suis Charlie”. What does it mean?
And when I went to France for a speaking tour for Israel Apartheid Week, I became kind of part of the story, because there was an attempt to shut down my talks in French suburbs at universities like University 8 in Saint-Denis in Paris, which are primarily attended by minority groups in France, including Muslims, attempts from the top to paint me as an anti-Semite. There were threats from the Jewish Defense League, which is a right-wing Jewish extremist group, to intimidate the universities.
BLUMENTHAL: So these posters were ripped down by security dispatched by the administration for three days. The event was postponed under the premise that I’m a controversial speaker and that thugs from the far-right Jewish Defense League would come to campus and create a security problem. So it was first postponed, then it was canceled, and now, under massive pressure from the public, it’s back on. But this was a clear attack on free speech, one of countless attacks on free speech that we’ve seen since the Charlie Hebdo massacre. And it’s mainly targeting the left and the Muslim community.
BLUMENTHAL: The same thing happened at the University of Bordeaux.
And I began filming first my own experience with my friend and colleague James Kleinfeld, who is a British videographer who was studying in France at the time, in Paris. And we started interviewing people in the street about what it meant to be Charlie or we started interviewing French Muslims, particularly young French Muslims who are politically assertive, about why they would declare that they’re not Charlie and what it’s like living in an atmosphere in which Islamophobia and anti-Semitism have really bubbled to the surface, while the French middle class, the Catholic and Protestant middle class, seems completely oblivious to the experience of French minorities.
UNIDENTIFIED: Yes, we are all Charlie.
INTERVIEWER: And what does that mean for you, to be Charlie?
UNIDENTIFIED: It means that we are for free speech.
UNIDENTIFIED: That we are not indifferent to what happened.
UNIDENTIFIED: Exactly. Whether we are Jewish or whichever religion. We are all free.
UNIDENTIFIED: Or Muslim.
UNIDENTIFIED: Because Charlie, they might not have been for a certain idea or religion, but that is free speech and all of France is like that.
UNIDENTIFIED: Yes, I am Charlie in the sense that the most profound values of our society were attacked. France, for me, is the country of liberty, and above all the country of free speech. The motto is not just the words “liberty, equality, fraternity”.
HANANE KARIMI, PHD STUDENT IN SOCIOLOGY, UNIVERSITY OF STRASBOURG: The veiled French Muslim woman experiences exactly the same problems as people of color, black people for example, because they carry a racial stigma with their clothing, which provokes daily discrimination, insults, some of them experience physical violence.
UNIDENTIFIED: I said before that we were doubly discriminated against, but in fact we are triply discriminated against. We are women, we are Muslim Arabs, and thirdly, we wear the veil. It’s a crescendo of discrimination.
JAY: The reason I say it’s not your normal wheelhouse: ’cause to a large extent this film’s about French national psychology than it is about Islamophobia, almost, in a way. I mean, certainly it’s about Islamophobia, but you dig into why so many Parisians and French people had such a reaction.
And I have a friend who lives in Paris, and she is, I would say, progressive. She’s not super political. And if she’s watching this, she’s going to know who I’m talking about. But certainly on the Middle East question her sympathies are with Palestinians. She fully understands, I think, the role of Israel and the occupation and the repression and so on. She understands Islamophobia, too. But she went out there and marched. And she–I challenged her on it when I saw her not long ago. Why? And she said, first of all, it’s the first time we Parisians, who are always just sort of on our own, actually came out in solidarity, and two, it was this violent attack, we thought, on our rights, that what–some of the essence of French is that we have a right to be creative and to be outspoken and so on and so on.
What do you make of that? Because in your film I don’t hear that voice so much. A little bit, perhaps, but people who are kind of progressive, you could say, but who were out there marching.
BLUMENTHAL: Well, we interviewed dozens and dozens of French Muslims, and I know many just through my own experience in France. I couldn’t find one who would defend these barbaric attacks, and there was no support for them. There was a different perspective on the attacks and an understanding of the killers, the /kuːlɨˈbaɪ/ [Kouachi] brothers, for example, as a product of the French system and as something that is organically French and not as a exterior problem that emanates from al-Qaeda. I mean, their identification with al-Qaeda comes from their alienation and marginalization within French life, and that’s something that your friend might not recognize.
But what we saw and what I tried to show at the beginning of the film when we interviewed people in Park Monceau in a really affluent arrondissement or neighborhood of France with interviews with upper middle-class and upper-class Parisians is the obliviousness of the minority experience and the Muslim experience. When we ask about French values, the two preeminent values for this element are laïcité, or secularism, even though they’re not genuinely secular, ’cause many of them are Catholic; they just say, we wear our cross on the inside; and two, free speech.
UNIDENTIFIED: I haven’t witnessed a strengthening of racist discourse since the attacks. I heard of those people who were arrested for supporting the Kouachi brothers. I think it’s a very good thing. People can do whatever they want on Facebook, in private or public life. It seems normal to me to be r eprimanded for advocating for such things. This is a value of our republic.
UNIDENTIFIED: Your belief is inside you. There is no need to be open about it, neither with extreme veils nor with–how do you call it? The burka, etc. So we have a little cross, but we wear it on the inside. We don’t feel the need to wear it openly.
UNIDENTIFIED: I think to a certain extent the atacks have freed up our speech even more. People are expressing themselves more. They express their points of view more honestly. The discussions are a little clearer than they were before.
And this is a group who has never experienced speech being wielded against them in a hateful, derogatory way to demonize them collectively as a group. They’ve never been incited against by French leadership. French Jews might understand this historically, but this group doesn’t understand the peril that it puts you in to be incited against 24-7 on media, to be harassed every time you get on the Parisian Métro. And so there’s an obliviousness about liberal values and how they can be turned against a population.
And what we do with this film, Je Ne Suis Pas Charlie, is show how the liberal values of laïcité, the supposedly liberal values of laïcité and free speech have been wielded in a totalitarian fashion to demonize and marginalize French Muslims. And they’ve been adopted by Marine Le Pen and the National Front to become one of the three major parties in France. I mean, Le Pen isn’t calling for fascist expulsions of French Muslims. She’s calling simply for upholding, in an extremely authoritarian, stringent fashion, these values to which it’s impossible for them to adhere, because it means that they have to leave their religion and their own identity in the cloakroom by not wearing hijab, by not wearing the dress that they want to wear. No such demand is being made of French Jews who want to wear kippahs in public–and shouldn’t be, by the way. But this is clear discrimination against French Muslims using liberal values.
MARINE LE PEN, PRESIDENT, NATIONAL FRONT: We must be able to respond to this war which has been declared by Islamist fundamentalism.
JAY: Yeah, actually, in part of my challenge with my friend, it really hit me how I can start to understand the growth of fascism in the 1930s, both in France and in Germany, the extent to which people with liberal values could so easily succumb to the pressure to actually join a protest with someone like Netanyahu marching in the front of it, and that’s okay, the fact that they can manipulate people with these liberal, progressive value so easily in that moment.
And then, of course, the most–it’s not astounding, ’cause we’ve seen what Israel, the Israeli policy is like, but when you see Jews, French Jews, who suffered exactly this talking this way–and we’re going to show a clip from the film, some–I guess they’re Orthodox Jews.
BLUMENTHAL: Some are, some are Orthodox, but you’re in the suburb of Sarcelles here, and this is a mostly impoverished suburb of Paris. One-third of the population is Jewish, one-third is Muslim, one-third are other minority groups. And so you have Jews, mostly of North African descent, who are generally pretty religious mixed among a Muslim population who feel like they’re under siege.
JAY: Okay. So here’s the clip.
BLUMENTHAL (VOICEOVER): In Sarcelles, an impoverished Parisian suburb with a substantial population of Muslims and Jews of North African origin, we encountered the same sense of fear and resentment, but expressed without any reservation.
UNIDENTIFIED: Listen to what I’m saying. [The Muslims] are turning the whole world upside down. And no one is doing anything about it. The world is not budging an inch. Iran and Iraq should have been wiped off the map a long time ago. They’re waiting to see what will happen next.
DAVID HAIK, JEWISH COMMUNITY LEADER IN SARCELLES: The anti-Semitism that we are seeing, I’m not sure if France is able to stand up to it, because on the one hand, there are more than 6 million Muslims in France. We are just a handful in comparison to them. It will be necessary for our young people to have, at least, a paramilitary organization, to do what we did on 20 July. That’s to say, back up the riot police and stop people coming in.
INTERVIEWER: Do you know people from the Jewish Defense League?
HAIK: They were there [on 20 July]. They put themselves under the commands of the riot police. And we had cordoned off military zones. Why? This wasn’t reported in the media, because they weren’t interested. The JDL? There are some of them here in Sarcelles. They aren’t as violent as people say. People demonize them like they are trying to demonize Marine Le Pen today, just before the elections, while in reality it is French Islam which is frightening, which isn’t doing its job. They are not really paramilitary organizations, but when we are attacked, we need to defend ourselves. If these self-defense organizations go under the command of the Interior Ministry or the Ministry of Defense, first of all, they will be well-supervised; secondly, they will be more responsible. When we call upon the army to protect some French people from others, it is the beginning of a civil war. We’re heading in that direction.
JAY: So contextualize that for us.
BLUMENTHAL: Well, what you saw in that clip was you saw a man calling for basically eradicating the population of Iran and Iraq, who appears to have been of North African descent, so an Arab himself. So this community leader, David Haik, led us to a monument for French Jews who were killed by an Islamic extremist in Toulouse at a school and began telling us about his support for a fascist group, the Jewish Defense League, his desire to incorporate this fascist group into the French police, the fact that they’re already arming up for a kind of what he calls a civil war with French Muslims, so basically a clash of civilizations within Paris between two groups which have been traditionally discriminated against, while the kind of French middle class just stands aside and watches.
And finally he discussed–he defends Marine Le Pen, who is a neofascist leader whose father was a Holocaust denier. And so here we see the growing support of some French Jews for the National Front and Le Pen because of her stated Islamophobia, her Islamophobic goals.
And this is, I think, one of the most disturbing scenes in this film, because it shows how Jews and Muslims have been pitted against each other when they should be natural allies. And I don’t believe in the United States–from my experience, experience of Jews, I know that anti-Semitism is a factor in American life. If anything, we’re experiencing a kind of philo-Semitism here.
In France it is sort of–it is a factor in life. I mean, you’ve seen these massive attacks against French Jewish targets. Muslims experience racism on a much lower daily level. It’s more mundane and kind of a slow-growing campaign of hatred. For Jews its occasional attacks. But the French elite, the kind of people who speak the language of laïcité or secularism, I don’t believe they’re great fans of French Jews either. And we could see after these attacks how their agenda dovetailed with that of Netanyahu’s when Netanyahu showed up at the Great Synagogue in Paris and called for French Jews to leave. He called on all French Jews to leave and move to Israel, which is their true home.
BENJAMIN NETANYAHU, PRIME MINISTER OF ISRAEL: Every single Jew who wishes to emigrate to Israel, will be welcome with open arms and all our warmth.
This is something–I don’t know how many French Jews accept this, but this is something that works well with an anti-Semitic, a traditional, classical anti-Semitic agenda in Europe, in which they don’t really want French Jews to be there.
JAY: And we know there was some of that same kind of collaboration during World War II.
BLUMENTHAL: And it’s been ongoing. I mean, there was the Haavara agreement, the transfer agreement between Nazi Germany and the Zionist movement to exchange Jewish bodies for a portion of their wealth, which helped insulate Germany from the effects of the Great Depression.
But when I was at the kosher supermarket before it had been reopened, it was still littered with these tokens of solidarity for French Jews. And within the dead flowers, the piles of dead flowers and flags, we found pamphlets that had been placed by some kind of organization representing French Jewry, which was promoting, on behalf of the Israeli government, mass immigration to Israel–
BLUMENTHAL (VOICEOVER): Two months after the January 7 attacks, the Hypercacher supermarket is almost ready to reopen. Outside we found sidewalks littered with symbols of solidarity with France’s Jewish community. Among the piles of dead flowers and spent candles we found pamphlets promoting a mass Jewish exodus to Israel.
BLUMENTHAL (ON CAMERA): So this is Lev Hair, and it’s the weekly magazine of the French Jewish community, or at least some wing of it. And it’s promoting aliyah to Israel or mass Jewish immigration to Israel. And so they’re promoting these very cheap settlement units for French Jews who are terrified of living in France any further.
BLUMENTHAL: –I mean, from the Ministry of Diaspora Affairs in Israel, along with ads for settlement units, cheap settlement units for French Jews to move to. So the promotion is happening at such a massive level in the wake of these attacks.
JAY: Now, free speech was one of the big banners of that mass protest, but this whole film started you trying to speak and them trying to close you down.
BLUMENTHAL: Yeah. I mean, some speech is freer than others.
JAY: So we’ll show a bit of the clip from the film where Max’s speaking engagement is closed down. Eventually you get to speak, but they try to close him down.
BLUMENTHAL: We learned that some speech is freer than others in post-Charlie France. And, no, but you should give yourselves a round of applause, because it was because of your pressure and your outrage and your action that we are actually in this room right now and not out in the cold, and that is an achievement for this movement. So you should feel free to give yourselves a round of applause. Or you can wait for the translation of what I just said.
JAY: So what happened?
BLUMENTHAL: Well, the administration of University 8 in Paris claimed that I was a controversial speaker, which is exactly the kind of person that students should hear from, unless that person is preaching racism or bigotry, although I don’t think there’s a criteria for that, considering that half the French government is doing that, and that Jewish Defense League thugs would come on campus and attack the talk, and so there was a security issue, which is a tactic the JDL uses to create the specter of fear even if they’re not planning on doing anything. And they weren’t anywhere near my talk.
So it was initially canceled. We promoted, we publicized the cancellation. And so there was a lot of public pressure on the university. And so they allowed me in. The talk went on. Everything was fine.
Same thing happened at the University of Bordeaux when I went down there to speak. A number of Jewish groups condemned the talk, one of which was sponsored by the government, and the other was the JDL. And one of the sponsors of my talk, which is an antiracist group, had their offices vandalized after the talk, and video that they–CCTV video showed that neo-Nazis had actually attacked their office, which is highly unusual. But there’s a disturbing atmosphere in Bordeaux.
That night, I went out into Bordeaux with my hosts, one of whom was a hijabi woman. She wears a veil. And these are the people who are the most targeted in French society, because it’s obvious that they’re Muslim, whereas someone else, an Arab Muslim male, it’s harder to know that he’s religious. And we were with some of her friends who are Algerian and Moroccan, and we were walking down a street in the old city of Bordeaux, and she comments to me, I’m glad you’re with me because usually I get insulted on this street. And I said, well, it’s nice to be your white savior. And right then, a man throws a lit cigarette directly onto her. And I moved to confront him, and he’s sitting at a bar. And one of our friends pulls me back and says, don’t go there. It’s a fascist bar. You’ll be attacked. And that’s the atmosphere that they’re living in.
And from then on, we went on a tour of bars in this area, which they’d explained to me were essentially whites-only bars. People of immigrant background would not be allowed these bars without being harassed or attacked. So the atmosphere in southern France was much more extreme than even in Paris. And that’s the base of support for Marine Le Pen.
JAY: This was the home base of the Vichy regime during the Nazi period, wasn’t it?
BLUMENTHAL: And going back before that. I mean, you look at the splendor of Bordeaux, that’s the result of–that’s the legacy of colonialism, the exploitation of Africa. I mean, this is–the backdrop of colonialism is so omnipresent in France. And France maintains its engagement in the Middle East and Africa in a project that’s neocolonial. So that colors the crisis or the miniature clash of civilizations we’re seeing.
JAY: Well, the film ends with a rather chilling prophecy of a clash to come or in process, but more to come. Here’s a clip.
UNIDENTIFIED: And the terrifying thing about the attacks is that it serves everyone’s interests, except for the Muslims, and those who died.
UNIDENTIFIED: In reality, the nation state has had its sights set on the Muslims, with the law on the veil, etc. But in reality, from the moment we say that veiled women can’t go to school, the Jews are affected in one way or another. I think that a part of the Jewish community realize that there is an absolute necessity to struggle against Islamophobia, since it will one day turn on the Jews.
JAY: So the right using Islamophobia–not the right; the fascist right using Islamophobia, your film is predicting and saying it’s taking–has real traction, I guess one would say.
BLUMENTHAL: Yeah. I mean, with the Socialists and with the party of Nicolas Sarkozy, you almost don’t need the National Front anymore. What they’re trying to do is in a way what we would call triangulation. They’ve co-opted the language of the National Front, because it’s been so successful, to detract and deflect from their own economic failures. And we’ve heard Manuel Valls, who is the French prime minister, one of the leading candidates to be president, first of all use the term Islamofascism, which we’ve only heard used in kind of extreme Islamophobic circles in the United States by figures like Pamela Geller and David Horowitz. And he’s using it as a national leader and the face of the French Socialists. I mean, this is a guy who as mayor had celebrated Palestine. He had Palestine Day when he was mayor. And so he’s shifted to adjust to the new mood.
MANUEL VALLS, PRIME MINISTER OF FRANCE: But there is this new type of anti-Semitism which comes from the working-class districts, coming from the internet,t from satellite dishes, from poverty, coming from a hatred of the state of Israel, which preaches a hatred of all Jews. It must be said. We must find the right words to battle this unacceptable anti-Semitism.
BLUMENTHAL: He has explicitly conflated anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism and pledged to fight what he calls the new anti-Semitism. So he is reinforcing what is already an official crackdown on Palestine solidarity activism in France, where over 40 BDS campaigners, campaigners for the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement, have been called to trial simply for their speech. And Sarkozy is doing the same. You have people in his party proclaiming that colonialism was not so bad, and maybe we need to teach the good side of colonizing Algeria and Tunisia.
And then, at the local level, the National Front has won some seats in local elections. And we’re seeing local officials from the National Front call for the registration of Arab citizens of France, having basically their names picked out of local census rolls and forcing them to register. Where did we see that before?
So the disturbing trends and the echoes of 1920s and 1930s Europe are beginning to reverberate in a way that is more disturbing than ever. And these attacks, like the attack on Charlie Hebdo and the kosher supermarket, accelerate this process, and they’re designed to do exactly that. These attacks are designed by their orchestrators, the ideological figures within al-Qaeda, and especially within ISIS, to increase polarization and to convince Muslims living in Europe that there is no alternative but jihad, there is no democratic alternative to this kind of system.
So you have two sides colluding with one another. You have a transatlantic right-wing project that’s pushing Islamophobia and Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations to bring it about. And you have the same thing within the Middle East among these ghoulish figures in ISIS and al-Qaeda who want the same exact process to convince Muslims around the world that there is no possibility of living or being a citizen within a democracy and that the only alternative is jihad. And the results are what we’re seeing on the streets in France and what you see in this documentary Je Ne Suis Pas Charlie.
JAY: Alright. Thanks for joining us, Max.
BLUMENTHAL: Thanks for having me.
JAY: And as I said, you can watch the documentary on The Real News Network. Just look up at the very top of the website. You’ll see a link to the film.
And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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