United front of the bourgeoisie
Government leaders who gathered in Paris to express ‘solidarity’ with Charlie Hebdo are no friends of free speech, says Eddie Ford
We all know the basic facts by now. On January 7 two masked gunmen armed with AK-47 assault rifles, a shotgun and an RPG (rocket-propelled grenade) forced their way into the Parisian offices of the French satirical weekly newspaper, Charlie Hebdo, and killed 12 people - though initially they burst into the wrong office a few doors down the street (where the magazine’s archives were stored) and, after realising their mistake, grabbed a cartoonist leaving work and threatened to kill her young daughter if she did not type in the security code to open the door to the building. Then two days later another gunman entered a Hypercacher kosher supermarket in east Paris, killing four Jewish people and taking several hostages.
Overall, 17 people were killed at four locations during these two days of mayhem - and 21 people were injured, some seriously. The fatalities included the magazine’s editor, Stéphane ‘Charb’ Charbonnier, seven other Charlie Hebdo staff and two police officers. One suspect, Hayat Boumeddiene, the common-law wife of the supermarket gunman, Amedy Coulibaly, is still on the run - having fled to Syria via Turkey, leading the New York Times to report, or speculate, that she went there to “join the Islamic State”, to which Coulibaly “declared allegiance” (January 10).
Both gunmen who attacked the Charlie Hebdo building, Saïd and Chérif Kouachi, were French nationals of Algerian descent and orphaned at a young age - Chérif being raised in foster care before he joined his brother in Paris. The Paris-born Coulibaly was from a Malian immigrant family. The Kouachis and Coulibaly first met in prison. Apparently under surveillance by the intelligence services between 2011 and 2014, Coulibaly and the Kouachi brothers were known members of the ‘Buttes-Chaumont network’ - named after the Parc des Buttes Chaumont where they often met and performed military-style training exercises with other French-Algerian would-be jihadists - some of whom ended up fighting in Iraq. They appear to be linked to one degree or another with the al Qa’eda ‘franchise’ in Yemen (al Qa’eda in the Arabian Peninsula). Indeed, in March 2013 AQAP released a ‘hit list’ that included Charbonnier and others accused of “insulting Islam” - and it seems that in 2011 Saïd trained for a few months with AQAP. This quasi-military background may help to explain the relatively disciplined and semi-professional nature of the Charlie Hebdo attack.
The combined attacks are the deadliest act of non-state terrorism in France since the 1961 Vitry-Le-François train bombing by the Organisation de l’Armée Secrète (OAS) that killed 28 people and injured over 100. However, we should not forget the Paris massacre that took place the same year, when the French police murderously attacked a banned demonstration of some 30,000 pro-FLN Algerians - possibly killing up to 600, though the exact figure will probably never be known: many of the demonstrators died when they were violently herded by police into the River Seine, with some thrown from bridges after being beaten unconscious.1 There was almost no media coverage at the time and the event remained largely unknown for decades.
Immediately, we heard the phrase Je suis Charlie (‘I am Charlie’) - a spontaneous display of solidarity with the victims of the killing, irrespective of whether those uttering it had actually heard of the magazine before or had any familiarity with its contents. Then on January 11 up to two million people, including more than 50 government leaders and high-level officials from throughout the world, streamed into the heart of Paris for a rally designed to honour the 17 victims and defend ‘the values of the French republic’ - however understood. In all, about 3.7 million people joined demonstrations nationwide, making it the largest public mobilisation in France since the end of World War II.
A special ‘survivors’ issue of Charlie Hebdo produced from the offices of the Libération newspaper went on sale on January 14 with an intended print run of three million copies rather than its typical 60,000 - but was immediately raised to five million after the issue sold out of stocks within minutes of it going on sale. Printed in 16 different languages, the French company (MLP) that distributes Charlie Hebdo did deals with several other press distribution groups - notably Naville in Switzerland and SGEL in Spain - to market and sell the edition. Somewhat cryptically, this issue’s cover shows the prophet shedding a tear and holding up a sign reading, “Je suis Charlie” underneath the headline, Tout est pardonné (All is forgiven).2
Rather ironically, this special edition may have saved the publication from bankruptcy - closure seemed to be looming. But now the mainstream French media have rallied around the title to offer whatever help it needs and the French government is looking at ways of releasing public funds to bail out Charlie Hebdo, with several government agencies taking out subscriptions. Even banks have become subscribers. Yes, we are all Charlie now. Manuel Valls, the prime minister, dropped by on January 9 to lend his official support to the staff - who in the past have mercilessly lampooned him and other French politicians. Valls, of course, has a foul history of anti-Roma persecution - declaring that the Roma were “incapable” of integrating and therefore should be deported “to their own countries”, enthusiastically continuing Sarkozy’s brutal policy of razing squatter camps,
Now, in no way should communists dismiss the Je suis Charlie demonstrations - the mass turnout reflects the natural revulsion at the brutal slaying of people at the hands of reactionary fanatics. But the astounding hypocrisy of the Paris march is surely plain to see. Are we really supposed to believe that the high powered international delegations who flew into Paris are stout defenders of freedom of expression and secularism - Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Jordan, Algeria, Mali, Turkey, Russia, Israel, Hungary, Greece, etc. The very idea is a sick joke - Bahrain is Charlie? A country which imprisons the second highest number of journalists in the world per capita. Qatar is Charlie? A state which in November 2012 sentenced to life imprisonment a poet, Muhammad ibn al-Dheeb al-Ajami, for having the audacity to publicly recite the Jasmine Poem, which praised the uprising in Tunisia against president Ben Ali. Russia is Charlie, where the media is totally under the thumb of Vladimir Putin and jails journalists/bloggers for such heinous crimes as “insulting a government servant” and “insulting a judge”? Israel is Charlie, which has a deliberate and systematic policy of targeting Palestinian journalists and media outlets?
Most mind-bogglingly of all, it need hardly be said, is the idea that Saudi Arabia is Charlie and could send an official to an event supposedly cherishing and defending the values of secularism - such a level of hypocrisy is off the Richter scale. Further compounding the outrage is the fact that on the Friday before the Paris rally, Saudi Arabia had publicly flogged Raif Badawi for setting up a blog, Free Saudi Liberals3, deemed to be “insulting” to Islam. Originally sentenced in 2013 to seven years in prison and 600 lashes in relation to the charges, the punishment was stiffened after his lawyer made an appeal - now condemned to 1,000 lashes, a 10-year prison sentence and ordered to pay a fine of one million riyals (£175,000). Following his arrest, his wife and children left the kingdom for Canada (for good measure, his lawyer, Waleed Abu al-Khair, was sentenced to 15 years in prison last July for daring to criticise human rights abuses). Compassionately, the Saudi authorities will be flogging him in weekly 50-lash instalments.
How come leaders and officials in Paris were not demonstrating in support of Raif Badawi - Je suis Raif? The fact of the matter is the United States could bring down the entire House of Saud if it chose to do so, let alone get Badawi released. Perhaps even more to the point, just take a hard look at al Qa’eda and IS: exactly who provides the finances? Wealthy individuals in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states who have connections right to the very top of these pro-western dictatorships. Then there is the broader historical and geo-political background. Organisations like al Qa’eda and IS can draw deep from a wellspring of alienation arising from colonial and imperialist oppression, whether it be French in Algeria or the US in Iraq.
For this reason, it was a big mistake for the Communist Party of France and other left organisations, such as Gauche Révolutionnaire (Committee for a Workers’ International) to march on the official demonstration - it was a united front of the bourgeoisie, not a show of working class solidarity. Adding insult to injury, the ‘world leaders’ did not even march on the day - perish the thought. Instead, they took part in a staged photo shot well away from the main body of the demonstration and then the images were manipulated to make it look like they were marching boldly and defiantly with the masses.4 A totally bogus Photoshopped ‘solidarity’.
With dreary predictability, the Paris killings are being used as a pretext to further crack down on free speech and democratic rights in general - Je suis Charlie until it comes, of course, to everyday politics at home, where it is business as usual. For example, David Cameron has revived the authoritarian call for a ‘snoopers’ charter’ (or spooks charter) that was blocked last year by the Liberal Democrats, whereby the intelligence services would be given greatly enhanced new powers to read and store the online and mobile phone activity of everyone in the country. Or, in the words of Nick Clegg, one element of what Cameron was proposing would go much further and would involve “scooping up vast amounts of information on millions of people - children, grandparents and elderly people who do nothing more offensive than visiting gardening centre websites”. Nothing anti-democratic or sinister about that, is there?
Hence on January 12 Cameron asked the rhetorical question: “In our country, do we want to allow a means of communication between people which we cannot read?” To which any real democrat would respond by saying - yes, we do. If you are hesitant or afraid to say or write something to a friend or family member because you are worried that the government, or your boss, will overhear, then your right to free speech is deeply curtailed. But, regardless of logic, sense or morality, Cameron is heavily suggesting that a re-elected Tory government would ban messaging apps that use encryption that in theory allows users to send images and videos that ‘disappear’ seconds after being viewed. More than 700 million photos and videos are shared each day and the proposal could mean that companies that offer encrypted email services could be banned or required to hand over their encryption keys to the security services in specified circumstances, such as terrorism or paedophile cases.
Of course, Andrew Parker, head of MI5, could not resist getting in his two pennies-worth in the immediate aftermath of the Paris attacks. He warned last week that the heady pace of technological change meant there was an increasing number of “dark places” on the internet, from where “those who wish us harm can plot or plan” - no-one wants a situation where privacy is so “absolute” and “sacrosanct” that terrorists and others can “confidently operate from behind those walls without fear of detection”, he said. The intelligence agencies are particularly upset by software such as Tor, which disguises the location of the person surfing the net - and anyone using it immediately becomes suspect, even though they may be doing so out of the perfectly legitimate desire to ensure their privacy. Naturally, Parker called for “new powers” - otherwise MI5 might “lose the ability” to identify, understand and disrupt terrorist plots and attacks.
Meanwhile, on January 11, interior ministers from 11 European countries (including Britain’s Theresa May) issued a joint statement calling for internet service providers to help report and remove extremist material online - they also urged tighter border controls for good measure. All part of an effort, we read, to “prevent and detect radicalisation in an early stage”.
Anyway, if the UK authorities were so utterly committed to freedom of speech, what about Tony Blair’s 2006 Racial and Religious Hatred Act that made it an offence for a person who “uses threatening words or behaviour, or displays any written material which is threatening … if he intends thereby to stir up religious hatred”.5 Given the nature of such legislation, which the Socialist Workers Party stupidly supported, it is debatable whether a publication like Charlie Hebdo would even be allowed in Britain. As history teaches us, freedom of expression in Britain is under constant attack - ie, in the 19th century the price of paper was deliberately raised in a (failed) attempt to prevent the working class getting access to radical and revolutionary ideas.
We communists are definitely not in solidarity with the Hollande or Cameron governments, let alone monstrosities such as Saudi Arabia or Qatar - for us the fight for free speech and socialism are inextricably linked.
2. In the words of The Guardian, “Warning: this article contains the image of the magazine cover, which some may find offensive” (January 13).