TOUJOURS CHARLIE HEBDO – one year on, we look at the recent history of terrorism in France
The attacks on the offices of magazine Charlie Hebdo happened on January 7, one year ago. As a BBC interviewer noted, with hindsight that awful event could be seen as a type of “curtain-raiser” for the widespread murders of November 13.
Twelve people died on January 7, 2015, after gunmen barged into the offices of the magazine just as an editorial conference was ending. Security guards, cartoonists, and other staff were executed. The shock went around the world.
But France, and Paris in particular, has a long history of fatal terrorist attacks, which has both hardened the resolve of the people to pursue freedom, but also made the French capital an unnerving place to be when armed guards mingle freely with tourists.
Robert Fisk, doyen of foreign correspondents, forcefully made the point at the time of the November 13 killings that this was the largest death toll since 1961, when 200 people were killed after a march. But that event was what some call “state-sponsored terrorism”, as Algerian protestors were mown down by police.
Whatever the cause, the home of liberty, equality and fraternity has frequently suffered for the less admirable aspects of its nationhood, as well as being targeted for its place as a leading member of “the West”.
Since 1960, an estimated 300 people have died from gun or bomb attacks in Paris and other French locations. The enormity of the November 13 killings, with a death total of at least 130, becomes clear when placed in this context (again, pace Robert Fisk).
But for Irish readers, it is also notable that this figure is about one-tenth of the death toll of “the Troubles”, usually understood to have lasted from the late 1960s until the declaration of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.
A year ago it was very fashionable to express the sentiment “Je Suis Charlie”, in solidarity with the staff of the satrirical Charlie Hebdo magazine. The importance of free speech, so cherished in France, it was claimed, was at stake.
However the scale of the killings last November shocked supporters of France – no mere slogan could account for the deaths of music fans at the Bataclan, or people meeting friends and family for a restaurant dinner on a mild autumn evening.
As Canadian academic Michael Dartnell observes in a study of left-wing terrorism in France,
“France is a stable democracy, in which violence appears on an episodic basis.”
The fear that grips both authorities and ordinary citizens when events such as Charlie Hebdo, and November 13, occur, is whether that episodic basis is going to be transformed into a regular occurrence.
Among the atrocities of the past 55 years, the questions of Algeria, and France’s post-colonial legacy in Africa and the Middle East were often the apparent cause.
In 1961, a train travelling from Strasbourg to Paris was bombed, causing it to derail. Twenty-eight people died and scores more were injured. The attack was claimed by a right-wing group opposed to the independence of Algeria – a bitter dispute at the time.
Algeria again was the theme of a bomb attack on that country’s consulate in Marseille in December 1973, which left four dead.
In March 1982, the famous terrorist Carlos the Jackal was blamed for another bombing of a train, which killed five people. His alleged cause was the liberation of Palestine.
Public transport has always been a favourite of those who wish to murder innocents to make a point: in July 1983, it was at an airport, Orly outside Paris, where eight people died.
And the Paris Metro, used by four million people every day, was the scene for bombings in 1995 and 1996 claimed by the Armed Islamic Group. Twelve died in total.
But when reading through these grim statistics, it is the single-death fatalities that seem most poignant, for these will be the least remembered. In the term associated with the IRA, an organisation needs to mount a “spectacular” to make an impact.
Those who died in March 1975 at the Gare de l’Est, at the Marseille Trade Fair in 1983, or the Marks & Spencer store in Boulevard Haussmann in 1985, are lonely tragedies. And apart from those mourned in largely forgotten attacks, there are others who do not make up part of a death toll, but are left with what is politely termed “life-threatening injuries”.
In an academic study of victims of terrorism in France between 1982 and 1987, Abehheim, Dab and Salmi found one in 10 people caught up in attacks suffered post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), even if they sustained no other physical injuries. PTSD affected 8.3% of moderately injured and 30.7% of severely injured people. Major depression struck 13.3% of all victims, the researchers found.
Paris has her share of the consequences of terror, and more – and even on the first anniversary of Charlie Hebdo, police shot dead a man believed to be wired with a bomb, at a police station in the 18th precinct.
Looking back, the unfortunate truth is that we have to look forward: for there will be more attacks.
Main image: Salt Lake Tribune
References: Wikipedia, BBC, Action Directe by Michael Dartnell, Study of civilian victims of terrorist attacks (France 1982-87)