True Sons of the Republic

In this powerful essay by a trio of schoolteachers from the banlieue ghettos of the Paris suburbs, the writers urge a different view of the Kouachi brothers, whose murderous rampage at Charlie Hebdo last week shocked the world. The Kouachis, born in Paris, orphaned and raised by the French state, are in a sense the true sons of modern France, and their murderous end cannot simply be blamed on foreign religious values

We are schoolteachers in the Seine-Saint-Denis department. Intellectuals, scholars, grownups. Left-libertarians, we have learned to live without Gods, to detest power and the wicked joys that it brings. Knowledge is the only master to whom we bow our heads.

This narrative of ourselves is comforting to us, and our social status makes it legitimate. And the narratives of Charlie Hebdo made us laugh; we shared their values. In this sense, we too were targets of the attack.

Though none of us ever had the courage to express the kind of irreverence they did, we feel wounded nonetheless. In that sense we are Charlie.

But let us now make the effort to change our viewpoint, try to look at ourselves the way our students look at us.

We wear fine clothes, have neat haircuts, comfortable shoes. And of course if we do not drool over all of the consumer objects that our students do, isn’t that because we could easily have them if we wanted them?

We go on holidays, we live among books, we spend our time with courteous, refined people who are elegant, cultured. For us it is a given that [Delacroix’s painting] Liberty Leading the People, and [Voltaire’s novel] Candide are part of humanity’s universal heritage.

Some might disagree about what, if anything is universal, and point out that there are plenty of people on this planet who have no idea who Voltaire is.

Well, what a band of dimwits. It’s time for them to enter History: [Sarkozy’s] Dakar speech[1] should have made that clear to them! And as for those who have come from elsewhere to live among us; well, they should shut up and conform!

If the crimes committed by these murderers are revolting, the terrible thing is that they spoke French, with the ghetto youth accent. These two killers are like our own students. For us as teachers, it is traumatic to hear these very voices, this very accent, those very words. That is why we feel responsible.

Obviously not us, personally: that’s what our friends who admire our daily dedication would tell us. Well, let no one claim that just because of everything that we already do, we can simply wash our hands of this responsibility.

We, the employees of a failing state, we, the teachers of a school system which left these two behind on the side of the road to Republican values, we, French citizens who spend our days complaining about the latest tax increase, we, taxpayers who take advantage of every fiscal loophole we can find, we who have favored the individual over the commons, we who do not get involved in politics and make fun of those who do–we are all responsible for this situation.

The victims at Charlie Hebdo were our brothers and we mourn them as brothers. Their murderers, though, were orphans, placed in foster centers, wards of the nation, children of France.

Our own children have thus murdered our brothers. A tragedy. Whatever culture you belong to, it can only provoke a feeling that nobody has mentioned in the past few days: shame.

That is why we have decided to name our shame. Shame and anger: now that is a much more difficult psychological situation to find ourselves in than sadness and anger.

When we feel sadness and anger, it is easy to simply blame others. But when we feel shame mixed with anger not only at the murderers, but also at ourselves: what then?

No one in the media is willing to express this shame. Nobody seems willing to take responsibility for it. The responsibility of a state that abandons imbeciles and psychopaths to rot in prison, there to become toys in the hands of vicious manipulators. The responsibility of a school that has been stripped of resources and support. The responsibility of urban policymakers who corral into the cesspits of the ghetto all of the undocumented, the unregistered voters, the nameless, the toothless [as President Hollande is rumored to call the poor]. The responsibility of the politicians who do not yet seem to understand that civic virtue can only be taught by example.

Intellectuals, thinkers, academics, artists, and journalists: we watched some of our own die, and those who killed them are the children of France. So let us open our eyes to the situation, to understand how we have arrived here, so that we can act and build together a secular and educated society that is more just, more free, more equal, more brotherly [echoing the Republican motto].

“We are all Charlie”: we can pin it on our chests. But affirming our solidarity with the victims does not absolve us of our collective responsibility in this murder. We are, as well, the parents of the murderers.

[1] In an infamous speech in 2007 at the university of Cheikh Anta Diop in Dakar, then- French president Nicolas Sarkozy told Senegalese audience of students, professors and politicians that “the African man has still not quite entered History”.

Catherine Robert, Isabelle Richer, Valérie Louys and Damien Boussard Translated from French by International Boulevard