You can’t walk far here without seeing the slogan “Je Suis Charlie”, reports Isabella Allen from Aix-en-Provence.
AIX-EN-PROVENCE — Demonstrations, vigils and a moment’s silence have been held throughout France for the 12 people who were killed in Wednesday’s attack on the satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo. The events have galvanised solidarity and protest across the country, particularly amongst the student population. Young people told me today (Friday) that they have never experienced anything like this. As an English teaching assistant in Aix-en-Provence, in the south of France, I have been an observer of this grieving nation over the past couple of days.
Many students I teach come from the neighbouring city Marseille, labelled the melting pot of France, home to France’s second largest Muslim population and many people of Arabic and North African descent. Arguably this lies in great contrast with Aix-en-Provence, which is typically bourgeois. Classes are therefore very diverse and multicultural, mirroring the evolving French population at large and only adding to the vibrancy of class debate. As religion constitutionally plays no role in public life because of the French concept of “laïcité” (secularism), in schools too, religion remains a private and unobtrusive affair.
The evening of the attack, people gathered outside the Town Hall in Aix; candles and posters were already appearing in memory of the dead and in defiance of this breach on the freedom of speech. Yesterday, I participated in a moment of silence at my school, the “Lycée Vauvenargues”. The headmaster gave a solemn and hard-hitting yet uplifting speech about the importance of fraternity and national unity at a time of such tragedy for this proud nation. Over 2000 students then fell silent, all the more touching and eerie as the courtyard is normally buzzing with lively teenagers. Posters with the hashtag “Je Suis Charlie” (I am Charlie/I follow Charlie) translated into at least five languages were held up by students, and many were wearing badges with various slogans, or had the letter ‘C’ written on their hands.
Throughout the day, teachers were reminded of their responsibility to guide, educate and engage with their pupils on the issues surrounding the attack, and much lesson time was taken up by discussions on the events of the previous day, instigated primarily by the students. Political activism seems to be a crucial part of school life. In the evening, I joined a demonstration, again outside the Town Hall, where hundreds of people from all generations were led by students chanting “N’est pas mort, Charlie” (Charlie isn’t dead) and “La jeunesse est debout” (The youth is standing up). The idea that the French student population is traditionally politically active, dating particularly from the events of May 1968, has yet again been confirmed.
The Republican values of “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité” for all French citizens are held close to the hearts of many here, and as well as grieving for the lives that have been lost, they grieve for the undermining of the ideals that form the basis of their nation. The mere fact that the motto dates back to the 18th century Revolution emphasises the core political activism inherent in French life.
It is hard to know the lasting consequences of the attack. One student told me yesterday that if the Presidential elections were next week, the far right party of Marine Le Pen, the ‘Front National’, would certainly rise to power. Elections are, however, not until 2017, although Le Pen has already used the attack as a springboard to promote her campaign, stating that she would hold a referendum to reintroduce the death penalty if she were elected. A huge march to commemorate the victims is to take place this Sunday in Paris; all political parties will take part in it, bar the ‘Front National’, who have not been invited.
As the events of Wednesday become evermore politicised, party conflicts should not overshadow the clear signs that France’s youth are as politically engaged as ever. As I write, the increasingly complex situation in northern France is unresolved. The country continues to grieve and remains vigilant, with heightened security around official buildings and places of worship. And at the “Lycée Vauvenargues” here in Aix, students continue to discuss what has happened and what is unfolding. As one student today put it: “It is not over. We will continue to talk about this for a long time to come.”
Photographs: Isabella Allen, Elliot Graves