Nous Sommes Charlie

01.13.15 10:46 AM ET

The Miracle of January 11, When Millions Marched For France & Freedom

The huge outpouring of emotion and pride in the face of terror and intimidation marks a real turning point in French history.

PARIS — There is something mysterious about Sunday’s mobilization.  

Because, after all, France has known other large-scale terrorist attacks.

There was a time—the war in Algeria—when bombs went off every day, when President Charles de Gaulle was ambushed in the Paris suburb of Petit-Clamart, when the FLN and the OAS competed to make Paris burn and bleed.

But never have we seen 43 heads of state, a quarter of the United Nations, make the trip to walk alongside the survivors.

Not since November 8, 1942, when Franklin Roosevelt made his address in French over Radio-London, have we heard the like of John Kerry delivering, also in the language of Molière, his striking “Je suis Charlie” remarks.

And the millions of Parisians who poured into the streets to mourn a satirical paper of which most were no doubt little more than dimly aware a few days before.

And the churches tolling the deaths of caricaturists of which they were among the favorite targets.

And France’s Muslims (not all of them, of course), for whom we waited so long and who now felt compelled by circumstances to speak: “Not in our name … Islamists outside Islam … there is a battle within Islam, and we will defend every inch of the way our Islam of peace against the Islam that assassinates cops, journalists, and Jews.”

And then you have those profiteers of hate in the National Front who thought they could capitalize on the tragedy. Poor Madame Le Pen, mistaking a popular demonstration with a ball in Vienna, then drunkenly reclaiming her calling card from the butler’s tray and deciding, in high dudgeon, to go march alone at the other end of the country!

We’ve never seen anything like it.

It was one of those moments of metapolitical grace such as great nations experience from time to time.

And yet it cannot be compared with the agitation of 1789 or 1848, or with the million people who came out to celebrate the liberation of Paris in August 1944. I am not even sure whether it is really right to describe this levy en masse as a demonstration or a march. The last episode of this ilk, the only conceivably comparable event, was the funeral of Victor Hugo, which brought into the streets the “escort of an entire people” described by Barrès. But even that was not the same. The essence was different.

So what is it that happened over these last few days?

Something was touched, moved, shaken in every French citizen—but what?

A force that had been gathering around the world coalesced and caused France, only yesterday said to be out of breath, in decline, and about to be struck from the roster of powers, suddenly to reappear as the world capital of an Enlightenment assassinated and revived—but why?

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Maybe it is the name “Charlie,” a magic name that, because of Charlie Chaplin, resonates in every language of the world.

Maybe it is the right to laugh, simply to laugh, a right that Rabelais said was “unique to man,” the proof of which would be established by our having to add it—along with the right to contradict oneself and the right to move on—to the list of basic human rights.

Maybe it is indeed this laughter of the devil and of God Himself, the glorious Easter laughter that rang out in medieval churches as a tribute to the Resurrection; maybe it is the liberating laughter that Freud said was the very language of the unconscious and that another poet, André Breton, maintained was the finest revolt of the spirit; maybe, indeed, it is this visceral, vital laughter which, if taken from us would be as fatal as deprivation of the air that we breathe and the light that animates us.

Or maybe it is the straw that broke the camel’s back under its burden of horror, the last straw that induced a nation to say no to a form of barbarism for which for too long too many excuses were made.

The truth is that no one knows.

And so we find ourselves in the face of one of those mysterious leaps—logical revolt, the hard diamond of the event, the advent of a courage that spreads like a flame, a courage whose infinite course no language can explain.

What is certain is that France is no longer afraid. What is certain is that there is now an entire  continent that does not wish to choose between the two forms of nihilism that are Islamism and populist nativism.

What is equally certain is that there will be other attacks, undoubtedly, but also that fewer and fewer people will murmur that we must keep a low profile and make accommodations. And, finally, what is certain is that the facile responses, the responses that lump people together, the responses of those who pretend that the solution is to deport entire communities of Europeans, have for the moment been swept away by the wind of events.

France is back—proof that a country’s greatness cannot be reduced to the more or less exact conformity of its accounts with the “parameters” of a bureaucracy, even one on a European scale.

Europe, too, is back—the real Europe, that of Edmund Husserl and of the very real universality that stand against the two forward columns of contemporary fascism, made up, in France, of the supporters of jihadism and their populist twins, who, like Jean-Marie Le Pen, see fit to declare that they are “not Charlie.”

Anything can still happen, of course.

And the brilliance of this moment of grace will fade in memory.

But such is the force of events, real events, that they leave behind them a long, strong trace: It is up to us to be true to that trace and do everything we can to keep it bright.

Translated by Steven B. Kennedy.