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Why the American Press Keeps Getting Terror in France Wrong

Who are the victims, and who the perpetrators?

Caroline Fourest
November 10, 2020
French President Emmanuel Macron pays his respects by the coffin of Samuel Paty, in Paris, Oct. 21, 2020FRANCOIS MORI/POOL/AFP via Getty Images
French President Emmanuel Macron pays his respects by the coffin of Samuel Paty, in Paris, Oct. 21, 2020FRANCOIS MORI/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Five years ago, American journalists called me following the terrorist attack that took the lives of my former colleagues and friends at Charlie Hebdo. They all thought that we were going to elect Marine Le Pen. I tried to explain to them that it’s precisely because there is a leftist movement associated with Charlie—both anti-racist and secular, a left that remains lucid about the dangers of extremism—that we had a chance to avoid that fate. But my explanations were in vain.

A few years later, America elected Donald Trump, who dared make equivalences between anti-racists and neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, fanned nostalgia for white supremacy, declared a Muslim ban, and in addition wanted to “grab [women] by the pussy,” and showed open contempt for the truth and democracy. How could such a great democracy have elected this man? It’s a question that has troubled us for four years in France.

Yet after the Charlie attacks, we understood what was pushing certain Americans, many of whom were perfectly aware of Trump’s faults and incompetence, to vote for him—even as we hoped for better. All we had to do was read The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Financial Times, Bloomberg, and the CNN website to see their coverage of the terror attacks in France, and it became clear that a sector of the American elite was no more attached to truth than Trump was. For parts of the press, the legitimate and necessary fight against racism required them to close their eyes to the mortal dangers of terrorism and fundamentalism—and to ally with enemies of free speech, open debate, and other foundational values of free societies.

Ever since the schoolteacher Samuel Paty was decapitated on Oct. 16 for showing the Charlie drawings in class, we’ve read and heard it all again. Was the free speech of a magazine like Charlie the cause of this fanatical violence? Come on. This violence didn’t start with some drawings. Jihadism hurts Muslim countries and has killed Muslims for decades. In France, when they aren’t killing teachers or cartoonists, they go after Jewish children, Muslim soldiers, Black and Arab policemen, young people at cafés or at music halls, a Black mother praying in church. The American left’s habit of victim-blaming is backwards and hateful.

France stands up for its freedoms, instead of ceding them. And if you have to die to defend them, so be it. Like the teacher Samuel Paty, who was trying to explain to his students the right to make fun of everything and also to be offended by caricatures that cause debate—as long as violence is not the answer. These values are part of our public school curricula because we believe that media education, reason, and critical thinking are a necessary part of educating citizens in these troubled times. The separation of church and state that Jefferson held so dear and that we maintain here protects politics from religious fanaticism, and religion from being used as a political tool.

Our stances may well anger terrorists and subject us to the taunts of the Islamist religious right or the woke left. But why is defending the principles of free speech and the separation of church and state so hard for Americans these days? To see an American president cry fraud because ballots are being counted, and to see his spiritual counsel pray for the angels to change the election outcome, only helps reinforce our ideas. Yet for daring to remind people that “laïcité never killed anyone,” President Emmanuel Macron—under death threat by al-Qaida—found himself mocked by dozens of Anglophone journalists on Twitter: “Really? What about Marie Antoinette?,” “Even the Syrians?,” “Except Stalin and Mao.” What a juvenile and appalling amalgamation of ideas.

Unable to view France except through American glasses, The New York Times was guilty of incredible violence against Charlie Hebdo during the caricature crisis, going so far as to manipulate our quotes to feed the idea of Charlie as an “Islamophobic” magazine—even though it had long been militantly anti-racist. I hold The New York Times partly responsible for the poisoned misunderstandings that put our lives in danger in our workplaces and on our streets.

In turn, the Paris correspondents for The Washington Post and Financial Times regularly try to outdo the bad faith of the Times in the service of presenting simplistic woke morality plays to their readers. Not only do these papers distort the words of Macron, who has always distinguished between Islam and Islamism, and who regularly honors Muslim culture, but they also asserted that the bills against communal separatism sought to combat “Muslim” and not “Islamist” associations—a mashup that is not only ignorant and false but dangerous. Some readers of those newspapers believe them and call for boycotts against France.

In reality, the legal actions proposed in France are aimed at extremist organizations and hate groups. They are the same measures we have deployed against extreme right-wing racists. To write that Macron is taking on “Muslims” in this context is a little like if a French news organization wrote “Joe Biden wants to take on white people” if he decided tomorrow, after a series of murderous racist attacks, to break up a cell of the KKK.

The Washington Post headlined an opinion piece: “Instead of fighting systemic racism, France wants to ‘reform Islam.’” Again: false. No one wants to reform Islam. That’s up to Muslims. The French president wants only to avoid the interference of countries like Turkey and Qatar, who fund and support radical groups and imams on our soil. Why frame a terror attack that murders innocent people within the fight against extremism and racism? In doing so, the American press is turning the perpetrators into victims and the victims into racists.

Fighting Islamism means fighting against the ongoing incitement of hate, anti-Semitism, sexism, and homophobia that is being inculcated among our youth by these groups. We know of hate crimes on our soil, graffiti on mosques, insults against veiled women, and terror plots, many of which are directed against Jews who are assaulted in broad daylight and sometimes assassinated because of Islamism. Why do American newspapers say so little about that? Why do they amplify the propaganda of murderous fundamentalist militants?

The worst part, in this painful period, was to read an astonishing call to Muslims conveyed by CNN’s website. CAIR, an organization that is close to the Muslim Brotherhood, which is a designated terrorist group in the UAE, orders American Muslims to avoid France so that they won’t be persecuted! Without looking into the truth of these claims, CNN simply passed along CAIR’s press release and their manipulated account of a news item: a dispute between women under the Eiffel Tower that turned violent with knives and racist taunts. The police investigated and the woman who had done the stabbing provided testimony. The Islamists presented this violent altercation as an Islamophobic incident—an equivalent to Paty’s decapitation. That Islamists engage in this kind of propaganda makes sense. That the media, whose job it is to keep things straight, swallows it whole and then presents it as “news” is stupefying.

Islamist attacks do not help reduce racism. After 300 dead and an Islamist attack every two months over the past eight years, it’s still not likely that French people will give in to hate and vote for Marine Le Pen. We will do everything we can to make sure that anger doesn’t transform into attacks against the religious, as has happened in New Zealand and Canada. But don’t say that we were asking for it.

Nothing justifies a terrorist attack. Not drawings, or the Iraq War (which we were against). The United States helped us defeat Nazi totalitarianism. Let’s link arms against this new totalitarianism.

Translated from the French. A version of this article first appeared in Marianne.

Correction: An earlier version of this piece inaccurately described the chronology of the 2016 election in relation to the Charlie Hebdo attacks.

Caroline Fourest is the writer and director of Sisters in Arms, and the author of The Offended Generation. She is a former journalist at Charlie Hebdo.