There are several machine gunners in front of the Charlie Hebdo building in Paris. These are cops, wearing bulletproof vests, carrying powerful weapons. They stare at occasional pedestrians in their special, revolting and highly intimidating way. Charlie Hedbo editors are well protected, some of them postmortem.
If you think that France is not as much a police state, as the UK or the US, think twice. Heavily armed military and police are visible at all train stations and many intersections, even at some narrow alleys. Internet providers are openly spying on their costumers. Mass media is self-censoring its reports. The regime’s propaganda is in “top gear”
But the people of France, at least the great majority of them, believe that they live in an ‘open and democratic society.’ If asked, they cannot prove it; they have no arguments. They are simply told that they are free, and so they believe it.
Employees of Charlie Hebdo go periodically out of the building for a smoke. I try to engage them in a conversation, but they reply in very short sentences only. They do their best to ignore me. Somehow, intuitively, they sense that I am not here to tell the official story.
I ask them why don’t they ever poke fun at the Western neo-colonialism, at the grotesque Western election system, or at the Western allies that are committing genocides all over the world: India, Israel, Indonesia, Rwanda, or Uganda? They impatiently dismiss me with their body language. Such thoughts are not encouraged, and most likely, they are not allowed. Even humorists and clowns in modern France know their place.
They soon let me know that I am asking too many questions. One of the employees simply looks, meaningfully, in the direction of armed cops. I get the message. I am not in the mood for a lengthy interrogation. I move on.
In the neighborhood, there are several sites carrying outpours of sympathy for the victims; 12 people who died during the January 2015 attack on the magazine. There are French flags and there are plastic white mice with Je Suis Charlie written on their bodies. One big poster proclaims: Je suis humain. Other banners read: “Islamic whores”, with red color correction, replacing Islamic with “terrorist” – Putain de terroristes.
There is plenty of graffiti written about freedom, all over the area. “Libre comme Charlie”, “Free like Charlie”!
A woman appears from the blue. She is very well dressed; she is elegant. She stands next to me for a few seconds. I realize that her body is shaking. She is crying.
“You’re a relative…?” I ask her, gently.
“No, no”, she replies. “We are all their relatives. We are all Charlie!”
She suddenly embraces me. I feel her wet face against my chest. I try to be sensitive. I hold her tight, this stranger – this unknown woman. Not because I want to, but because I feel that I have no other choice. Once I fulfill my civic obligation, I run away from the site.
Fifteen minutes walk from the Charlie Hebdo building, and there is the monumental National Picasso Museum, and dozens of art galleries. I make sure to visit at least 50 of them.
I want to know all about that freedom of expression that the French public is so righteously longing for and ‘defending’!
But what I see is endless pop. I see some broken window of a gallery and a sign: “You broke my art”. It is supposed to be an artwork itself.
Galleries exhibit endless lines and squares, all imaginable shapes and colors.
In several galleries, I observe abstract, Pollock-style ‘art’.
I ask owners of the galleries, whether they know about some exhibitions that are concentrating on the plight of tens of thousands of homeless people who are barely surviving the harsh Parisian winter. Are there painters and photographers exposing monstrous slums under the highway and railroad bridges? And what about French military and intelligence adventures in Africa, those that are ruining millions of human lives? Are there artists who are fighting against France becoming one of the leading centers of the Empire?
I am given outraged looks, or disgusted looks. Some looks are clearly alarmed. Gallery owners have no clue what am I talking about.
At the Picasso Museum, the mood is clearly that of ‘institutionalism’. Here, one would never guess that Pablo Picasso was a Communist, and deeply engaged painter and sculptor. One after another, groups of German tourists consisting mainly of senior citizens are passing through well-marked halls, accompanied by tour guides.
I don’t feel anything here. This museum is not inspiring me, it is castrating! The longer I stay here, the more I feel that my revolutionary zeal is evaporating.
I dash to the office and summon a junior curator.I tell her all that I think about this museum and about those commercial galleries that are surrounding it.
“Those millions who were marching and writing messages around Charlie Hedbo… What do they mean by ‘freedom’? There seems to be nothing ‘free’ in France, anymore. Media is controlled, and art has just became some sort of brainless pop.”
She has nothing to say. “I don’t know”, she finally replied. “Painters are painting what people want to buy.”
“Is that so?” I asked.
I mention “798” in Beijing, where hundreds of galleries are deeply political.
“In oppressed societies, art tends to be more engaged”, she says.
I tell her what I think. I tell her that to me, and to many creative people I met in China, Beijing feels much more free, much less brainwashed or oppressed, than Paris. She looks at me in horror, then with that typical European sarcasm. She thinks I am provoking, trying to be funny. I cannot mean what I say. It is clear, isn’t it, that French artists are superior, that Western culture is the greatest. Who could doubt it?
I give her my card. She refuses to give me her name.
I leave in disgust, as I recently left in disgust the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice.
At one point I walk into a cafe, to drink a cup of coffee and a glass of mineral water.
A man and his enormous dog walk in. Both park at the bar, standing. A dog puts its front paws on the bar table. They both have a beer: the man from a glass, his dog from a saucer. A few minutes later, they pay and leave.
I scribble into my notepad: “In France, dogs are free to take their beer in cafes.”
In the same neighborhood, I rediscover an enormous National Archive, a beautiful group of buildings with gardens and parks all around.
The place is holding a huge exhibition: on how France collaborated with the Nazi Germany during the WWII. The retrospect is grand and complete: with images and texts, with film showings.
For the first time in days, I am impressed. It all feels very familiar, intimately familiar!
At night I found myself in that enormous new Philharmonic, at the outskirts of Paris, near Porte de Pantin. I managed to smuggle myself to the invitation-only-opening of an enormous exhibition dedicated to French composer, conductor and writer – Pierre Boulez. That same Pierre Boulez who has been promoting, for ages, the idea of a public sector taking over French classic music scene!
Nobody protested at the exhibition, and I did not hear any jokes directed at Pierre Boulez. It was all brilliantly orchestrated. Great respect for the establishment cultural figure, for the cultural apparatchik!
I heard a technically brilliant concert of contemporary classical music, with new instruments being used.
But nowhere, in any of those tremendous spaces of the Philharmonic, did I hear any lament, any requiem, for the millions of people literally slaughtered by the Empire, of which France is now an inseparable part. No new symphonies or operas dedicated to the victims of Papua, Kashmir, Palestine, Libya, Mali, Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, or Iraq.
My new friend, Francois Minaux, is writing an opera about the US carpet-bombing of the Plane of Jars, during the ‘Secret War’ conducted by the West against Laos. I am helping him with this enormous and noble project. But paradoxically (or logically?), Francoise is not living in France, but in the United States.
When I shared my thoughts with him, on Charlie Hebdo, and on freedom of expression in France, he summarized:
“It’s terrible. The art scene sucks. People are zombies. The mass reaction to the Charlie H attack is disgusting and depressing. 1984 is happening but people are too blind to see it.”
A few hours later, I received an email in which Francoise reflected on his complex relationship with his native land, and its culture:
Being French nowadays and being free to express yourself is impossible. Back in the early 2000, I could not accept the frame that culture would impose on its artists, and they could not accept my questioning and different approach to art making. They either spat on me or even worse, went mute. So, I left. You must travel outside of Europe and live and work outside, to feel the world.
I felt also that politically engaged works of art were not considered real art in Paris. There is this thing in France: any political engagement is seen either as propaganda or as advertisement. Back in the early 2000’s, we were supposed to make art for art’s sake. We were living under the glass dome of the conservatory. We were ‘protected by the government’.
They let us know that we should not talk about politics or religion in public. Maybe French secularism was a good idea but not to the present extent, when politics and religion became taboo. There is this climate of fear: our elders and teachers hardly discuss politics and religion. And so we didn’t know! Certain things are forbidden to be known in France.
Life in Paris became suffocating. Opinions were not expressed. We were not allowed to understand others. Live became boring: we had nothing substantial to talk about. And so we discussed greasy food and French wine. Economists describe French economy as “austere”, but I would go further by saying that French behavior as well as French identity is austere. But the French people can’t see it because they now all think the same. They are trying so hard to stay French but they are forgetting, how the world has bled, so their French-ness could be preserved. Their culture was built from the blood flowing from the French colonies, and on the foundations of the modern-day French Empire.
So where are those brave French minds now; people so many of us were admiring for their courage and integrity?
They were never ‘perfect’, and they erred, like all humans do, but they were often standing on the side of oppressed, they were calling for revolutions and some even for the end of colonialism. They were holding Western culture responsible for the horrors our planet has been facing for centuries.
Emile Zola and Victor Hugo, then later Sartre, Camus, Malraux, Beauvoir, Aragon…
What do we have now? Michel Houellebecq and his novels, full of insults against Islam, as well as of ‘tears of gratitude’ felt after each blowjob his characters get from their girlfriends.
The legacies of Houellebecq and Charlie are somehow similar. Is this the best France can do, these days? Is kicking what is on the ground, what was already destroyed by the West, what is humiliated and wrecked – called courage?
Are pink poodles on silver leashes, exhibited in local galleries, the essence of what is called the freedom of speech? Such stuff would pass any censorship board even in Indonesia, or Afghanistan! No need for the freedom of expression. It is cowardly and it is selfish – exactly what the Empire is promoting.
Christophe Joubert, a French documentary filmmaker, told me over a cup of coffee: “First I was sad, when I heard about what happened to people at Charlie Hedbo. Then I got scared. Not of terrorism, but of the actions of the crowd. Everybody was indoctrinated: thinking the same way, acting the same way. Like Orwell and his 1984! More precisely, ‘the 8th day.”
“People in France know nothing about the world”, continues Christophe. “They believe what they are told by propagandist mass media”.
“I am not allowed to speak”, the Eritrean Ambassador to France, Hanna Simon, explained to me. “They invite me to some television show where they present a film criticizing my country. They speak openly, but when I try to respond, they shut me up.”
“I know nothing about what you are saying”, my good Asian friend replies, with sadness, after I tell him about the tremendous global rebellion taking place against the West, in Latin America, China, Russia, Africa… He is a highly educated man, working for the UNESCO. “You know, here we hear only one side; the official one.”
I am wondering whether, perhaps in 70 years from now, the National Archive will have another huge exhibition: one on France’s collaboration with neoliberalism, and on its direct involvement in building the global fascist regime controlled by the West.
But for now, as long as dogs can have a beer at the bar, fascism, imperialism and neoliberalism do not seem to matter.
They are Charlie, too!