The Politics of Public Mourning after Terror Attacks in France

December 12, 2016

How to grieve without fuelling anger?

On Sunday the 13th of November 2016, one year had passed since the deadly attacks in the Bataclan theatre, Stade de France football stadium, cafes and restaurants. France was commemorating its first anniversary of the November attacks, the largest terror attack in France since World War II. The global news media and the social media participated in public mourning with France.  According to the New York Times, Paris was enveloped by a penetrating silence: “No bells tolled. No fists were raised. No sirens blared”, wrote the paper when it described the silent ritual tone of commemoration.”

Marble plaques were unveiled to memorialize those whose lives were ended violently and unexpectedly by the terrorists. The leading French politicians paid their respect in silence with the ordinary people in Paris. No public speeches were made at the sites. Only the announces read the names of the killed as President Hollande quietly lifted the French flag, the Tricolore to give national recognition for the moment.

The New York Times goes on to describe the atmosphere in Paris:

The Sounds Before the Silence

To understand this silence, we have to look back a bit. France has been hit several times by terror attacks in the very recent past, and has recently witnessed massive ritual mourning in public. The attacks on the headquarters of the satiricial magazine Charlie Hebdo in January 2015 and related attacks in a Jewish kosher shop caused the death of 17 people, and made #jesuischarlie one of the most popular hashtags in the history of Twitter

Image: Flickr/lullypop

Image: Flickr/lullypop

The November attacks against the Bataclan theatre, the Stade de France, and cafes and restaurants in Paris killed 130 people and injured almost 400 people. The public mourning made people all over the world change their Facebook profile pictures into a tricolour (the symbol of the French flag) and post #prayforparis.

In June at the eve of the National Day (also called Bastille day or le 14 juillet), a perpetrator driving a cargo truck drove to a beach in Nice and killed  86 people and injured over 400 people. These people had come to celebrate Bastille day on the beach boulevard. The Tower of Eiffel was (again) illuminated with the colours of the French flag to indicate that the nation was in mourning. The Islamist terror organization ISIS has claimed responsibility for the Charlie Hebdo attacks of January 2015, as well as the November attacks, while the Islamist aspect in the attack on Nice in July remains debated.

Images of spontaneous shrines, in which people brought flowers, candles and notes of condolences to the sites of massacres began to circulate in global news and social media, and for a moment made the killing scenes in Paris and Nice the ritual centers of mediatized public mourning. Many of these ritual acts were created by ordinary people in France, but also elsewhere in the world. They were made out of posts, tweets, memes, photographs and videos. These rituals were created to be shared and circulated among others, thus creating a digital community of mourners. The global news media participated in this public ritualization by writing stories about the lives of those posts, memes and tweets of mourning - with the Twitter hashtag #jesuischarlie being subject to particularly strong attention. This is how the media – both professional and social media – created a sense of unity in the face of death and terror.

Not everybody wants to be Charlie – the politics of public mourning

But not everybody was with Charlie or wanted to pray for Paris. The global news media also published stories of demonstrations against those who wanted to be Charlie and, thus, show solidarity for the victims of the cartoonists. The responses to public mourning varied. Some identified with the killers and celebrated the Kouachi brothers in circulating messages such as #jesuisKouachi. Others refused to be Charlie, because they found the magazine misogynist and racist. Then there were those who wanted to publicly express sympathy for ordinary Muslims who had become victims of Islamist terrorism and the fear and polarization it spread in the world. Those memes stated, “I am not Charlie, I am Muslim, not terrorist”. Also, a hashtag #jesuisahmed referring to the death of a Muslim police officer Ahmed Merabet, killed by the Kouachi brothers, circulated in social media.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Another debate concerned the ritual practice of changing one’s profile picture into the colors of the French flag. This practice, which gained visible popularity on Facebook was also criticized in social media as biased and unjust to the suffering of others around the world. And indeed, while "the whole world was watching Paris” it was not paying attention to what was happening in Turkey or Syria.

Ritualizing boundaries

Rituals are never neutral cultural practices. They can create a sense of togetherness and belonging that goes beyond our local and national surroundings. They touch our emotions and values through symbolic communication. Rituals speak to us because they show us the things we want to stand for. This is what happened in the public rituals of mourning around “Je suis Charlie” or “pray for Paris”.

In France, terrorists “set the stage” for the mourners, but the ritual acts of mourning can also build up new boundaries and enforce old lines of inclusion and exclusion. The sense of belonging was built around those who wanted to be Charlie and wished to pray for Paris. Those who did not want to take part in that ritual commemoration, and wanted to mourn something other than Charlie, were excluded from the most powerful ritual community of the digital mourners. Those excluded were the critics of the Charlie Hebdo magazine, such as those Muslims who opposed the terrorism, but were offended by the pictures published by the magazine. In this sense, we cannot avoid thinking about the politics of ritual mourning and its larger implications in society such as France. 

The Sounds of Silence

The silent tone in ritual mourning in Paris last month recognized by the New York Times and many others can, perhaps, be explained by that caution. The recent past in France has shown the world the power of rituals to fuel people’s emotional energies and spread them globally via digital media. The collectively expressed sympathy for someone can rapidly turn into collectively expressed antipathy for someone else. Rituals are tricky in that way.

So, what should we do then? Keep our silence in the face of people’s suffering? That does not sound like a very human response. So, maybe we should start thinking about how to perform acts of mourning in a way that does not cause more bloodshed in the world.

This blog post was written as part of the research project Je suis Charlie - The symbolic battle and struggle over attention (2015-2017) at the University of Tampere, directed by Katja Valaskivi and Johanna Sumiala