We had an interesting day on Sunday. First of all we had our bishop at church in Cannes for some confirmations. Technically, for those who like such things, he is the Bishop of Gibraltar in Europe and is the ‘ordinary of the Church of England’s Diocese in Europe in the Province of Canterbury’. His diocese apparently extends from Gibraltar to the territory of the former Soviet Union.
There’s a lot we could say about his visit but actually the high point of the day was joining the rally afterwards. We only found out about this meeting (to express solidarity with the victims of the previous week) at church. Cannes is basically a rather fun place and doesn’t on the surface seem to do politics so we weren’t quite sure what to expect. Indeed one got the impression that no one really knew what to expect. There seemed to be some uncertainty as to exactly what we were meeting about.
It was a fascinating event and there were many thousands of people of all ages there. We joined in and walked along the coastal road (the Croissette) with the march although we refrained from shouting ‘We are Charlie’. Contrary to British practice there were no obvious organisers, no stewards, yet it was astonishingly well-behaved and the police presence was astonishingly minimal. The point where the crowd turned round and marched down the other side of the road was marked by a single woman officer of the Municipal Police.
The mood of the march (actually, more of a stroll) was rather curious and seem to change as time passed and the numbers grew. There were certainly no obvious expressions of anger, and no sense of it being against anybody. Perhaps it was best defined as being a march of affirmation or even of mutual reassurance. We sensed that people were relieved at recognising that so many other people felt the same way. There were no demands, no cries for governmental resignations, etc. In Paris someone commented that there was the unprecedented scene (for France) of the crowd applauding the police. The vaguely genial atmosphere was somewhat curious because you couldn’t help but feel that if there had been a similar atrocity in the UK or USA then any subsequent marches would have involved cries of ‘Bomb Them!’ or ‘Send Them Home!’
There were lots of white on black Je Suis Charlie posters (last week was a good one for toner salesmen across France). There were lots of handwritten posters, most expressing simply sorrow and a refusal to be intimidated, and many pencils and pencil images.
There were one or two Jewish groups and some Muslims who, perhaps understandably, looked as though they wished they were somewhere else. There were however no women in headscarves.
There were a modest number of tricolors (some with black ribbons round them) but if we’d been from the extreme Right I don’t think we would have found much to comfort us. It didn’t feel nationalistic.
In keeping with the distinctly spontaneous and somewhat anarchic mood there were a variety of shouted slogans: ‘Nous sommes Charlie!’ was common. Every so often there was a rousing rendition of La Marseillaise. What was however very French were the cries of ‘Vive La France!’ (It’s difficult to think of anything remotely parallel in the UK.) There were also regular shouts of ‘Liberté!’ and with them came the curious feeling that you were in some sort of historical continuity with the crowds of 1789. An odd but curiously affirming event.
We have much discussed the issue of blasphemy and whether Charlie Hebdo should publish things that give offence. (Some of the anti-Christian cartoons have certainly been blasphemous by any standard.) The problem is to give any religious group the right of veto by crying ‘blasphemy!’ is to open the floodgates to a cultural disaster. The censoring of the adolescent crudities of Charlie Hebdo would be the beginning not the end. Much else would surely follow. Take one example: Dante’s great Divine Comedy, by universal acclaim one of the greatest literary works of the last thousand years. In it Dante places He-Who-Should-Not-Be-Caricatured deep in Hell. Clearly blasphemous! And there are a million other titles to be burned after it. And if we burn books, why not authors? No, la Liberté may be an uncomfortable concept, but what other option is there?