For the French community, the attack on Charlie Hebdo was not only an act of terrorism but also a loss of artists who had entertained them for years.Pierre-Selim

When the attack against Charlie Hebdo took place in early January 2015, I was attending what was at the time London’s only French secondary school. The French community in London is enormous and incredibly tight-knit: by some estimates, London is the fifth-largest French city, with a population of up to 400,000 French expats. And my school was at its very centre, sandwiched between the French Consulate and the French Institute.

One morning, all our teachers received instructions to talk to us, their students, about an inexplicable attack against a bastion of French counter-culture.

I find that reports of the attack often left out the cultural prominence of cartoons and comic books in most French people’s lives, especially in their childhood. A common classification in the world of drawn media is that there are three kinds of stories told in drawings: the British and American comic books, the Japanese manga, and the French and Belgian bande-dessinées. I had grown up covertly reading collections of Charlie Hebdo cartoons, so more than a terrorist attack, it was, for many of us, the loss of artists who’d been making us laugh for years.

“And there are only really two ways of responding to this intrusion of violence. We either find an outlet for that will to do something or we go on as we were before.”

The first teacher to see us on the morning after the attack was our French teacher, and not only did she lead us into spending a good hour trying to fill the air with words about what had happened, she had put together a few pages’ worth of Wolinski’s (one of the cartoonists who had been killed) cartoons for us. To a certain extent, I feel we were all lucky to have that acerbic voice there to rise out of the shadows to which it had been dragged to fill our insignificant void of sound. Wolinski had made us laugh through many traumatic events, and he wasn’t going to stop doing so even after his death.

We weren’t so lucky 11 months later in November when we arrived once again in an overcast school. There was a palpable discomfort (if nothing else) at my school the morning after we’d – at least for my part – spent the night glued to our computers, trying to find out what had happened. We were also tired, we’d already been drained by the trauma of the attack in January, and this one was somehow much, much worse. 

Just as the cultural importance of newspaper cartoons is something the British public may have missed from the emotional impact of the Charlie Hebdo attack, it is likely that when you heard of the so-called Paris attacks, you did not recognise the name of the Bataclan, the Parisian concert hall with a comparable prominence to that of the O2 in London. This was a place we knew, a place we’d been to, much like Westminster Bridge is for anyone who’s been to London. And the most unfortunate among us lost people they knew, too.

Although I did not to lose any of my friends or family in the shootings of 13th November, many people I knew did. Some of my friends were close to the people who had died or survived the attack. As in January, the headmaster instructed our teachers to talk through the attacks with us, which was just as well since many of us were finding it much harder to focus on anything. One of them, who had lost family, broke down in front of us, while another let it slip she had lost a friend.

More than the general sense of paralysis that fell over us as it had done in January, I remember being struck by the oddness of feeling about the school, the way we were all somehow embarrassed. Maybe this was some kind of long-distance survivor’s guilt. We could not reach out to those who were out there and we could not physically be there for them, and we had not been in danger like they had. Ever since the January attacks, our school’s block had been watched over and patrolled by armed police, but it was obvious Britain was simply not subject to tensions on the same scale as France.

I think it was best put by filmmaker Andrew Dominik when he said: “what you feel in the aftermath of a tragedy and what brings you in touch with it all is how helpless you are, and helplessness is the worst thing to feel. It’s awful. There’s a real wish for action in the aftermath of tragedy.” It seems to me that, by bringing violence that is inexplicable by design into our daily lives, what terrorism might be trying to achieve, more than murder and destruction alone, is to dismantle that life. And there are only really two ways of responding to this intrusion of violence. We either find an outlet for that will to do something or we go on as we were before.

The people of France definitely found an extraordinarily better solution when they simply went out to march in what I think was most importantly a manifestation of peace as well as free speech after the January attacks. The simple assembly of millions of people to express little more than togetherness was the most powerful thing we could do. To respond with aggression and violence is simply to do what the perpetrators of terrorism want, which is to say admit to the inadequacy of our way of life and to the superiority of disorder.

All the republican marches really said was that we would go on living as we had before. That feels like an admission of defeat, to not do something when they have. But what my experience of terrorism’s impact on daily life has taught me is that the only way of refusing the violence it brings into our classrooms is to not let it change us. The only thing we have left to do in the face of terrorism is to carry on

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