Lead book review

The carnage inside Charlie Hebdo: an eyewitness’s account of the attack

23 November 2019

9:00 AM

23 November 2019

9:00 AM

It is almost five years since two trained jihadists went into the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris and killed 12 people. Philippe Lançon survived the editorial meeting that was taking place as the gunmen burst in. Published to huge acclaim in France last year, Disturbance is his account of events. It is long, perhaps too long, with numerous discursions. But who would edit such painful, painstaking testimony?

On the morning of the attack, Lançon had been weighing up whether to go to Charlie or to Libération, where he also worked. He chose to go to Charlie, whose difficult, brilliant, brave team had kept producing the magazine, despite a decade of growing attention from Europe’s modern-day blasphemy police. Lançon describes these editorial meetings, where ‘words ran like hungry dogs from one mouth and body to another’ and writers and artists used humour as ‘a guide, an outlet, and a corrosive’.

Over the decades, Charlie had taken aim at everything. All religious and political figures — especially the French far right — had been in their sights. But after the Danish cartoon crisis of 2005, Charlie found a vigorous new seam of opposition. While numerous people called for solidarity with the Danish paper that had printed those cartoons of Mohammed (to prove a point about curtailments on free speech), Charlie republished them in the spirit of solidarity. Too few did, and so instead of the risk being spread around it became focused on these few.

Lançon is under no illusions about this process: ‘This lack of solidarity was not merely a professional and moral disgrace.  By isolating and pointing the finger at Charlie, it helped make the latter the Islamists’ target.’ Death threats and ‘filthy emails’ to the staff were common for a decade. But until 7 January 2015 ‘few people in France were prepared to say “I am Charlie”’. Lançon relates how newspaper sellers would increasingly say that they hadn’t received the paper. Subtly but surely, the atmosphere around the paper changed.  The magazine was dragged through the French courts by various French Muslim organisations and in 2011 the offices were firebombed. Lançon recalls that around this time, ‘not without shame’ he stopped reading Charlie on the Paris metro. But the editor, Stephane Charbonnier (‘Charb’), refused to budge. Lançon recalls Charb telling him over wine one evening: ‘If we start respecting people who don’t respect us, we might as well close up shop.’

The editorial meeting was arguing about Michel Houellebecq’s new novel Submission when they heard ‘a sharp sound like a firecracker’ and the first screams. Lançon recalls Charb’s state-assigned bodyguard, Franck, heading to the door of the editorial office and starting to draw his gun, but not in time. He describes the shots, the ‘Allahu Akbars’ and the ‘foggy, precise and detached’ horror that occurred all around him. Lançon himself was shot several times, one bullet smashing through his jaw. Lying on the office floor he recalls two black legs and the tip of a rifle beside him, the pool of blood around his head presumably persuading the killers that he, like his colleagues, was dead.

The details are almost unbearable. Lançon relates, for instance, how he could not stop staring at the opened brains of his brilliant colleague, Bernard Maris. Realising Lançon was alive some surviving colleagues and then the emergency services tended to him and carried him out:

They took one of the armchairs that was in the room and put me on it, then lifted me up. As I remember it, the chair had legs with casters on them, as is often the case in newspaper offices. Two men carried it, while a third held my legs. I had insisted on keeping my backpack with me. They carried me off slowly, though rather quickly, and for the first and last time I passed over some of my dead companions.

Lançon has lived and worked in a number of Arab countries, and is keen to stress his friendships with Arabs and their countries. Still, he understandably describes how he cannot now hear the words ‘Allahu Akbar’ without wanting to vomit ‘in disgust, sarcasm and boredom’.

The description of his recovery is intimate and relentless. The missing lower part of his face needed total reconstruction, including skin grafts. War wounds like this weren’t then common in Paris, but Lançon was still in hospital the following November when coordinated suicide and Kalashnikov attacks took place across the city. His surgeon is with him the next day. ‘We’ll have to learn to live like the Lebanese,’ she says.  ‘And I used to pity them.’

He describes François Hollande’s visit to his hospital bed and how, in this ‘politically correct period’, he stresses to the president that of course he does not connect the massacre to Muslims in general. He describes Hollande’s admiration for one of the nurses, an observation which shocks some but cheers Lançon. He is carefully coruscating about the ease with which people of all political directions seek to confirm their views. No fan of the right (at one point Lançon is casually dismissive of his father for reading Le Figaro), he is equally dismissive of a female politician whose sympathy letter to him turns into a lecture on the failures of the Republic for ‘creating ghettoes, by discriminating’. It is not that he disagrees with these ‘correct banalities’, but rather that ‘they bring me neither consolation nor enlightenment’. As he says later: ‘I find anti-Muslim rhetoric just as intolerable as pro-Muslim rhetoric.’

Perhaps inevitably for a writer who spent months unable to speak, he stored every detail. Transferred to Les Invalides, he describes how he is loaded on to an ambulance with all the objects accumulated during his months in the main hospital.  ‘I felt like a minor, depressed pharaoh being taken to his tomb, as if in a bark, with everything he would need in the beyond.’

Aside from the devotion of his family and friends, one thing which saw Lançon through was his reservoir of literary knowledge — the perfect constant companion through the dark, sleepless, drugged months of recovery. At any moment he can go off, citing Baudelaire, Celine or Raymond Queneau. His curiosity and accumulated knowledge is both remarkable and typical of his kind. At the end of the book he describes getting back some possessions that had been at the office on 7 January and removed as evidence. The jazz book he had taken to show his colleagues is finally returned to him, covered in dried blood, the pages stuck together. There are frequent resonant, unpacked details. When he is finally able to go out, he attends a party in Paris where Houellebecq is ‘crouched in a corner’. The men had never met, but both journalist and novelist are under police protection and recognise each other. After a few murmured words about the attack and their dead friends, the ‘wreck’ of a novelist looks fixedly at Lançon and recites a line from St Matthew: ‘Men of violence take it by force.’ Lançon leaves shortly after.

Disturbance is a hard book, but with no unusual bitterness or false simplicities.  More than an account of a semi-recovery, it is also a magnificent tribute. Not just to Lançon’s murdered journalistic colleagues, but to the whole threatened tribe. All those disliked, praised, contentious, opinionated, learned men and women who can never be told what to say, who know that the door may one day burst open, and who just hope that if it does they will face their enemy as the staff of Charlie did: standing on their feet, pencils in hand, mid-flow.

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