The French community in Galway has been moved by the expressions of solidarity it has received from Galwegians over the last number of days, following the Charlie Hebdo killings which left 17 people dead.
Last week, few, if anybody, outside of France had heard of Charlie Hebdo. Following the slaying of 12 members of staff by the extremist Kouachi brothers, who would kill more people before they themselves were gunned down, everybody now knows its name. For many, the magazine and the slogan ‘Je Suis Charlie’ have become emblems of ‘freedom of expression’.
The French community, which numbers between 600 to 1,000 across Galway city and county - responded on Sunday by holding a ‘Je Suis Charlie’ event at the Spanish Arch, which saw them joined by hundreds of Galwegians wishing to show solidarity at a time of national tragedy.
“French people in Galway have been moved by the solidarity that has been shown towards us by Galway people,” says Catherine Gangeaux, the French honorary consul in Galway. “Hundreds came out for the event on Sunday and there is a book of condolences in the Galway Arts Centre, with cartoons being drawn in it by Ted Turton, Richard Chapman, and Alan Cavanagh. French teachers in the university have had discussions with students about it.”
Ms Gangeaux said she and the French community were shocked and angered by the killings, but also took heart from the solidarity the world has shown.
“On the day the events happened, my feelings were of sadness,” she says. “Taking someone’s life is wrong, no matter what their views are and no one should die because of a cartoon. There was also anger because we should have tolerance and co-existence, but the millions who marched in France, the thousands in Dublin, and the hundreds in Galway have given us a spirit of defiance and a determination to keep going,t hat we should not be quiet, and that we will not be defeated by the extremists. These were great showings of solidarity and support for freedom of expression.”
The killings have been condemned by many French Muslims, thousands of whom took part in the Paris march last Sunday, while many others, who, though finding the cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad offensive, were disgusted by the actions of the Kouachis. Many Arab newspapers and Muslim cartoonists penned images in support of free expression and against Islamic State. Interestingly, Hezbollah also came out during the week condeming the murder of the cartoonists.
“That shows how the Muslim community understands that violence is not the answer and that freedom of expression is something sacred,” said Ms Gangeaux.
The Charlie Hebdo killings has raised questions regarding the delicate balance between freedom of expression and the freedom to insult, and if there are limits in regard to either. Many Muslims genuinely find the cartoons offensive, but the French people themselves know what it is like to be ridiculed - especially during the Bush administration in the US, when Republicans indulged in disgusting and xenophobic taunts of ‘cheese eating surrender monkeys’.
“The message regarding Charlie Hebdo is not about ‘You can say whatever you like’ or to laugh at Muslims,” says Miss Gangeaux. “It’s about being able to laugh at everything. The magazine depicts the Pope, and everything in the news at the moment. The way people will view what it says is a personal opinion. Some will laugh and others won’t. The French have often been targets in the American and British newspapers and the like, but it doesn’t justify killing someone because of it.”
Like many French people, Miss Gangeaux is fearful there may be more attacks along the lines of those perpetrated by the Kouachis, but, she says, the message must be that such people cannot be allowed to hold sway over others.
“After the terrorist attacks on New York on 9/11, people still got up the next day and lived life,” she says. “They did not let it defeat them. We are a strong nation. We will do the same.”