looking back on je suis charlie three months later

From social media to Paris Fashion Week, Alice Pfeiffer looks at how Je Suis Charlie continues to resonate.

by Alice Pfeiffer
06 April 2015, 7:00pm

I think I only truly realized the strength of social media during Paris' traumatic Charlie Hebdo attacks three months ago, when twelve members of staff from the satirical political newspaper were shot in the head by Islamic fundamentalists, angered by their provocative content.

Although I am French and work in Paris as a journalist, I first heard of the events via Instagram - and in a fairly heartbreaking way. Elsa Wolinski, the daughter of Georges Wolinski (a famous, riotous cartoonist and one of the victims) posted a screenshot of a news feed that read 'Attack at Charlie Hebdo. Ambulances on their way', along with the caption "peur pour papa'," or "scared for my dad." Within minutes, news fell.

Suddenly, amongst leaked videos and tweets, an illustration popped up, designed like a logo. In black, white and grey, it spelled out the words "Je suis Charlie," or "I am Charlie." It had been designed by Joachim Roncin, Stylist magazine's artistic director and was a reference to the words of political scientist Nicole Bacharan after 9/11: "Ce soir, nous sommes tous américains", "tonight, we are all American." This sign of solidarity came with a hashtag #jesuischarlie, and instantly went viral: by the end of the day, it had been shared 3.4 million times.

Within hours of the attack, every media office was shut down, numerous metro lines and districts were blocked - but social media remained hyperactive. An event was created on Facebook that called for an unofficial march to take place near Charlie Hebdo's offices, by the Place de la République. That night, thousands showed up with signs and candles and walked in silence.

Over the following days, spoofs of the slogan appeared all over the internet, including a photo of Gerard Depardieu holding a sign that read "Je suis Chablis" in reference to his slight drinking habit.

Quickly, numerous debates sprung up online proposing alternative hashtags such as #jenesuispascharlie (#iamnotcharlie) amongst some feminist communities, which felt the newspaper's tone was too sexist to defend. #jesuisjuif or "I am a Jew" expressed the difficulty of being Jewish in the midst of Middle-Eastern related tensions in France.

Suddenly "Je suis Charlie" also made its way into commerce. It popped up on iPhone cases and t-shirts, appeared pinned on teenagers' schoolbags.

I have to admit that at one stage, I began to feel perplexed by this re-appropriation: celebrities posed with the slogans during red carpet events, it-girls marched in perfect outfits, and bloggers posted the slogan in between posts about contouring. Were they readers of Charlie Hebdo? I doubt it. Journalists even began cattily referring to these ripple effects as "the Bobo [bohémien-bourgeois] revolt" because of its 3.0, photogenic mediatization.

Can a political statement become a fashion item? Chanel's faux protest last year reminded us that the latter has flirted with the former for decades. During Paris Fashion Week last month, left wing newspaper Libération's fashion supplement ran an entire shoot based around various activist slogans. Clever communication or hypocrisy? To the editorial team, which ran a forenote explaining their motif, fashion and politics aren't incompatible: clothes, like social media, are mainstream and efficient and a viral way of spreading a message.

#jesuischarlie was a free, worldwide campaign for freedom of speech. Sure, some of the pop singers tweeting about Charlie Hebdo might not understand what they are fighting for - but does it matter? They are, after all, using their platform to promote and popularize a vital cause. That's already something, non?


Text Alice Pfeiffer

generation z
Charlie Hebdo
je suis charlie