How did we get to this? Where do we go from here?

Comment réunir dans un même article Charlie Hebdo, Eric Zemmour, Patrick Modiano et Arnold Schwarzenegger? Démonstration avec l’article paru le 11 janvier dans le Sunday Herald.

Since Wednesday at 11.30am, France has been at a standstill.

Each day, each hour almost, has brought a new ­milestone, ­unprecedented in recent memory. Journalists shot in their office during an ­editorial ­meeting. A policeman executed at close range in the street. Place de la ­République in the heart of Paris transformed into a local Ground Zero, covered in flowers, candles, ­drawings – and pens. A quiet village in Picardy, north of the capital, under siege. ­Shoppers held hostages in a ­popular kosher supermarket just before ­Shabbat, four of them dead. Children locked inside their schools.

All of this in France, in 2015. It seemed eerie, like an episode of 24 or Homeland. Friday was particularly surreal, when two hostage crises took place at the same time. For a few hours, the world was holding its breath. Across Paris, people called their loved ones to check if they were safe. Parents had to collect their kids at the school gate; sometimes they were asked to sign a register. A column of police cars would suddenly pass by with blaring sirens. You would find yourself saying to friends « be ­careful » as well as « Happy New Year ».

Among the madness, you would catch a snippet of news like something out of a crazy Hollywood script: Arnold Schwarzenegger is ­subscribing to ­Charlie Hebdo! Over these few days, ordinary lives have been turned inside out, right on your doorstep, when you should have been listing your new year resolutions and kicked off the sale season. And all the time, citizens would ask, « How did we get to this? », « What can we make of this? » and « Where do we go from here? »

There is a strange feeling in France at the moment that things had been ­building up over the years; that a conjunction of causes and events have made this tragedy possible.

In 2011, Charlie Hebdo was the subject of an arson attack and its editor was placed under police protection, a shock in the country of the freedom of press. That came after publication of a special issue renamed « Charia Hebdo » in which Prophet Mohammed was shown stating: « 100 whiplashes if you don’t drop dead laughing. »

In 2012, Mohammed Merah, a French-Algerian from Toulouse, killed three soldiers and four other people – ­including three children – at a Jewish school.

In May 2014, the killer of three people at the Jewish Museum in Brussels turned out to be Mehdi Nemmouche, another French-Algerian from Roubaix, near the Belgian border.

Both were described as young men with a history of petty crime who ended up at some point in Pakistan and Syria. They were called « lone wolves » and « freaks ». It turned out they were ­organised on an international level.

Then in September 2014, Hervé Gourdel, a mountain guide from Nice, was held hostage and executed while ­trekking in Algeria by a group linked to the Islamic State group.

France has the largest Muslim community in Europe, estimated at five million people, or two million ­regular worshippers. As a secular republic, public affairs and religions are separated by law in this country.

Yet parts of the French Muslim community feel segregated, stigmatised – it is forbidden to wear an Islamic veil in schools and in public service roles. Charlie Hebdo was a strong supporter of secularism and derided all religions. Some deemed it racist. Under the ­influence of radical ­Islamism ­represented by al-Qaeda and IS, a minority estimated at 1000 jihadists is ready to take up arms against French values.

« There is a French complex towards its immigrant population that has never been tackled by authorities, » said ­Christophe Ginisty, a blogger and specialist of online reputation. « Former president Nicolas Sarkozy tried to do something when he launched a debate on national identity in 2009, but it ­backlashed into a debate about the place of Muslims in France.

« French society needs to do its own psychoanalysis or nothing will change. We need a major soul-searching at all levels about what it entails to live together, and it’s not up to the state to organise that, it must come from ­citizens themselves. »

Current president François Hollande is hugely unpopular, in large part because the unemployment rate remains at an alarming 10% of the working-age population. A word was coined – « déclinisme », as in the unstoppable decline of France’s economic and political power.

The frontman of that theory is ­polemist Eric Zemmour, whose essay Le Suicide Français (« French Suicide ») sold 400 000 copies last year, making it the second best-selling book behind Valérie Trierweiler’s account of her break-up with the president.

Meanwhile, the far-right National Front has called itself « le premier parti de France » (« France’s first party »), with 25% of the vote in the latest European election. Its leader, Marine Le Pen, is credited for projecting a more modern image and is cashing in on the fear of downgrading among working- and middle-class voters. Amazingly, the French regularly stand out as one of the most pessimistic people in the world, according to a survey by US think tank the Pew Research Center published last September.

and yet France has a lot to boast about: its aeronautics and luxury industry, its vibrant cultural scene. Last year, it scooped two Nobel Prizes, Jean Tirole for economics and Patrick Modiano for literature. Only this week it shone at the Consumer Electronic Show in Las Vegas, with a cluster of innovative start-ups. The most popular film of 2014 with 12 million filmgoers is the comedy Qu’est-ce qu’on a fait au Bon Dieu?, where a bourgeois couple see their four daughters marrying men from different cultures: a Jew, an Arab, a Chinese man and an African from Ivory Coast. « Just as well you don’t have a fifth daughter, she would have married a Roma, » jokes one of the sons-in-law. A risqué sense of humour not unlike Charlie Hebdo’s that essentially portrays France as it should be proud to be: a mixed, colourful, open-minded nation where all communities respect each other.

For those not born and bred in France, it is difficult to understand the spirit of Charlie Hebdo, a mix of Private Eye, Robert Crumb and schoolboys’ naughty jokes. Commentator Thomas Legrand described it on Friday morning on France Inter, the French equivalent of BBC4: « It is the symbol of a free-thinking movement the French are particularly attached to. This rebellious, moaner, mischievous, irreverent spirit is specific to our country. »

Charlie Hebdo’s political incorrectness doesn’t translate well, but Mathilde, a university lecturer living in Glasgow, tried to explain it to her Scottish friends on Facebook: « The cartoonists who were murdered in Paris were not racists. They were not sexists or misogynists. They were not homophobes. I wish I could find the right words to describe their ­typically French left-wing humour. I grew up reading Cabu’s and Wolinski’s cartoons. Me and my siblings would hide to read them because they were very rude and very exciting. »

Among the outpourings of condolences surrounding the death of the beloved artists, someone called Gilda was the most eloquent on the social network: « They were spiritual fathers, such humane people that I can’t accept that they are gone. Cabu was the cartoonist of my childhood, his cheeky smile was a regular fixture on kid’s TV programmes.

« At 12, I discovered François Cavanna [writer and co-founder of Charlie Hebdo in 1969, who died a year ago], a must-read for every teenager. In 1992, I rejoiced at the rebirth of Charlie Hebdo. It was mind-opening, a different view on the news, a literary breath of fresh air. »

The killers of Charlie Hebdo’s staff didn’t understand that sense of humour. Although they were raised in France, they confused caricatures in a struggling paper – « a fanzine », said Luz, one of the survivors and close friends of the deceased – with racism, the contrary of what it was about. And they were ready to kill for it.

Even as the country is coming together in grief, discordant voices are heard in the streets, in ­classrooms, on social media: « It had to be expected », « You don’t insult a religion without consequences ». On Wednesday, near the site of the killings, a grey-haired man lectured a younger passerby who was voicing such an opinion. « If you don’t like it, don’t buy it, nobody forces you to read Charlie Hebdo, » the youth was told. « But you can’t kill people for making drawings. »

It is 2015, in France, the country of Voltaire and Victor Hugo, and you have to explain freedom of speech to the young generation. Two days later, in the same spot, as news of the hostage crisis in nearby Porte de Vincennes broke, a young woman with a fair complexion said calmly: « My husband is from Mali, he’s Muslim and I will vote Marine Le Pen in the next election. Back in Mali, his uncle had his hand cut off by Daesh [IS]. You can’t compromise with these people. I wish we had the death penalty. »

The victims of Charlie Hebdo were as far removed from these views as could be. Yet their pens were ­helpless against the rifles of fanatics. So where do we go from here?

Marc is the head of a business school. In his job, he has seen third-generation immigrants creating successful ventures « but the media don’t talk about it. Mohammed Merah [who killed seven people in southwestern France in 2012] has become a hero to some, while nobody knows an Arab entrepreneur. We have to break that pattern.

« It is important that leaders of the Muslim community in France – clerics, artists, sport and business personalities – stand up against terrorism and say, ‘Not in my name, they don’t represent us, they can’t divide us’. It is strategic: against the power of influence of extremists, they have to display a counter-power. They have to show young, deprived members of their community that terrorists are scum. Some object that innocent citizens shouldn’t have to wear the burden of the mad acts of fanatics. ‘Pas d’amalgame’, they say, ‘No confusion between peaceful and hateful Islam’. But silence brings doubt. In this place and time, it is ­irresponsible to take a back seat. »

Back to Place de la République, the starting point for the demonstration planned for this afternoon, people stand in line to sign a register of condolences. Among teddy bears and incense sticks, strangers have written powerful messages: « Liberté, égalité, dessinez, écrivez » (« liberty, equality, draw, write »); « Be a free man, don’t have certitudes »; the letters « Charliberté » moulded in clay. Under the cold rain, it feels incredible that art, education, freedom are values that have to be reaffirmed over hate, ignorance and violence. In France, in 2015.