Here at Libération, we have blood in the hall. A war zone in the middle of Paris, right by the Place de la Republique. In 2013.
A young photographer’s assistant, 23 years old, happened to be standing at the entrance of our daily newspaper Monday morning, when a man armed with a shotgun came through the sliding door, straight off a pleasant street in the Marais.
At Libération, we have always believed that journalism does not really go with high security, fences and private guards. Occasionally, we have had to be cautious: it was no joke when we published the work of the novelist Salman Rushdie, who was then still living underground — sentenced to death by an Iranian fatwa. At other times, we have had angry demonstrators outside and stones thrown at our windows; we have been the target of hate mail and threats of violence. But never attempted murder. Until now.
As if this were a horror movie, the gunman, white, wearing a black cap and vest, moved toward the young photographer and shot him at least twice, at near-point blank range. He was struck by blasts in the chest and an arm.
Our colleague was rushed to a Paris hospital, where he was in the operating room for hours. We hope desperately he will recover.
The gunman left our building and took the Metro to the business district of La Défense. Again, life became a bad movie: according to reports, he entered a bank, shot at the windows of the Société Générale tower, then ran outside and hijacked a car, forcing the driver to take him to the Champs-Elysées.
I remember nights in L.A., where I lived for a time, when we would watch helicopters chasing fugitives on Sunset Boulevard. Now helicopters were flying over the Champs-Elysées. At the time of writing, a police manhunt continues, with extreme caution. The gunman told the driver of the hijacked car that he was carrying a bag full of grenades.
President François Hollande, on an official visit to Israel, sent a strong message home about the attack: “It’s always freedom of information that is threatened.”
But why would Libération be the target of such violence? The man-with-a-cap is suspected of being involved in a similar incident on Friday, when a gunman entered the building of the TV news channel BFM, threatened staff members but left without harming anyone. If this is the same man, does he have a grudge against the press?
Libération is a daily newspaper of the Left founded in 1973 by Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir — this year, almost to the day, we are celebrating our 40th anniversary. Libération is a “liberal” or “progressive” newspaper, as you might say in the United States. Editorially, it is supportive of gay marriage, a recent controversy in France. Traditionally, Libération also takes positions against racism and xenophobia. Earlier this month, the newspaper ran a long interview with Christiane Taubira, France’s black minister of justice, who had promoted the government’s new law permitting same-sex marriage.
In October, a candidate for the National Front compared Ms. Taubira to a “monkey.” Picking up on the theme, right-wing demonstrators taunted her with a banana. At first, Ms. Taubira maintained a dignified silence about the abuse, but finally, she told Libération: “These racist attacks are attacking the heart of our democracy.”
“Millions of people are concerned when I’m being called a monkey,” she went on. “Our society is disintegrating.”
A strange, febrile atmosphere has indeed fallen over France. What was once taboo is no longer impermissible. All of a sudden, it seems respectable to hold and express racist or anti-Semitic views — even to print them on the front page of a magazine, as the extreme right-wing weekly magazine Minute did.
Does this xenophobic ferment have anything to do with the lone shooter roaming around Paris with a loaded gun and possibly grenades? Nobody knows. As yet, we know nothing about the identity of this assailant, let alone his motive.
In war zones all over the world, of course, journalists are targeted or taken as hostages. The French press has not recovered from the cold-blooded murder of two French radio reporters early this month in Mali, slaughtered by Tuareg terrorists connected to Al Qaeda. But here, in Paris?
On Monday, Libération remained in lockdown, cordoned off by the police, as we all tried to digest the words of our publisher, Nicolas Demorand, who expressed the horror and anger we all felt: “To attack journalists just doing their job, in the middle of Paris, is a threat to our democracy.”
For now, we keep working, trying to be normal when nothing is normal. One of us went out to get sandwiches for everyone when it was impossible for all of us to go in and out past the police checkpoints.
Belatedly, politicians and public figures rallied to protest against the “monkey” abuse. Now, the blood in the hall of this newspaper, the young photographer’s assistant in critical condition, have shocked everyone, across the political spectrum. If this outrage breaks France’s fever, that may be some good news amid the bad.
Annette Lévy-Willard is a senior staff writer at Libération.