Meet the Man Who Put the ‘Je Suis’ in the ‘Je Suis Charlie’
An interview with Joachim Roncin, the creator of "Je Suis Charlie."
Joachim Roncin, the art director of the Paris magazine Stylist, was attending an editorial meeting at his office when two masked gunmen attacked the newsroom of Charlie Hebdo, about a 20-minute walk away.
As initial reports spread on Twitter, the meeting at Stylist broke up. Staffers huddled around computer screens and watched the news come in about terrorists storming Charlie Hebdo and gunning down an unknown number of journalists. The reports inspired horror at the violence and despair at the concept of masked men raiding a newsroom just like theirs.
With Twitter carrying much of the early news, Roncin said he asked his colleagues whether they planned on posting something to the social network. The prevailing mood at the office was one of shock. There’s nothing really to say, Roncin recalled one colleague telling him. France, Roncin said, wasn’t used to attacks of this magnitude, a fact perhaps reflected in a group of those who make their living with words struggling to articulate a response beyond blind shock and anger.
Roncin, who designs Stylist’s weekly covers, felt he wanted to say something that would pay tribute to the dead rather than simply repeat the facts of their killing. It was an admittedly vague desire that steered him toward the Charlie Hebdo website, where he gazed at the magazine’s logo. He wasn’t a regular reader of it but had picked up the magazine occasionally and felt a connection to it. One of Charlie Hebdo’s illustrators, Jean Cabut, better known just as Cabu, had worked on a television show, Club Dorothée, that Roncin had watched as a child. Though he didn’t know it at the time, Cabu died in the attack. The name “Charlie” spoke to him in a way — perhaps, Roncin said, because he has been reading the French version of Where’s Waldo? that takes the name Where’s Charlie? to his 6-year-old son. The post-9/11 phrase, “We are all Americans,” a headline that graced Le Monde on Sept. 12, 2001, also ran through his head.
“I looked at this, and thought, ‘This is part of me. I am Charlie,'” he said in an interview by phone from Paris.
That tweet went out at 12:52 p.m. Paris time, a few hours after the attacks. By day’s end it had become a hashtag that accumulated 2.1 million tweets. Thus was born one of the most astounding Internet phenomena of the Twitter era and one of its most popular hashtags ever. The phrase “Je Suis Charlie” rocketed around the Internet as a gesture of solidarity, resistance, and cathartic reply to violence. Newsrooms took group photos with the slogan, and as time passed from the attacks, it gained a life of its own.
The victims’ names were added, including that of the Muslim police officer killed as he begged for mercy, Ahmed Merabet: “Je Suis Ahmed.” When millions streamed into Paris’s streets for the largest public gathering since the city’s liberation in 1944, the phrase was everywhere. “Je Suis Flic” — I am a cop. “Je Suis Juif” — I am a Jew. “Je Suis Français.”
“There’s nothing political in these three words,” Roncin said. “It’s only something that’s very democratic, something that says I’m not afraid.”
But a slogan that Roncin intended as apolitical has of course become anything but. Last week, French authorities arrested the comic Dieudonné for writing on his Facebook page, “Je suis Charlie Coulibaly,” a reference to the terrorist who killed four French Jews at a kosher supermarket. His arrest is one of several by French authorities trying to crack down on hate speech, an effort that has drawn charges of hypocrisy as the government has rushed to defend Charlie Hebdo’s free speech rights.
Roncin said he’d rather not comment in any detail on Dieudonné, whom he called a “moron” desperate for attention. With many critics arguing that Charlie Hebdo’s satire represented a mean-spirited attack on a Muslim community that has been historically marginalized in France, Roncin seemed to speak for many Frenchmen when he said that it is difficult to determine the limits of satire when presented with a crisis such as the current one.
He also seemed to speak for his countrymen with he concluded defiantly: “You don’t shoot people because you don’t agree with their editorial line.”
The aftermath of that shooting leaves Roncin with a very valuable piece of intellectual property on his hands. Others have reached the same conclusions, and hundreds have tried to trademark the phrase “Je Suis Charlie.” Roncin denied reports that he is seeking his own trademark for the phrase but said that he is in discussions with his lawyers on how to best make sure the phrase isn’t exploited for commercial profit. (Condoms emblazoned with “Je Suis Charlie,” for example, can now be purchased in France.)
I asked Roncin what it feels like to unintentionally create a phrase in a moment of crisis that millions around the world have latched on to. “It’s very strange,” he said. “No human being can be prepared.”
When he joined his countrymen on the streets of Paris, the phrase was all around him, plastered on signs, posters, and banners. “I was in the movement. I wasn’t thinking, ‘I did this.’”
“At one point I felt really tiny,” Roncin said of his experience at what was dubbed the marche republicaine. “There were thousands of ‘Je Suis Charlie.’ I looked at it, and I was a little dizzy. Like if you see your face a thousand times.”
GERARD JULIEN/AFP/Getty Images