Locals with French ties express shock, unity in wake of terror

In a sign of solidarity Thursday, the marquee at The American Theatre on King Street in Charleston acknowledges the deadly attack in Paris with the social media hashtag #jesuischarlie.

Lowcountry residents with French ties were glued to their televisions Thursday, shaking their heads in disbelief at the chaos unfolding in their native land, said Marie-Laure Arnaud, former president of the Alliance Francaise of Charleston.

Scattered gunfire and explosions shook the country Thursday, as citizens held a day of mourning for 12 people slain the previous day at the Paris satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, and French police hunted two armed brothers suspected in the massacre. At the same time, thousands of people around the world protested by holding up pens to protect the right to freedom of speech.

Charlie Hebdo, known for satirizing religious and political figures, likely was targeted for the attack because it had caricatured the Prophet Muhammad.

"It's hard to talk about it without getting emotional," said Arnaud, who has lived in Charleston since 1976 but still has family and friends in France.

"It's horror," she said. "Nobody can believe what they've done."

The local French community is sad, she said, and also scared.

Thierry Chateau, owner of Saveurs Du Monde Cafe in Mount Pleasant, who has lived in the U.S. only for a few years, said he was deeply saddened. The attack, he said, "touched the expression of freedom." And freedom of expression is highly valued in French culture, he said.

Chateau and many of the people he knows here and in France, in solidarity, changed the photos on their Facebook pages to a black box in which "Je Suis Charlie" (I am Charlie) is printed.

Despite the tragedy, Arnaud said she's very proud of her homeland for how it is handling the crisis, especially how people of all racial, ethnic and religious groups are standing united against terrorists. "They are just murderers," she said of the attack's perpetrators.

Arnaud said she's familiar with Charlie Hebdo, and the satire it contains always has made her laugh, even when it didn't align with her personal views, just as it did for many of her countrymen. "Even if you didn't agree with it, in the French spirit, you laughed about it and you were free to do it," she said.

"Those journalists were part of the community," Arnaud said. "Everybody knew them. We lost family."

Alliance Francaise promotes the French language and culture around the world

Ricardo Trotti, executive director of the Inter American Press Association, a nonprofit organization devoted to defending freedom of speech and freedom of the press in the Americas, said he was surprised by the magnitude of the attack. He wasn't expecting that sort of attack against a European media outlet. But Charlie Hebdo was very provocative, he said.

His association has been focusing on safety issue for years, especially in Latin America, where journalists routinely have been threatened and harmed.

The association is holding its 71st annual General Assembly meeting in October in Charleston.

Pierre Manigault, board chairman of Evening Post Industries, parent company of The Post and Courier, is a vice president of the association.

Trotti said the safety of journalists is extremely important.

There are places in Latin America where journalists have had to wear helmets and bullet-proof vests to work.

The attack in Paris this week could prompt news outlets in other parts of the world to beef up safety and security measures, procedures firmly in place at many media outlets in Latin America, he said.

His concern about this week's attack, Trotti said, is that such violence will result in self-censorship. "People could stop covering the news," he said.

That's already happening in some parts of Mexico, especially in the interior of the country, he said. Some media outlets have said publicly that they would not cover narco-trafficking because it simply is too dangerous, and officials offer no protection, he said. "Self-censorship sometimes is the only way to protect yourself."

Reach Diane Knich at 843-937-5491 or on Twitter at @dianeknich.