Charlie Hebdo will be back on newsstands Wednesday, not missing a single issue after the massacre in its Paris offices last week that killed 12 people. Temporarily housed in the offices of Libération, the Parisian leftist daily that is hosting the magazine until it can find a new location, it’s putting out a special issue in 3 million copies with what's left of its staff. One of them is Sigolène Vinson, a legal reporter who survived the carnage on Thursday and gave her eyewitness account to Le Monde in a long interview.
Vinson said she recalls every detail from that morning. Her voice often breaking, tears choking her at several points in the conversation, she gave the newspaper a harrowing account of the ordeal.
It begins at 10 a.m. on Jan. 7, when the staff convenes for the first editorial meeting of the year. Vinson has brought a cake from the corner bakery, for the birthday of cartoonist Luz.
As usual at Charlie Hebdo, there are guests at the meeting: One is Michel Renaud, the former chief of staff for the mayor of the city of Clermont-Ferrand, who is bringing back the originals of some cartoons he borrowed for a festival in his hometown. He has brought a gift, a ham, which the newsroom pet, a red-haired cocker spaniel named Lila, eyes with great interest. Renaud will not come out of the meeting alive.
The meeting begins, with the customary barrage of jokes, around a rectangular table. Left to right, it seats Charb, Riss, Fabrice Nicolino, Bernard Maris, Philippe Lançon, Honoré, Coco, Tignous, Cabu, Elsa Cayat, Wolinski, Vinson herself, and Laurent Léger. Seven of them will be dead in a few minutes.
Some staffers who would ordinarily be there are not this morning. Luz and fellow cartoonist Catherine Meurisse are late; executive editor Gérard Biard is away, as are other reporters. Cartoonist Willem will be saved by his hatred of meetings. Editor-in-chief Stéphane Charbonnier, Charb to his colleagues and everybody else, is doodling and making joke after joke, Vinson recalls: “He was always drawing … his drawings translated instantly our exchanges around the table.”
The discussion, this morning, is lively. Not surprising for Charlie, a magazine produced by people who are nothing if not strongly opinionated. “Even with all that racket, even with our debates, which were sometimes quite heated, I realized how lucky I was to belong to that newsroom, to be around those people who were so quirky, so smart, so nice,” Vinson says. She hears everything from the kitchen, where she has stepped away for a moment.
The topic is Michel Houllebecq’s latest novel, "Soumission" ("Submission"), a chronicle of France in 2022 under a Muslim president. The writer is on the cover of Charlie’s current issue, in a cartoon where he says, “In 2022, I’m going to observe Ramadan!” Is one of France’s most popular writers pandering to the rising far-right wing? Are German demonstrations against Islam a sign of worrying times? What about Eric Zemmour, another writer whose book decrying a supposed Islamization of France is also a current bestseller? A joke about oral sex makes its way into the discussion: Charlie Hebdo being Charlie Hebdo, to the very end.
At that moment, Vinson hears the first shots.
“They went ‘pop pop,’” she recalls. Simon Fieschi, the 31-year-old webmaster, is hit twice. His office is the first the Kouachi brothers encounter after forcing their way in. He survives, gravely wounded.
“We all wondered what that was. Firecrackers maybe.” Franck Brinsolaro, a policeman assigned to provide security for Charb, who has received death threats, looks to Vinson as if he is trying to reach for his weapon. He has just enough time to yell to the staff, “Don’t move in a disorderly manner!” before being gunned down.
Then the voices of the Kouachi brothers come: “Allahu akbar!” and “Where is Charb?” He’s the author of the cartoons mocking the Prophet Muhammad that the brothers have come to avenge.
Vinson manages to hide in an office, where one of the graphic artists is already hiding under a table. She hears every single detail: “They didn’t shoot in bursts. They shot round after round, slowly. Nobody screamed. Everybody must have been stunned.”
Then she sees one of the killers as he stops on the door of the office. “I looked at him. He had big black eyes, a very sweet gaze. He seemed to have a moment of uncertainty, as if trying to remember my name. I knew he hadn’t seen Jean-Luc under the table.” It’s Said Kouachi, the elder of the two. Vinson says she remembers clearly every word he then tells her. “Don’t be afraid,” he says. “Calm down. I’m not going to kill you. You are a woman. We do not kill women. But reflect on what you are doing. What you are doing is bad. I’m sparing you, and because I am sparing you, you will read the Quran.”
“I tried to hold his gaze,” Vinson said, directing his eyes away from the man under the table, “because if they aren’t killing women, they have to be killing the men.”
But one woman is dead: Elsa Cayat, in the meeting room, where Cherif Kouachi is. When his brother notices, he screams at him angrily, three times, “On ne tue pas les femmes!” (We do not kill women!)
Vinson senses it’s over. She hears Lila’s steps, and recalls that she saw the dog run from office to office as the massacre unfolded.
The newsroom is “a vision of horror.” Vinson chokes up as she remembers how she had to turn away from one of her wounded colleagues, hit in the face: “It was too much.”
She goes to find her cell phone in the pocket of her coat, stepping over dead bodies. The call to the fire department’s emergency line lasts one minute, 42 seconds. “This is Charlie, come quick! They are all dead,” she tells the dispatcher, who asks her the address and the number of bodies. But all Vinson is able to do is repeat, again and again, “They are all dead!”
And then, from the other end of the room, she sees a raised hand. It’s Riss, one of the cartoonists. “Not me,” he says. “I am not dead.”