Two masked gunmen killed two policemen and several cartoonists/journalists working for the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo on Wednesday morning in the worst armed attack France has known since 1986. Witnesses described a military-styled operation with the gunmen executing the policemen guarding the publication before picking out the cartoonists and eliminating them. As we publish this, the police have launched a massive manhunt to track down the assassins who vanished into the northern suburbs of the French capital. French American journalist Daniel Brown gives a few pointers to the assault for Blasting News.

This well-prepared attack against the much-maligned magazine Charlie Hebdo has struck an emotional chord in the French population in a way that even its perpetrators might not have imagined. 9/11 struck Wall Street, the epitome of US capitalism ; 1/7 has devastated Gaulois cartoon strips and its reflection of anarchic and adolescent-like French humour.

By gunning down some of the country's most illustrious cartoonists the unidentified commando touched a nerve deeply rooted in the French psyche. That of irreverence. There is nothing outside France quite like the contents Charlie Hebdo, its sister publication Canard Enchainé, those of a less political nature like Fluide Glaciale and the ancestor of them all, Hara Kiri. Between 1960 and 1986, the latter rode roughshod over a conservature society under the banner « Bête et méchant » (stupid and mean) and published cover stories deriding the death of Charles de Gaulle, the Catholic church, the army and the police.

Irreverent French humour is of the essence and for five decades an unlikely mixture of politics, society, sex and scatology has been distilled weekly to the delight of thousands of readers. These features were epitomised by the likes of Honoré, Cabu, Charb, Tignous and the doyen Wolinski, an inextinguishable 80-year-old whose cartoon strips allied coarse sex, primal visions of society and surprisingly refined swathes of literature. No sacred cow stones seemed left unturned.

But the artists/journalists also seemed to share a degree of naivety that constantly dogged their fortunes. By proclaiming that nothing was sacred, they counted on a degree of self-deprecating humour that often lagged far behind reality for swathes of French society. When Charb was asked by RFI reporter Sylvie Koffi if his drawings were not putting oil on a raging fire (mettre l'huile sur le feu), he answered : « We did not light the fire. And we don't have any oil to put on it. » Wrong : their trademark humour is an unremitting dose of oil on a fire that has indeed been started elsewhere. Pilloried, abused, attacked verbally and physically, fire-bombed, the writing seemed on the wall for this ultimate and most sickening tragedy. Which does not diminish its barbaric nature nor its consequences.

It was executed by a duo who believe they are at war. The cold-blooded execution of the injured police officer, the targetted killings, the calm getaway, are all hallmarks of a determined and well-trained commando. And, indeed, France IS at war, with fronts in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Lybia, Mali and the Central African Republic. That the war has been brought home, with the tragic massacre of journalists and policemen who had no ties to the conflicts, is of little surprise to analysts here. For years, the likes of Middle East specialist Gilles Kepel have been warning of the possible boomerang effects of French policies abroad. They have also criticised the « Manichean approach » mainstream media has of modern Islam. These have fostered a deep-seated resentment amongst French youth with roots in North and West Africa who, with some justification, feel marginalised and stigmatised by the rest of society.

« These minorities in the French banlieues (suburbs) have been abandoned, » claimed Julien a 32-year-old French policeman speaking on RTL radio after the attack. « I'd like to invite the politicians of this country to leave their ivory towers, visit these ghettoes and realise how lost this generation of 15 to 35 year-olds are. This is not a tiny extremist group working at the margins of our society. They reflect a much deeper and widespread problem, that of a disenfranchised youth rejected by the rest of society. »

The longterm consequences of Wednesday's heinous attack are uncertain. Wednesday night's rallies in freezing weather throughout France showed a nation united against barbarity. There was a rare display of dignity and unity which went beyond political, class and social divides. This show of force would have made Wolinski and his cohorts proud. But the cartoonists would shrivel at the idea that the reactionary rightwing forces of Marine Le Pen - operating alongside, if not with, intellectual reactionaries like Eric Zemmour and Michel Houellebecq - would gain political capital from the murderous swathe that cut to the heart of the French capital this Wednesday morning. Only time will tell which way the pendulum swings.

Daniel Brown is a veteran freelance journalist based in Paris.