For most of the last seven years, France has had a meme called Florence Cassez. Mlle. Cassez has spent all of those seven years behind bars in a Mexican prison. She was arrested for kidnapping, along with her boyfriend, a known Mexican gangster. Her arrest was filmed by Mexican television. The entire country, terrorized as it is by drug wars and gangs, both imported from Colombia where the climate is not so comfortable any more, and home grown, watched as a foreign criminal was brought to justice by the Federales.
Mlle. Cassez, even during her arrest, said, “Yo no sabia” – “I didn’t know.” She consistently claimed her innocence, and her defenders asserted that her only crime was poor choice in partners and gullibility. The case became a cause célebre in both countries, and almost immediately became politicized, with Mexican and French presidents digging in – the one insisting on her guilt, the other on her innocence. The Mexican press was universally cruel to her, while the French press had practically acquitted her, so wildly enthusiastic were they for her cause.
Several times, the Mexican courts, right up to the Supreme Court, were asked to rule on questions of irregularity in her arrest, tainted evidence, etc. All to no avail. All appeals lost.
Florence Cassez became a true meme, spreading like wildfire and becoming symbolic in at least two countries, pushing in opposing and incompatible directions in each case.
Primary vectors for the spread of these two memes embodied in the same person were the media, the social networks, and organized campaigns in each country – a support committee in France, a committee of kidnap victims and families of kidnap victims, in Mexico.
Jump to 2013. Both Mexico and France changed presidents. A journalist for Televisa, Mexico’s largest media conglomerate, admits publicly that the televised arrest of Florence Cassez was a staged enactment, the day after her actual arrest. The rest of Mexico’s media start suddenly developing sympathy for her cause. One of Mexico’s supreme court justices, the reporter for the case, recommends, on the basis of this and other inconsistencies, the immediate release of Florence Cassez. She is now back in France, a free woman, in the bosom of her family.
But surprise, the meme starts to flip-flop! Mlle. Cassez has not yet been home a week, and the French media are already starting to change her meme: Remember, she has not been acquitted, they say, she is not a heroine, we don’t know for sure if she is innocent or guilty, and we’ll probably never know. The Mexican press point out that the Supreme Court sent the case back to the appeals court, which could, theoretically, retry her, though the likelihood is near zero of that happening. And the families of kidnap victims continue to be outraged. Suddenly, Florence Cassez’s double meme-ing seems to be flowing together into one, dubitative meme. No sooner is the shining symbol for which we have fought for seven years out of her symbolic perch, than her symbolism mutates into something much less clear, tarnished, much more complex. It is early days yet, but it will be interesting to see how this potent meme develops on both sides of the Atlantic.
If you’re interested in how memes, and complex problems in general, touch on the development of software user assistance, you might want to check out the second of my webinars in the series, A Cognitive Design for User Assistance, sponsored by Adobe (thank you).