Charlie Hebdo: The Poverty of Satire

Two years after the Charlie Hebdo massacre, we consider the origin and trajectory of the publication.

Emeline Broussard / Flickr

Following the murderous attack on Charlie Hebdo two years ago today, the satirical paper was catapulted to global celebrity. The French state claimed Charlie as one of its own, President François Hollande equating the killings to an attack on all French. While hypocritically linking arms with tyrants and dictators, Hollande fronted “republican” marches that drew millions onto streets across France, under the Je Suis Charlie slogan. Charlie became a byword for freedom of expression. Once a thorn in the side of the French elites, it was now the incarnation of traditional republican values.

Whether Charlie liked it or not, it had also become an avatar of Western antagonism to Islam. Its writers have refuted this cooptation, insisting that they target Islamism rather than ordinary Muslims.  They further deny that their caricatures of Muhammad and other Islamic figures constitute Islamophobia (indeed they deny Islamophobia per se), simply stating that they act in their longstanding anticlerical tradition and France’s strong secular laïcité convention.

As lead cartoonist and victim Cabu himself stated not long before the attack:

I’m a republican. I’m often called an anarchist but not at all; I believe in the rule of law. We are a secular country and secularism has to be respected. That’s it.

Ironically this came in a television interview titled: “Cabu, ‘I respect nothing.’”

CharlieHara-Kiri, and 1968

Cabu’s adherence to republican legality stands in marked contrast to the government-baiting attitude of 1970, when Charlie Hebdo was born in defiance of a state ban on its progenitor Hara-Kiri Hebdo. The writers had penned a sarcastic funeral notice at Charles de Gaulle’s death in November of that year. Chief writer Cavanna then tore into state censorship:

There’s no censorship in France. France is a great country, a civilized country, a democratic country. Anyone can publish what they want . . . without prior consent of a state official.

At that time, liberty of expression was last in the minds of the powers that be. Charlie’s sulphuric, anti-authoritarian output was anathema to the republican state, paranoid that leftist, anarchic provocations might trigger a re-run of May 1968’s social explosion. Repression of the subversive left was the order of the day.

Back in 1969, Hara-Kiri Hebdo (Hebdo meaning weekly) had emerged as a mixture of the profane and the political, a blend of the scatological absurdity of 1960s monthly adult comic Hara-Kiri, and the anarcho-leftism of 1968 “movement” journals Action and L’Enragé. The poster-style covers of Hara-Kiri, still in evidence in the Charlie of today, aped those of Action and the famous posters of the Paris Beaux-Arts.

While Cavanna applauded the youth-inspired revolt of ‘68, his markedly less political co-founder Choron joked that the rebellion had been the upshot of Hara Kiri’s decade-long derision of traditional and commercial French values. Actually, Hara Kiri Hebdo was a product of its time, one of a slew of new leftist and cultural underground publications that flourished in the aftermath of 1968: La Cause du Peuple, Rouge, Tout!, Actuel, and many more.

Indeed in May 1970, hardline interior minister Raymond Marcellin banned the Maoist Gauche Prolétarienne, and jailed the editors of its paper La Cause du Peuple for incitement to murder. It led Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Luc Godard, and other cultural luminaries to hawk the journal on the Parisian boulevards, in defense of free speech.

In spite of the distinctly left-wing tone of Hara-Kiri Hebdo, the paper was essentially libertarian and followed no political “line.” Cavanna and Choron let the diverse team of artists and writers pour forth on all manner of political and social questions. If anything, the journal veered towards the newfound ecological movement, while joyfully skewering politicians and patriots. Bad taste was de rigueur. There were no sacred cows.

And if Hara-Kiri/Charlie Hebdo contributors got too “militant,” for instance in siding with the embattled leftist groupuscules of ‘68, Cavanna and Choron could put their foot down. Film footage shows them berating anarchist cartoonist Siné when he offered a caricature of Marcellin as a fascist police biker.

There was another, questionable, side to the paper, inherited from its parent publication Hara-Kiri: the porn-like images of young women. It was according to Cavanna, deliberate, second-degree humor. The idea was to ridicule reactionary representations — by showing them. “We did it to show how stupid they were.” Ostensibly, Charlie was deliberately sending up the prejudices of the average Frenchman — or the beauf, as Cabu baptized him. This, after all, was satire, a wink to the knowing leftist.

Yet Charlie seemed at times to indulge the beauf and his franchouillard narrow-mindedness. No more so than in their portrayal of naked, buxom, and horny young women. It eventually led one of the few women editorialists of the 1970s Charlie, Sylvie Caster, to denounce the crude sexism of the political commentary. Wolinksi, who considered himself a soixante-huitard, was probably the biggest exponent of salacious female caricatures, by his own admission, “a dirty phallocrat.”

Similarly, Charlie’s graphic depictions of blacks, Arabs, and other embattled minorities in the early days tended to follow narrow conventional stereotyping. When Malian workers died in a fire in a rundown immigrant hostel on New Year’s Day 1970, Hara-Kiri Hebdo filled its front cover with the grotesque image of a childlike African entranced by the “bidonville lumière” (“shantytown of lights” — a play on “Paris, ville lumière”). The Northern Irish conflict at the time was portrayed as a tussle between drunken Protestant and Catholic thickos, while the beleaguered Palestinian refugees were seen as helpless and embittered.

“No sacred cows” meant that while prime targets of Charlie’s iconoclastic satire were the high and mighty, the victims of power and abuse could also be sent up, and sometimes in ways that sided with the beauf. This ambiguous and at times reactionary side to Charlie reflected the fact that there was (and still is) also a right-wing libertarian satirical tradition in France, embodied by journals such as Le Crapouillot.

When it came to religion, the early Charlie Hebdo stood in the longstanding anticlerical tradition of French satire and caricature of journals such as Le Père Peinard and La Calotte. But it was not until the appearance of the saintly Pope Jean-Paul II in the late seventies, then the Iranian Revolution, that the journal truly let rip.

You don’t need a crystal ball to see that the big losers of that revolution will be those who have to wear its veil. Told to cover up. And those who refuse will be mercilessly punished.

This was already an early marker of future attacks on Muslim dress codes, a salvo of anti-Islamist feminism presaging the twenty-first century Charlie. The sense of pessimism also derived from the paper’s plummeting sales at this time — Cavanna and company shut up shop in December 1981, blaming the Left’s newfound complacency with the presidential election of socialist Francois Mitterrand.

Charlie 2.0

The paper relaunched in 1992, in a France now dominated by economic crisis, mass unemployment, the demonization of immigrants, periods of left-right political cohabitation, and the rise of the far-right National Front. Cavanna set the tone of the new version with this mini-manifesto:

Fight for a real democracy, and against all forms of absolutism, dictatorship and their consequences: racism; xenophobia; sexism; exclusion; religious, political or chauvinistic fanaticism; war; militarism; incitation to hatred in all its forms; cult of the leader, and attacks on public freedoms.

Clearly, Charlie was still broadly left-wing, or at least libertarian. But the editorial reins had been passed to Val, a former cabaret singer, with mainstream, center-left positions on key questions, somewhat at odds with the hard anarchistic attitudes of the 1970s Charlie. He was seen as being soft on the “plural left” governing coalition of Lionel Jospin; he drew criticism from within and without the journal when he called for NATO intervention in Kosovo; in 2005, he advocated a “Yes” vote in the referendum on the European constitution. Val defended Israel when it came to the Middle Eastern conflict; as such he was at variance with a proportion of the team, supporters of the Palestinian cause.

In practice, getting published in Charlie increasingly meant marching in step with Val’s editorial “line.” Those who did not conform to the new regime — such as writers Cyran, Arthur, and Mona Chollet found themselves sidelined.  Cyran, in particular, resented this revamp, quitting in 2001 over Val’s “despotic” behavior. He further holds that after 9/11 Charlie developed a virulent Islamophobia, one that handicapped the Left in the face of a growing racism in society at large.

Charlie has always countered such charges, stating that it was attacking Islamism, not Islam, and that freedom to criticize religion was in any case a hallmark of democracy and laïcité, values the Left should defend. True to the anticlerical tradition in French satire, Charlie often lampooned the clergy of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam in an reactionary alliances against secular education and sexual rights.

But it is telling of the critical blind spot that has opened up on the Left in France over Islam that Charlie glossed over the vital contextual distinction between religions in France. It goes without saying that Catholicism is the dominant religion, whereas Islam is the faith of a marginalized population “come from immigration” (to use the questionable French parlance). Moreover, the other longstanding minority religion, Judaism, has had nowhere near the same critical coverage as Islam in Charlie.

For the past thirty-five years politicians and media, both left and right, and in the face of a rising populist racism spearheaded by the National Front, have directed a patronizing republican discourse towards immigrants — particularly Muslims of France’s former Magrebi colonies — on the need to “integrate” French society.

That first-, second-, and third-generation immigrants are excluded, and therefore largely cannot “integrate” — due to the higher relative poverty, unemployment and discrimination, is all too easily ignored by the power-brokers. And when the poor suburbs explode with rage at police harassment the authorities’ knee-jerk “solution” is to repress. Any reforms that follow barely paper over the social and political cracks. To the disadvantaged position of the four to five million Muslims living in France one can add the stigmatization of Islamic cultural practices: women’s dress, street prayers, and halal meat.

While right-wing politicians such as Nicolas Sarkozy treat suburban rioters, many of them young second- and third-generation immigrants, as “scum,” mainstream left leaders such as Valls and Hollande, and even the far left Mélenchon decry “communitarianism” that threatens to break the cohesion of their holy republic. Needless to say the fascist National Front has turned Islam into its ultimate social pariah. The upshot of this very public scapegoating is that — if opinion polls are to be believed — over half of all French believe that Islam constitutes a threat to French identity.

Charlie Hebdo has done more than just reflect this hostile sentiment. Even in the months prior to 9/11, the writers were on the offensive against the burqa, the Taliban, and the grisly punishment of lapidation. Cabu in particular loved to set up and knock down religious stereotypes, often blurring the line between Islam and Islamism. For example, in 2002, he dubbed Allah “Nobel War Prize” winner. He then sketched an incendiary cartoon of a demonic, degenerate Muhammad judging a beauty pageant of veiled women (“Miss Sack ‘O Spuds Election”).

This earned him death threats that were rapidly denounced in the next issue; Charlie was not going to let up. Indeed, Val stated that “if we retreat, it’ll be like Munich [1938],” one of a number of World War II references he would use in respect to Charlie’s expanding conflict with Islam(ism).

When Charlie republished the Danish caricatures of Muhammad — one as a terrorist — in 2006, it did so under the same pretext of freedom of expression. Charges of Islamophobia, if not racism, were dismissed by Val who defended the publication with the rationale that the caricature was simply a mockery of the jihadists’ distorted view of the prophet. Never mind that the original publisher, the right-wing Jyllands Posten, had previously rejected offending images of Christ. Charlie upped the ante with a cover showing Muhammad complaining that “It’s hard to be worshiped by idiots.” Once again the paper saw down death threats, and indeed a won a long, high-profile court case on charges of racism brought by Muslim associations.

It was not simply a question of defending the right to criticize religion or its more fanatical aspects. Before long Val had published in Charlie a declaration of war, the “manifesto against Islamist totalitarianism.” Other signatories included writer Salman Rushdie and dandy media philosopher Bernard Henri-Levy, and it was written in a language not dissimilar to that of the “clash of civilizations” and “war on terror” voiced by Western neoconservatives in previous years:

Having vanquished fascism, Nazism and Stalinism, the world now faces a new type of global threat: Islamism.

Val’s association with the French neoconservative group Cercle de l’Oratoire and its journal Le Meilleur des Mondes (Brave New World) may go some way to explaining this stance.

But it was the Siné affair in 2008 that truly exposed how far the paper had shifted under Val. The veteran anarchist — and militant atheist — Siné had “congratulated” then president Sarkozy’s son for allegedly wanting to convert to Judaism in order to marry a rich Jewish heiress, stating that “he’d go far in life.” Following an individual complaint of antisemitism, Siné was told to apologize in the paper, alongside a statement that would dissociate Charlie Hebdo from his comments. When he refused he was sacked. Val then justified the dismissal in his editorial stating that Siné had made an unacceptable (i.e. antisemitic) link between Judaism and “social success.”

A tenuous claim to say the least, and Siné’s departure certainly did not meet with unanimous approval in the team or the public at large. Furthermore, the affair further reflected the disproportionate focus on Islamic stereotypes in Charlie (incidentally, its new rival Siné Hebdo was equally Islamophobic). Val left the paper later that year after Sarkozy invited him to take the helm at the France Inter public service radio, an appointment that left a bitter aftertaste both at Charlie and among its readership.

However, under new chief editor Charb, there would be no letup in Charlie’s output of Islamophobic caricatures. Already in 2004, Charlie had defended the ban on religious symbols in schools, a move that was commonly understood as targeting the hijab. And the paper did not hesitate to ridicule Muslim women who defended their wearing of Muslim scarves as slaves to false consciousness (and enemies of women’s liberation).

In the runup to the ban of the burqa and niqab in 2011, the paper published a regular column dubbed “Burqa of the Week,” in which the garment and its wearers were mercilessly lampooned. There was little sense of leftist irony at Charlie focused on Sarkozy, who was driving through the legislation under the pretext that it demeaned women and violated the allegedly French values of equality and tolerance. But it hardly takes a genius to see that Sarkozy’s “feminist” motives were utterly bogus, the electoral battle with the National Front paramount in his thinking.

Charlie returned to depictions of Muhammad in late 2011 with the special issue of Charia Hebdo, where a smiling prophet threatened readers with “one hundred lashes, if you don’t die of laughter.” At that moment the paper’s offices were firebombed and they were forced to relocate. Muslim sensibilities were further pricked in a 2012 issue that further defiled their aniconic tradition, showing Muhammad in pornographic poses — a riff off a provocative anti-Muslim film that had enraged Muslims across the world.

After the Attack

In the ten years or so prior to the attack, Charlie saw its sales steadily fall. By late 2014, they were at an estimated 30,000 a week, down from the 120,000 high of the paper’s 1970s heyday. No doubt the general decline in sales of newspapers and magazines partly accounts for this drop. But in spite of Charlie’s unflinching will to provoke, and persistently high media profile, it seems that people just did not find the jokes funny anymore.

What had attracted readers was the knowledge that the satirical weekly could boldly cut down the figures of power, prejudice, and hypocrisy, whether through guttural bad taste or radical political humor (or a judicious combination of both). Moreover, one could find the caricatures of Cabu and Wolinski, its two best known cartoonists, in any number of conventional publications (Cabu, in particular, in France’s other major satirical Le Canard Enchainé). Their bawdy and provocative humor had gone shallow. In truth the jokes had become clichés, the left critique formulaic, the offensiveness infantile rather than audacious. Charlie was now more mainstream than underground satirical.

And so in the wake of the killings, Charlie Hebdo found itself feted by the political and media leaders d’opinion. The enormous wave of support coupled with generous donations emanating from news groups and the public have guaranteed its survival, resulting in record print runs, and a renewed, extensive base of subscribers. Despite the loss of some of France’s most talented satirists, Charlie Hebdo bounced back. Yet it remains to be seen whether its latest incarnation can ever really recapture its role as establishment bugbear.

The first issue to emerge after the killings was a mostly poignant tribute to its dead, yet stubbornly chose to satirize Muhammad again. Gérard Biard’s editorial attacked critics of the paper and cemented its flagship role as a defender of laïcité, lining up with government figures and Charlie readers alike. Another column put aside derision and simply quoted demonstrators extolling the virtues of the French Republic. And in a July 2015 issue Charlie sought further intellectual endorsement of its contribution to the grand tradition of French republicanism from historian Patrick Weil.

Perhaps stung by the continued cries of Islamophobia, Charlie (and new chief editor Riss in particular) calibrated its critique of religious cultures during the ongoing, desperate Syrian refugee crisis. One “alternative cover” showed Jesus walking on water while Muslim children drowned in the Mediterranean, underlining the hostility towards (and vulnerability of) Islam in Christian-dominated Europe.

Another, more controversial sketch, “So close to the goal,” depicted the lifeless Syrian toddler Alan Kurdi face down in the surf under a McDonald’s billboard declaring: “Special offer! Two kids meals for the price of one.” The resulting furor prompted Riss to issue a “Drawing for idiots” explaining the symbolic detail of what was intended to be an attack on the consumerist West, cruelly impervious to the plight of the world’s poor and downtrodden.

But more controversial was Charlie’s exploitation of the Alan Kurdi image in January 2016. Riss drew an aggressive caricature, stating bluntly that had Alan lived, he would have grown up to be an “ass-groper in Germany” — a reference to the New Year’s Eve sexual assaults in Cologne committed against German women by (among others) Middle Eastern asylum seekers. Again, the illustration provoked outrage, dividing opinion over whether it constituted a face-value racist conflation, or a deeper satire of media-induced hysteria surrounding sexism within immigrant cultures.

Knowing Charlie’s left-wing sympathies and Riss’s response to previous comparable accusations, the latter could initially be assumed. However, as with the paper’s depictions of Muslims in general, the reader is invited here to laugh at a reactionary stereotype (the sexist immigrant) without challenging the prejudice inherent in such images.

Unless Charlie is, in a quite extreme “second degree” manner, asking us to recognize the absurdity of Alan becoming a threat to Western women. But actually, it is not clear whether Riss at least partially shares this antagonism, given Charlie’s long-standing denunciation of misogyny in Arab and Muslim societies and communities. Ultimately, as one left critique puts it, “The [Charlie Hebdo] cartoon simply fails as satire, because it is indistinguishable from straightforward racist graffiti.” Indeed, the German far-right Pegida movement organized protests over the New Year’s incidents under the slogan “Rapefugees not welcome here.”

Riss had briefly warned, in traditional left-wing fashion, against “the dangers of division” following the November 2015 Paris terror attacks, in which 130 young revelers were slaughtered by a jihadist commando linked to Islamic State. But he only did so as a brief prelude to defending the right to criticize religion and the need to uphold “our basic freedoms.” His editorial slotted into the wartime, siege-like mentality invoked by Hollande after the massacre, by likening Parisians to the Londoners of 1940 under the Blitz: “Determined not to surrender to fear, whatever the slap-in-the-face.”

The Paris massacre was a trigger for the intensification of French bombing of ISIS positions in Syria. At home it involved the imposition and extension of a state of emergency, with a nationwide crackdown on “radicalized” elements in the Muslim community and beyond. One might expect critical left journalism to focus on the social causes of Islamist radicalization in France, or to situate the phenomenon of jihadism relative to the West’s geostrategic goals in the Middle East. Instead, Charlie tends to react against extremism within the discursive framework of the “war on terror” in an echo of Val’s earlier polemics against “Islamic totalitarianism.”

Islamophobia has continued unabated in France. The summer of 2016 witnessed yet another assault on female Muslim dress codes, this time a burkini ban imposed by thirty Mediterranean municipalities, and endorsed by Socialist prime minister Manuel Valls. Shocking images of armed police ordering a Muslim woman to strip on a public beach did not appear to register with Charlie, whose front page response appeared to add insult to injury: Muslims were jokingly urged to “loosen up” and take to the beaches naked.

A further measure of how far Charlie has slipped in its sense of humor, let alone knowing leftist provocation, was seen in September when, following the devastating earthquake in central Italy, victims’ bodies were cast as various forms of twisted pasta covered in tomato sauce. When this tactless caricature was roundly condemned in Italy, artist Coco followed with the brainless chauvinistic riposte that “It wasn’t Charlie Hebdo that built your [ramshackle] houses, it was the mafia.”

Where is Charlie Hebdo coming from here? Does freedom of expression now mean gratuitous slander of the oppressed, with the fall-back excuse that it is simply-second degree humor? In this age of deepening war and austerity, surely it behooves avowedly left-wing critique to cut to the political quick instead of resorting to blundering humorless “satire.”