Charlie Hebdo and the Gilets Jaunes

The reaction to the Paris terror attacks in 2015 identified Charlie Hebdo with freedom of speech. Yet the magazine's anti-working-class smears are today used to silence the gilets jaunes.

Protesters chant slogans during the 'yellow vests' demonstration on the Champs-Elysées near the Arc de Triomphe on December 8, 2018 in Paris France. Chris McGrath / Getty Images

The gilets jaunes protests have without doubt represented a shock to the French political system. Sparked by a revolt against fuel tax increases planned by neoliberal president Emmanuel Macron’s government, the demonstrations and blockades led by yellow-jacketed protesters have allowed oft-ignored parts of society to occupy a highly visible place in the public arena.

This fightback over the cost of living stands distant from the themes that have dominated French politics in the past three decades, in its obsession with questions of free speech, national identity, and the supposed Islamic threat. Indeed, the irony is that precisely this campaign about defending “free expression” has left millions feeling that their concerns were unrepresented, without a voice.

The deadly attacks on satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo on January 7, 2015 drove a fierce political defense of the right to free speech. Yet the media and political reaction to the uncouth gilets jaunes protesters suggest that some voices are not so welcome. Despite Charlie Hebdo’s own claim to challenge and mock the powerful, it has consistently ridiculed the country’s Muslim minority — and, indeed, working-class French people in general. Today, its slurs are being used to silence the critics of Macron’s administration.

The Counter-Cultural Snob

The magazine’s snobbish tones may seem to belie its leftist roots. Created in 1969 by François Cavanna and Georges Bernier (alias Professor Choron) — both from working-class backgrounds — Charlie Hebdo began as a weekly supplement to another magazine, Hara Kiri, which had established itself in 1960s Gaullist France as an anticapitalist, anti-consumerist, alternative, avant-garde, and counter-cultural form of journalism, reliant on parody and surrealist content. Habitual objects of Charlie Hebdo and Hara Kiri’s attacks included powerful institutions such as the advertising industry, the army, and the Church.

The project took a particular turn in the 1990s. Charlie Hebdo had been discontinued in 1981 just a few months after the election of France’s first Socialist president, François Mitterrand, and Hari Kiri followed suit at the end of that decade. When Charlie Hebdo was resurrected under the editorship of Philippe Val in 1992, a specific fraction of the working class — immigrants — and a specific fraction of immigrants — Muslims — became its targets.

Since this reappearance-metamorphosis, Charlie Hebdo has helped impose a wider shift in the national debate. Together with a large fraction of mainstream media, and a certain kind of “intellectual class,” Charlie Hebdo has shifted public attention to new social questions, with free speech, laïcité [state secularism], and French national identity at the forefront. Totally absorbed by the increasing visibility of Muslims in France, and by supposedly connected questions of personal liberties, traditional economic questions concerning class were increasingly sidelined.

This reached its climax in 2006 upon Charlie Hebdo’s reproduction of a series of caricatures of the prophet Mohammed, whose original publication by Danish center-right daily Jyllands-Posten sparked protests internationally. Tried for incitement to racial hatred, Charlie Hebdo based its defense on the witness statements of high-profile politicians including François Hollande, centrist leader François Bayrou, and then-Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy. All these figures were exploring presidential bids; the trial was an opportunity both for them to express their loyalty to the values of the Republic, and for Charlie to assert its ties to the mainstream.

The supposedly anti-establishment Charlie’s cozy relationship with such élite figures is combined with a wider contempt for working-class French people. For an example we need only look at cartoonist Cabu, who was killed in the 2015 attacks. Long considered one of the pillars of political cartoons in France, Cabu was author of the Mohammed cover in 2006 and known for his anti-clerical and anti-military views.

But he also had a long record of ridiculing the experiences, lifestyles, and behaviors of the working class and the poor. He created the cartoon character Le Beauf in 1974 to this end. The word “beauf” — short for beau-frère (brother in law) — was coined by Cabu and became a staple of French culture to the point that it entered the most renowned French dictionary (Le Robert) to mean the “average Frenchman with narrow ideas, conservative, vulgar and phallocratic.” For Cabu, Le Beauf is the “living symbol of the ordinary loser.”

The “Beauf” character, from Charlie Hebdo artist Cabu, caricatures a working-class provincial.

Charlie founding father Cavanna thought Le Beauf was someone from “a working-class milieu, which symbolizes pastis, the petanque, and dismal stupidity.” Le Beauf crystallized a certain cliché of the working-class white man. He is racist, sexist, chauvinistic, a coward, a football fanatic, a hunter. He is ordinary and common. Le Beauf was not only defined by his lack of social skills but also by his cultural failings, as someone who does not read newspapers. Someone not quite intellectual enough for Cabu’s taste, then.

The word beaufs immediately emerged in descriptions of the gilets jaunes movement. Liberation editor Laurent Joffrin pondered whether the protests represented “the beaufs’ insurrection or the just anger of the nation.” The label soon went viral, and the press was divided between those who rejected such a description and those who used it. Conservative weekly Valeurs actuelles headlined “‘Gilets jaunes,’ when the beauf revolts” while leftist outlet Mediapart wondered: “Do the beaufs have a right to speak up?”. The center-left paper of record Le Monde refined the term and pointed to the “ignorance” of basic economics at the root of the movement, as it reminded the French that on average they score just 8.3 out of 20 in beginner’s economics (that’s an F) and are thus unable to understand GDP or national debt.

Against Explanations

The derided Le Beauf did not represent the entirety of Charlie Hebdo’s editorial line. But this ridiculing of the “common” people has become symptomatic of a larger political phenomenon within the French establishment. Under the infamous reign of Philippe Val, Charlie Hebdo had adopted a certain reactionary vision, and, despite his exit in 2009, the magazine has continued in the same vein.

In Issue 715, Val published a petition for the right to blaspheme and conquer “the Islamization of Europe,” signed by Bernard-Henri Levy, Salman Rushdie, Taslima Nasrin, and eight others, which became known as “The Twelve Manifesto,” republished by Jyllands Posten and Der Spiegel. Val chose to stop at twelve signatories in a symbolic reference to the original, so to speak, “manifeste des 12” published on November 15, 1940 by twelve trade unionists to protest against Vichy’s antisemitism.

Overall, the supposedly anti-establishment magazine started to sound more progressive on social issues (such as gay rights) but economically liberal, advocating free trade, open borders, and anti-nationalism. Very critical of the anti-globalization movement, the magazine supported the Maastricht Treaty at the origin of the European Union in 1992, was strongly in favor of a military intervention in Kosovo in 1998, and backed Yes in the European Constitution Referendum in 2005 unlike most of the Left which remained predominantly on the No side.

Val’s editorials in Charlie Hebdo indulged in accusing the Left of promoting conspiracy theories, anti-Americanism (which was one of the defining features of the 1970s Charlie Hebdo under Cavanna’s editorship, mainly to make a point against the Vietnam War), and antisemitism.  He repeatedly attacked the far left for its alleged softness on questions of antisemitism and for being too cozy with Islamists.

In this vein, Val even turned against the famous eighteenth-century philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau. Val rejected political correctness, and what he called “sociologism” or “explications sociologisantes”; that is, exonerating individuals from their personal failures by blaming the system. Rousseau who believed that man is good by nature but corrupted by social institutions was, according to Val, the founding father of sociologism. And once responsibility for an individual’s or a minority’s failure to fit into society could be blamed on their own deficiencies rather than social structures, the republican order could be let off the hook.

This type of discourse is more common than we think. Indeed, part of the French political elite has combated any attempt to understand how and why the Charlie Hebdo shootings happened four years ago. The desire to understand has been misconstrued as finding excuses for the perpetrators. In the commemoration of the Charlie Hebdo shootings, the then Prime Minister Manuel Valls told the National Assembly that “no social, sociological, or cultural excuse should be sought,” a reiteration of a statement made a year before in the Senate when he said: “I have had enough of those who constantly search for cultural and sociological excuses and explanations for what happened.”

Laïcité or Fraternité

After the January attack, the French elite intensified its focus on questions of republican norms and values, almost exclusively focusing on freedom of speech and laïcité (rather than égalité and fraternité) and the perceived “Islamic” threat to the survival of these principles. The absence of the calls to equality in the aftermath of the shootings brings into focus the French philosopher Étienne Balibar’s notion of “equaliberty” which marked the origin of modern universal citizenship, namely equality and freedom, and which argued that, historically, the ruling classes have prioritized the language of freedom over equality.

Such concerns have been massively amplified by media reports’ tendency to perceive and portray global events through the prisms of their respective political and social elites. We see as much today in the gilets jaunes protests, as mainstream media and Macron seem to agree that the protesters are mobsters and troublemakers. In his New Year’s speech Macron said “You cannot work less and make more,” echoing a stale stereotype of the French being “fainéant,” “lazy.”

Charlie Hebdo itself used the same trope in caricatural covers of social protests in the period of May ‘68. Macron called the protestors a hate-filled mob that attacks Jews, foreigners, and homosexuals. In other words, they are all beaufs. Yet the movement’s displays of solidarity and unity have belied such attempts to smear it. Showing their mistrust towards mainstream media who amplify such attacks, the gilets jaunes have increasingly opened up to independent media channels, invoking a strong sense of fraternité.

With the Elites

Such citizens standing up for their livelihoods stand far from the kind of world represented by Charlie Hebdo. For the magazine, a single-minded defense of laïcité has replaced the class struggle and “republican values” have replaced social justice. No wonder, then, that as editor Val surrounded himself with an elite network that included right-wing ideologues such as Bernard Henri Levy, Michel Houellebecq, and Eric Zemmour, while he got rid of some of Charlie Hebdo’s most competent journalists such as Olivier Cyran, Mona Chollet, and Siné.

Where once Cyran’s reportages from the banlieues of Paris, and Chollet’s poignant opinion pieces had resisted the discrimination and racism targeted at the most vulnerable, they now became a burden. Editors reset the agenda by replacing them with “free-speech warriors” such as Caroline Fourest and Zineb el Rhazoui.

Val gladly embraced this elite turn. In a history of Charlie Hebdo written in 2015, he recalled that one of his proudest moments at the head of the magazine was when a documentary following the Mohammed cartoons trial “behind the scenes” was nominated for a Golden Camera in the 2008 Cannes film festival.  Charlie Hebdo’s team — led by Val, with Bernard Henri Lévy at his side — walked up Cannes’ red carpet side by side with France’s finest, in what the editor called an “unforgettable moment of celebration.” The magazine’s founding father Cavanna instead confessed a sense of guilt and embarrassment. This symbolic moment was confirmation of Charlie’s new status as part of the elite, a goal far removed from its origins.

Charlie Hebdo has become symptomatic of the mediocrity of French political debate over the past couple of decades, a debate that wanted to impose a certain liberal idea of “freedom” as the absolute pillar of the French Republic; the thing that makes France French. In their protests, the gilets jaunes have revealed a face that is less glamorous, a France that is miserable and precarious. But also, more specifically, they have revealed the ways the working classes have been neglected and ridiculed: first the “white working class” with Le Beauf and then with Muslims and immigrants.

Unable to utter the phrase “gilets jaunes” in any of his own interventions, Macron is panicked and confused about where the movement is headed. Today, it enjoys the support of 80 percent of French people, allowing those who are usually ignored finally to speak. Indeed, it is no coincidence that the protestors have chosen to assemble on crossroads. For the success or failure of this fight will determine the country’s future for decades to come.