The year Charlie Hebdo was loved, hated and misunderstood

Joël Saget, AFP | A picture taken on January 18, 2015 shows a giant half-broken pencil near the headquarters of French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris.

In the 12 months since the gruesome attacks on its Paris office, Charlie Hebdo has been praised, mourned, cursed and debated by a global panel of commentators, politicians and religious zealots – most of whom never read it, let alone understood it.


By all accounts it has been a tumultuous year for the satirical weekly – one that began with carnage, brought the cash-strapped paper fame and scrutiny, and left its traumatised survivors holed up in a bunker with more subscribers than they ever dreamt of having.

Charlie had been a household name in the French media landscape, its notoriety surpassed by that of its most illustrious cartoonists, including Jean Cabut (known as Cabu) and Georges Wolinski, two icons of French popular culture, both of whom were murdered a year ago by jihadist gunmen, along with six other staff members.

And yet its actual readership, barely reaching the tens of thousands, was a tiny – and shrinking – minority in a country where few people still read the papers, least of all in print.

"Je suis Charlie", the hugely contagious and effective slogan that spread across the world within hours of the bloodbath, was at best a posthumous tribute. The truth is hardly anyone read Charlie – let alone was Charlie.

No wonder some of the survivors were disgusted by the sudden, overwhelming endorsement of Charlie and what it stood for. The very same people who had always abhorred the weekly and its caustic style were suddenly claiming its mantle.

Laughing at everything and everyone

Throughout its existence, the impertinent weekly had made it a point of "laughing at everything and everyone", resorting to scatology, soft porn and intentional bad taste in its often obscene drawings.

It was the scion of a long and rich tradition of satirical cartoons going back to monarchical times, when grotesque depictions of Louis XVI and his unloved wife Marie-Antoinette helped undermine the prestige and dignity of French royalty. In Charlie's case, that tradition blended in with a fierce anti-establishment stance born out of May '68.

It was this brazen irreverence that saw its predecessor, Hara-Kiri, banned in 1970 after it published a cartoon poking fun at France’s late World War II hero and quasi-monarchical president, Charles de Gaulle.

Hara-Kiri’s team soon rallied under the new banner of Charlie Hebdo – reportedly named after de Gaulle – and pursued its struggle to break down the remaining barriers of censorship in France.

More recently, the weekly had struggled to stem a steady drop in readers. Perhaps its brand of provocative, no-holds-barred humour had gone out of fashion. Or maybe it was just caught up in the seemingly irreversible decline of France’s print media.

Global scrutiny

Just weeks before that fateful January 7, 2015, Charlie was on the verge of closing shop. The heinous murders by al Qaeda-linked gunmen were supposed to finish it off. Instead, they brought the struggling weekly unprecedented visibility, readers and cash.

But the paper’s rise to global fame also brought it more scrutiny than ever before. Suddenly Charlie was on everybody’s lips. Predictably, most of its new readers recoiled in shock at the very first cartoons. Many rushed to say “je ne suis pas Charlie”.

Charlie Hebdo's take on the Nov. 13 attacks in Paris: "They [the terrorists] have the weapons. Screw them, we have the champagne!"
Charlie Hebdo's take on the Nov. 13 attacks in Paris: "They [the terrorists] have the weapons. Screw them, we have the champagne!"

Over the past 12 months, media outlets around the world have rushed to check out Charlie’s latest cartoon at every major event.

In some cases the reaction was positive, as in the aftermath of the horrific November 13 attacks in Paris, when the front-page cartoon featured a reveller drinking champagne, with the bubbly flowing from holes in his bullet-riddled body.

To many in France, the accompanying title – “They have weapons. Screw them, we have champagne!” – was a heartening celebration of the culture and joie de vivre reviled by jihadist murderers.

Other drawings proved far more controversial, in one case prompting a furious complaint by Russian diplomats outraged by Charlie’s take on the terrorist attack that destroyed a Russian airliner over Egyptian soil.

A spokeswoman for Russia's foreign ministry used Facebook to ask: "Is anyone still Charlie?”

‘Six pussies in search of character’

While Charlie Hebdo was always bound to be unpalatable to conservatives, much of the recent backlash against the weekly has come from politically correct liberals, particularly in the Anglo-Saxon world.

Within days of the attack, denunciations of Charlie’s “Islamophobic provocations” and “bullyingly racist agenda” featured alongside words of mourning in prominent liberal publications.

The cartoonists, critics said, had been guilty of mocking Islam with relish and thereby singling out a particularly vulnerable segment of French society.

When the weekly was nominated for a freedom of speech award at the PEN Literary Gala, six prominent authors boycotted the event in protest. One of them, Peter Carey, lamented “PEN’s seeming blindness to the cultural arrogance of the French nation, which does not recognise its moral obligation to a large and disempowered segment of their population.”

The move prompted an unusually heated row between literati that saw author Salman Rushdie blast the dissidents as “Six pussies. Six Authors in Search of a bit of Character” (a reference to Pirandello’s play “Six Characters in Search of an Author”).

“This issue has nothing to do with an oppressed and disadvantaged minority,” said Rushdie, who has been persecuted by religious fundamentalists for much of his life.

“It has everything to do with the battle against fanatical Islam, which is highly organised, well funded, and which seeks to terrify us all, Muslims as well as non Muslims, into a cowed silence,” he argued, adding that the six writers had “made themselves the fellow travellers of that project”.

Others gave Charlie Hebdo a reluctant backing for the award, while lamenting that “its courageous actions are not being directed at the vested interests and powers that are the most worthy targets of satire”.

It is hard to think of an allegation more grievous to the Charlie staff – and furthest from the truth.

In April 2011, Charlie offered its (less than gracious) take on Marine Le Pen's efforts to "detoxify" her party. It involved the FN leader taking a razor to her pubic hair, shaped as a Hitler moustache.
In April 2011, Charlie offered its (less than gracious) take on Marine Le Pen's efforts to "detoxify" her party. It involved the FN leader taking a razor to her pubic hair, shaped as a Hitler moustache.

A formidable foe of the high and mighty, Charlie has always been scathing in its criticism of police brutality in the immigrant-rich banlieues and of politicians’ disregard for the poor and disenfranchised.

Nobody has felt the sting of its pencil more than the far-right, anti-immigrant and frequently anti-Muslim National Front party of Marine Le Pen.

‘Islamophobia frauds’

Liberal thinkers are not entirely wrong when they disparagingly describe the Charlie Hebdo team as “ideologues”. They are indeed militant leftists and atheists.

Anti-clericalism has always been at the heart of the magazine, but it has been directed far more often at France’s dominant faith, Catholicism – or, more precisely, at the Catholic clergy.

Throughout its history, Charlie has been a merciless critic of bigotry, intolerance, misogyny, homophobia, corruption and sexual abuse by clergymen of all faiths. The cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed, which defied a Muslim ban on depictions of Islam’s holiest figure, account for a fraction of their blasphemous output – and yet they got all the media attention.

Two days before he was murdered, Charlie Hebdo’s editor Stéphane Charbonnier, better known as “Charb”, completed a short book titled “Letter to the Islamophobia Frauds who Play into the Hands of Racists”.

The text, published posthumously, is a passionate rejection of claims the weekly had become “racist” and “Islamophobic” under his stewardship, and a fierce critique of liberal “multiculturalists” whom he accuses of serving the interests of radical Islam.

“The strategy of the multiculturalists disguised as anti-racists is to muddle blasphemy and Islamophobia, Islamophobia and racism,” he wrote, rejecting the notion – which he described as genuinely racist – that a critique of “religious terrorism” was necessarily an attack on a given community.

“Religion is not transmitted genetically as the multiculturalists – and the far right – would have us believe,” he said, stressing that “Charlie Hebdo drawings do not have the vast majority of Muslims as their target”.

Charb argued that Charlie Hebdo drawings are both “misunderstood by the ignorant” and “re-drawn by very clever people who want to mutilate their meaning”.

He added: “We believe that Muslims are capable of recognising a tongue-in-cheek. By what twisted argument should Islam be less compatible with humour than other religions?”

Lost in translation

Charb blamed the media for purposefully seizing on inflammatory interpretations of cartoons because they made for better business. He pointed to a notorious cartoon of the Prophet Mohammed with a bomb-shaped turban as illustration of his point.

“Its critics decided that it was an insult to all Muslims: to put a bomb on the Prophet's head was to say that all believers were terrorists,” Charb said. “But there was another interpretation that did not interest the mass media (it was not scandalous and it did not sell newspapers). To show Mohammed wearing a bomb on his head could be an attack on terrorists for exploiting religion.”

When Charlie Hebdo published the so-called “survivors’ issue” just days after the January 7 attack, cartoonist Renald Luzier (“Luz”) – who had survived the massacre because he was late for work – broke into tears as he sought to explain the front-cover drawing of a tearful Prophet Mohammed holding a “Je suis Charlie” sign under the heading “All is Forgiven”.

Charb's last cartoon, titled “Still No Attacks in France”, featured a caricature of an extremist fighter saying, “Just wait – we have until the end of January to present our New Year's wishes.”
Charb's last cartoon, titled “Still No Attacks in France”, featured a caricature of an extremist fighter saying, “Just wait – we have until the end of January to present our New Year's wishes.”

“I drew my little drawing, and I looked at his face; he was crying,” Luz said. “I saw this character who had been used in spite of himself by nut jobs who set shit on fire, by terrorists. Humourless assholes: That’s what these terrorists are.”

The issue reached a print run of 7.95 million copies, setting a new record for the French press. It also sparked violent, and sometimes deadly protests in several Muslim countries.

Other controversies soon followed, as when the paper’s new editor Laurent Sourisseau (“Riss”), who was severely wounded in the attack, drew a cartoon of Aylan, the Syrian toddler found dead on a Turkish beach last year, under a McDonald's billboard. Few people got the acerbic critique of consumerism and of sensationalist mass media; many more saw it as a gratuitous, racist slur aimed at desperate refugees.

When they weren’t misunderstanding the cartoons, Charlie’s critics were busy misattributing other people’s allegedly racist drawings – such as one Algerian paper’s depiction of African migrants drowning in the Mediterranean (which, incidentally, is a powerful denunciation of Europe’s indifference to their plight).

Overall, recent evidence suggests Charlie Hebdo is struggling to cope with the challenge of reaching out beyond an audience of faithful readers fine-tuned to its particular brand of humour.

In what was probably the most misinterpreted cartoon in the paper’s history, the late Cabu once drew a dejected Prophet with his head in his hands under the headline “Mohammed overwhelmed by fundamentalists”. The speech bubble said: “It’s tough being loved by idiots”.

The word “idiots” obviously referred to the fundamentalists, but many accused Charlie Hebdo of describing all Muslims as idiots.

The more readers Charlie has, the more its unique brand of humour is likely to be misread. Were he alive today, Cabu might well be joking: “It’s tough being read by idiots”.

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