Four years after Charlie Hebdo attacks, satirists bemoan the loss of reason
As France marks four years on Monday since the attacks on Charlie Hebdo that killed 11 journalists and a policeman, the satirical weekly says intolerance and extremism have only gotten worse on all sides.
At a late-morning editorial meeting at the Charlie Hebdo offices on January 7, 2015, gunmen burst into the room and began firing, leaving 11 people dead. The perpetrators, identified as brothers Chérif andSaïd Kouachi, also shot and killed a policeman outside the building as they made their escape before leading police on a three-day nationwide manhunt. They were eventually cornered and killed in a print shop northeast of Paris.
Police later learned that the Kouachis had targeted the satirical paper for its disrespectful depictions of the Prophet Mohammed.
Indeed, Charlie Hebdo has long been known for its willingness to skewer cultural icons of any and all persuasions: It plays no favourites and seems to hold little sacred. The paper regularly ridicules all sides of any debate (most recently both the Yellow Vest protesters and the target of their rage, President Emmanuel Macron) and uses humour – often puerile, with a fondness for nudity and scatological references – to zero in on its chosen targets.
In short, Charlie Hebdo prides itself on being an equal opportunity offender.
But in the weeks and months after the attacks there was an outpouring of global support for the weekly, with people across France and the world sporting black “Je suis Charlie” emblems on signs, stickers and clothing. Some 1.5 million people took to the streets of the French capital for a unity march.
Many saw the violence as an attack on free speech and freedom of the press, and as a warning of the dangers of intolerance and extremism.
Four years later, the paper’s leadership says things have only gotten worse.
‘Turned our backs’
Charlie Hebdo’s commemorative cover this week depicts both a Catholic bishop and a Muslim imam blowing out a candle flame that represents the light of reason. The headline bemoans a French society it says has become anti-enlightenment ("anti-lumières").
In an interview with AFP, Charlie Hebdo’s editor-in-chief Riss, who was the artist behind the cover drawing, said public attitudes had only grown less tolerant since the attacks.
Not only has the tragedy faded from memory but so has the social significance of the event, he said.
“One gets the impression that we have turned our backs to it, so in our opinion the antiquated attitudes are still there, even more so than four or five years ago.”
"The hostility no longer only comes from religious extremists but now also from intellectuals," he observed.
In an editorial for the memorial edition – entitled “Are you still there?” – Riss put it even more bluntly: “Everything has become blasphemous.”
On its double-page centrefold spread this week, the magazine depicted a host of world figures (whom it called “obscurantistes”) celebrating the anniversary of the attacks, from far-right leader Marine Le Pen to Pope Francis to US President Donald Trump.
Criticism and humour
Fourteen people have so far been charged with helping the Kouachi brothers or their associate Amedy Coulibaly, who fatally shot a policewoman and took hostages at a kosher market in the days following the Charlie Hebdo attack, killing four. Coulibaly was also killed in a shootout with police.
Trials are expected to begin in 2020.
In late December French jihadist Peter Cherif, a close associate of the Kouachis, was extradited to Paris to begin a five-year prison term after years on the run and face new charges connected to the Charlie Hebdo attack. France's defence minister said he played an "important role in organising" the assault although his exact role remains unclear.
But while the wheels of French justice may slowly be turning, for many the threat remains all too real.
Zineb El Rhazoui, 36, a former Charlie Hebdo journalist, is the target of continuing death threats. A tireless critic of Islamist fundamentalism, she was in Morocco at the time of the attack. She received a new round of threats via social media after a December interview with CNews in which she stated that Islam must submit itself “to criticism, to humour, to the laws of the Republic, to French law".
Rhazoui left the satirical weekly in 2017, accusing it of giving in to Islamist extremists by no longer daring to depict the Prophet Mohammed.
Today, Charlie Hebdo spends more than €1 million a year on its own protection. And although it continues to sell reasonably well, this high price tag helped it remain in the red for 2017, according to BFM Business figures.
Such precautions are likely to remain in place for the foreseeable future.
"We are not even sure that, once the judicial process is over, we will ever return to normal life," said Riss.