By Alban Bargain-Villéger
In the wake of the January 7-9 attacks in France, millions of tweets, millions of demonstrators, thousands of heads of state, intellectuals, and celebrities of all kinds not only condemned the murders of seventeen people (including four as a result of an anti-Semitic hostage taking linked to the other shootings), but also praised Charlie Hebdo’s courage in fighting for freedom of the press. Overnight, the slogan “Je suis Charlie” thus became a rallying cry for free speech and the refusal to concede defeat to intolerance and terrorism. Canada was no exception to the rule, with numerous messages of support on Twitter and several rallies in major Canadian cities.
As a Frenchman born and raised, I could not help but feel simultaneously touched by and surprised at the wave of support for an extremely politically incorrect satirical newspaper. Although I recently became a Canadian citizen and feel as much a part of this country as of my original homeland, one challenge I have never been able to overcome is what could be called the humoristic barrier. Even more surprising was the decision to allow the publication (here, in Canada!) of 1,500 copies of an English language version of the weekly’s latest issue. Thus, the first question that came through my mind was “[w]ould Charlie Hebdo even be tolerated in Canada?” Indeed, had the eight Charlie Hebdo journalists not been massacred by an Islamist commando on January 7, the majority of Canadians would probably not have subscribed to the newspaper’s views on freedom of expression. In addition, Canada is one of the few western countries whose criminal codes recognise blasphemous libel as an offence. But beyond being legally prohibited, Charlie Hebdo-style religious satire is also culturally incompatible with today’s Canadian society.
TVO’s The Agenda recently devoted two episodes to the issues that arose out of the Paris events and how they pertain to Canada. Although the participants all made interesting, sophisticated points, and although the quality of the debates was high, these episodes failed to explain what Charlie Hebdo is all about. This country’s other media were either non-verbose or far from thorough on this particular subject.
So, what is Charlie? To put it concisely, Charlie Hebdo is a generally extreme leftist (with anarchist tendencies – though several contributors have come from all branches of the left’s extended family), anti-conformist, multigenerational, satirical newspaper. Fiercely independent, it does not contain any ads and has no external shareholders. While the sixteen-page weekly features a high number of illustrations, it also contains an economics page and some investigative articles.
Charlie Hebdo, then known as L’Hebdo Hara-Kiri, was launched in 1969 as a weekly spinoff of Hara-Kiri, a satirical monthly founded in 1960 by the journalist Georges Bernier and the cartoonist François Cavanna. In 1970, Hara-Kiri was banned due to a cover entitled “Tragic Ball in Colombey: 1 Dead,” in reference to Charles de Gaulle’s recent death. The editors nonetheless found a loophole by simply associating the weekly edition to the comics magazine Charlie Mensuel. The new title, Charlie Hebdo, not only referred to the new affiliation, but also appropriately stated its reason for being, i.e. the banning of its predecessor for having dared mock the sacrosanct figure of Charles de Gaulle. The first version of the newspaper stopped publication in 1982, due to low sales. In 1992, it was resurrected by Philippe Val, Cabu, and Wolinksi (the latter two died in the January 7 shooting). In February 2006, the weekly caused a scandal by reprinting the series of caricatures of the prophet Mohammed that had been published in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten five months before. In the years that followed, Charlie Hebdo was sued on many occasions, not only by Catholic and Muslim associations, but also by extreme-right groups, journalists, and political personalities such as Marine Le Pen. In 2011, the headquarters of the newspaper was firebombed, following the upcoming publication of an issue featuring the prophet Mohammed. Nonetheless, in spite of numerous death threats and in spite of last week’s attack, Charlie Hebdo’s has continued to publish caricatures of the prophet (including in the latest issue) and to mock all religions, political parties, and celebrities.
A collection of diverse individuals, Charlie Hebdo is radically democratic in its critique of society. Few churches, few personalities have escaped its often irreverent, occasionally obscene jabs. Bernard Maris (aka Oncle Bernard), a regular contributor and renowned leftwing economist who was killed on January 7, described the newspaper as “[a] corrosive, cruel, and original take on society.” When asked whether he could “understand … that non-Islamist Muslims can be shocked by [a] cover [featuring Mohammed],” Charb replied that, in his view, “they should be shocked! I myself am shocked when I walk by a mosque, a church, or a synagogue; when I hear the crap [conneries] they say in there. I am shocked, but that’s not good enough a reason to set the building on fire!” The latter quote exemplifies perfectly where Charlie Hebdo stands on free speech. That said, some things are off-limit for the newspaper. Though gratuitous and often obnoxious, Charlie Hebdo does not condone racism, anti-Semitism, and hate speech in general. For instance, in 2008, the cartoonist Siné was fired over a comment that the then editor-in-chief Philippe Val viewed as anti-Semitic.
Charlie Hebdo fully belongs in France’s age-old tradition of political satire, which is at least as old as the French language itself. Rabelais’ Pantagruel and Gargantua, Montesquieu’s Persian Letters, Voltaire’s Candide, Beaumarchais’ Marriage of Figaro, Le Charivari, and thousands of other satirical works can be considered as great ancestors of Charlie Hebdo. The reasons for the popularity of satire in France is another story, to which I cannot do justice in such a short post. To cut a long story short, one of the keys to understanding what “Charlie” (used here as a metonym for France’s satirical tradition) really is, is to realize that it can only exist in democracies based on confrontation. Thus it would be unrealistic to imagine an equivalent to Charlie Hebdo in Canada, a democracy based on consensus, and thus antithetical to the “confrontational” model. Few in the Canadian media, and certainly no Canadian political party would ever condone Charlie Hebdo’s use of what the French call “second degree humour” (an often politically incorrect use of irony), as well as its generally obscene sense of aesthetics.
However, the January 7 shooting and the subsequent discussions that occurred in the Canadian media raised many questions regarding free speech and freedom of the press in a country based on consensus and communitarian multiculturalism. Should humour be confined to the realm of non-threatening slapstick comedy? Can a truly democratic society have sacred cows? Are we too skittish? Although the majority of Canadians are probably not really “Charlie,” serious discussions on the place of satire and its capacity to trigger political debate in this country are in order.
Alban Bargain-Villéger teaches European history at York University.