21 February 2018, Wednesday | 11:15am

Charlie Hebdo has had a long tradition of disrespect and provocation


Charlie Hebdo long ago abandoned the “stupid and nasty” tag line used by its precursor publication Hara-Kiri, but its contributors continued to honour the ethos expressed by the magazine’s founder, François Cavanna.

“Nothing is sacred. Principle No. 1. Not even your own mother, not the Jewish martyrs, not even people starving of hunger,” Mr. Cavanna wrote in 1982, as quoted by Paris researcher Jane Weston. “Laugh at everything, ferociously, bitterly, to exorcise the old monsters.”

Charlie Hebdo owes its existence to an irreverent joke in Hara-Kiri on the death of former French president Charles de Gaulle in 1970. Authorities shut down the magazine soon afterward, but its artisans resumed publishing as Charlie Hebdo. It fell on hard times and closed in 1981, but was revived in 1992.

In its modern incarnation, its cartoonists have been a reliable source of broadsides against religious leaders of all denominations and politicians of all stripes. In a country where elites are often treated with deference by the media, Charlie Hebdo has laughed ferociously.

The death of pop star Michael Jackson put him on the cover as a skeleton with the caption, “Michael Jackson, finally white.” The 9/11 terrorist attacks were marked by an image of a broker in one of the Twin Towers yelling, “Sell!” as a plane approached. Last year when French President François Hollande was in hot water over reports of an extra-marital affair, he adorned the cover with his fly open and his penis exposed.

Religion has been a particular focus for the satirical magazine, whose artists tend to be atheists adhering to France’s strict secularism.

To mark the legalization of gay marriage, it published an image of a threesome between the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. On the issue of pedophile bishops, it portrayed the Pope advising a bishop to go into filmmaking, “like Roman Polanski.” More recently it depicted a spread-legged Mary for its special issue on the life of Christ.

Over the years, Charlie Hebdo has faced more than a dozen lawsuits from offended Christians, but it was the magazine’s regular challenges to Islamic fundamentalists that prompted the first hints of violence. There was a bomb threat and lawsuit in 2006, and a firebombing in 2011. Staff had become accustomed to living under police protection.

“We publish caricatures every week, but people only describe them as declarations of war when it’s about the person of the prophet or radical Islam,” Stéphane Charbonnier, the editor-in-chief who was killed in Wednesday’s attack, told Der Spiegel in 2012.

“When you start saying that you can’t create such drawings, then the same thing will soon apply to other, more harmless representations.”

His magazine drew support from fellow journalists and some prominent politicians when it was sued over its 2006 publication of cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad. Nicolas Sarkozy, a frequentCharlie Hebdo target who would later be elected president, submitted a message of support “on behalf of those who are drawn irreverently but who accept it in the name of the freedom to smile at everything.” He said he preferred “an excess of caricature to an absence of caricature.”

But Philippe Val, who was Charlie Hebdo’s editor at the time but quit in 2009, said the publication was too often left to fend for itself, accused by many of pouring oil on a fire.

Speaking to France Inter radio Wednesday, Mr. Val called the attack on his former colleagues an act of war.

“They were not evil people. They were just people who wanted us to be happy. They were people who wanted humour to have its place in our lives. That is all, and that is what was murdered,” he said.

“Perhaps the media were sub-par during all these years on this radicalization … This rise of fundamentalism in France was not talked about enough. The alarm was not sounded enough. We did what we could, and we were often alone.”

His successor, Mr. Charbonnier, expressed that solitude in a 2012 interview with the French newspaper Le Monde.

“I have no kids, no wife, no car, no credit,” he said. “It may be a little pompous what I’m going to say, but I’d rather die standing up than live on my knees.”

Ms. Weston, who studied Charlie Hebdo for her PhD thesis, said its publication of the Muhammad cartoons stemmed from its long tradition of disrespect and provocation.

“It was the idea that, ‘We can joke about anything.’ They were really quite militant about it,” she said from Paris.

“It’s very French to say religion is more for the private sphere, and in public discourse we can and will make humour, including about Islam … That is, of course, something that is very delicate, and they felt that they were out on a limb. But in a way they could afford to be out on a limb because that what they had always done.”

Ms. Weston said Parisians are in shock over the loss of so many well-loved artists.

“It’s really unfathomable at this stage because each of them has such a rich history in what they’ve done, they have such a central cultural place,” she said.


Source: National Post | http://bit.ly/1BSeR0O

Photo: Charlie Hebdo


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