The importance of being Charlie


The importance of being Charlie

Charlie Hebdo’s editor-in-chief talks offence, free speech, and why Muhammad cartoons show how much Charlie respects Muslims.

Naomi Firsht

Topics Long-reads Politics

‘If there is no satire, there is no democracy’, says Gérard Biard, the editor-in-chief of French satirical journal Charlie Hebdo. And he, of all people, ought to know how fragile is the existence of both.

‘Satire is a way of contesting power’, he continues, warming to his theme as we talk in a bustling Parisian brasserie. ‘Satire and caricature are what highlights the weaknesses, the contradictions and the aberrations of power. To draw a parallel with blasphemy, blasphemy is nothing more than satire. And it’s indispensable. Why is there blasphemy in all religions and why does blasphemy come from within the religion itself? Because, quite simply, blasphemy is also a way to contest power, a way to say to God or to dignitaries that we believe in, that you’re not as important as that. I can, in some way, mock you or contest you. That doesn’t stop you accepting it. Satirising power is not to deny its legitimacy. It is simply to exert your right to scrutinise it. This is the principle of democracy.’

And it is a principle besieged.

On 7 January 2015, brothers Saïd and Chérif Kouachi, armed with Kalashnikovs, forced their way into the Charlie Hebdo office and opened fire. They killed the editor Stephane ‘Charb’ Charbonnier, cartoonists Jean ‘Cabu’ Cabut, Bernard ‘Tignous’ Verlhac, Georges Wolinski and Philippe Honoré, columnists Elsa Cayat and Bernard Maris, proof-reader Mustapha Ourrad, a visitor to the office Michel Renaud, caretaker Frédéric Boisseau and Charb’s bodyguard, police officer Franck Brinsolaro. As the gunmen left the building they shouted, ‘We’ve avenged the prophet Muhammad’.

Two years after this atrocious attack, Biard, who was in London at a conference when it happened, remains defiant. Charlie Hebdo must carry on. ‘No one can forget what happened, especially when they come to work at Charlie Hebdo. But once we are in the office, once we are doing the journal, we do the journal. And we think only of the journal.’

It is hard to know what to expect on meeting someone you want to interview about their professional life, when that life has been so touched by tragedy. But there is no emotional outpouring from Biard. His manner is unassuming, yet he is lucid and animated when he speaks. His slight frame, checked shirt and blazer, topped off with his round spectacles, give him a typical Parisian look. There is a certain Parisian nonchalance to his manner, too. Not in a rude way, but simply in the way he remains unflustered throughout our interview – save for one moment when he apologises for the inelegance of having to extract a fishbone caught between his teeth.

When I ask about the atmosphere in the Charlie Hebdo office, Biard does not dwell on the immediate aftermath of the attack. Instead, speaking quietly and thoughtfully, he says of the first year only that it was ‘complicated’, and mentions briefly the ‘trauma’ staff experienced. For several months after the attack, French daily newspaper Liberation gave Charlie space in its office, before the team finally moved into new offices 18 months ago. Unsurprisingly, Biard tells me he cannot reveal where the new offices are. He is keen, though, to talk about the latest developments at a magazine that went from being a small weekly, with a circulation of 30,000 in 2014, to being catapulted into the international spotlight in 2015. By last year, Charlie had more than 180,000 subscribers.

Charlie is now seeking to expand its circulation further, with a new German edition launched in December. ‘I had noticed, after going several times to Germany, a particular interest among Germans for what Charlie is and the ideas which we express’, Biard explains. He tells me Germany is where the publishers export the most copies of Charlie Hebdo. Perhaps aware of some of the criticism of Charlie’s newfound success, Biard adds, ‘at least they can’t accuse us of just trying to promote ourselves. If we had released it in English, [our critics] would have said, “ah yes, you’re trying to make money”.’

There are other reasons for Charlie not expanding with an English edition just yet, including the desire to remain a printed journal, rather than going online. ‘Drawings are print’, says Biard emphatically. Overall, though, the expansion comes with an important message: ‘It’s a way of saying that satire, that humour, is a universal language’, says Biard.

And yet criticisms levelled at the journal since 2015, over cover cartoons deemed particularly controversial, seem to suggest that not everyone understands the ‘universal language’ of satire.


The right to offend


One of the worst bouts of controversy was over the cartoon of drowned refugee child Aylan Kurdi, published in September 2015. Biard explains that people misunderstood the focus of the cartoon: ‘Everyone thought that the important element in this cartoon was little Aylan. No, it was not Aylan, it was the McDonald’s billboard.’ Biard’s right, of course. Look again at the cartoon: it depicts Aylan lying dead on the beach, beneath a McDonald’s billboard offering a promotion on children’s menus. The cartoon reads, ‘So close to the goal…’. He astutely points out that such an image would be ‘unthinkable in the Anglo-Saxon press’.

Picture by: Charlie Hebdo

Why does he think French satire is set apart from that of other countries? ‘Historically, drawings in the French press were really political, violent drawings. The first press drawings were in the small periodicals distributed before and during the French Revolution, so they were very violent drawings. And if you study the history of press drawings in France you will see that the caricatures are of an unbelievable violence, that even we wouldn’t publish today. When you look at the caricatures which were done at the time of the debate on the 1905 laïcité law, there was an impressive number of small anticlerical newspapers and periodicals which were publishing drawings… So there is this tradition which still exists.

‘If you look a little at the way the Anglo-Saxon press drawings are constructed’, he continues, ‘very often they remain tied to the text. What’s important is the text. You have two or three people having a conversation in an office, or an exchange in a living room. In France, the drawings often have very little text, very little dialogue.’

Biard believes the problem today is that people do not know how to read a drawing. ‘There is a paradox’, he says. ‘We live more than ever in a civilisation where everything is image, we are surrounded by images all the time. Yet, today, we don’t learn how to read them. We don’t know how to read an image. Nine tenths of people don’t know how to read them. I’m not even talking about drawings, but images. A drawing is even more difficult because it’s an expression. There is an individual behind the pencil who is expressing himself: there is a particular style; there is a tone; a context. Reading a press drawing, reading satire, means knowing; first of all, why?; in what context?; and following on from what?’ Little wonder, perhaps, that a special Charlie comic strip drawn in response to the critics of the Aylan cartoon reminds readers, ‘Don’t forget that your eyes are connected to your brain’.

More recently Charlie Hebdo was criticised for a cover focusing on the Italian avalanche which killed 29 people in January this year. It depicts a caricature of Death skiing down the avalanche using scythes instead of ski poles. Here, Biard professes to be at a loss as to why it caused such a furore. ‘Truly I cannot understand it. And I’m half Italian, so I know Italy well, I know how it functions.

Picture by: Charlie Hebdo Facebook page

‘[This cartoon] is just a way to desanctify death. If we don’t laugh about sad things, we have nothing. And if we don’t have laughter to combat sadness, it’s impossible. If you go to a funeral, at the exit of the cemetery people laugh… We have to laugh. It’s what allows us to carry on. It’s about saying: yes, death is serious, but life goes on.’

More than once during the interview, Biard emphasises the importance of laughing in the face of death. He is also adamant about not giving in to offence-takers, saying it would be ludicrous, if every time Charlie wanted to publish something, its editors had to question themselves saying, ‘”oh we can’t do that because someone will feel hurt”‘. Biard continues: ‘We wouldn’t be able to do anything. We couldn’t even do journalism. If you said that you were against the death penalty, you will upset the millions of Americans who are for it. If you say Putin is an assassin, you will offend lots of Russians who support Putin – you might make his mother cry. And then you can’t do anything. It’s endless. We would close all of the newspapers.’


‘Je Suis Charlie’


Biard is well aware that the international attention following the ‘Je Suis Charlie’ movement, brought with it an increased level of criticism of Charlie Hebdo. Still it is worth remembering just how remarkable that moment was. In the days following the massacre, more than three million French people came out on to the streets in solidarity, all declaring ‘Je Suis Charlie’. And across the world, leaders and citizens followed suit.

‘It was a very strange period’, Biard recalls. ‘We suddenly went from being a small, very French journal to a kind of international symbol of free speech. So it was a little strange. We were seen as heroes, though we never considered ourselves to be heroes. There is something that I often say, because it was written a lot that the people at Charlie who died that day “gave their lives”. No, they did not give their lives. Their lives were taken.’ He adds, ‘We are a journal which defends its ideas. A political, satirical journal. But we remain a journal, we are not soldiers.’

‘Je Suis Charlie’ solidarity march. Picture by: PA images

For Biard, the ‘Je Suis Charlie’ movement made sense at the time. ‘It corresponded to a reflex from the French population, as well as certain populations across the world, who were shocked by what had happened. It was the first time for a very long time – since the end of the Second World War – when, in a democracy, a comment journal was subject to an attack, a murderous attack.

‘As to what “Je Suis Charlie” meant, there was a bit of everything. There were people who said it in complete sincerity, and who still say it. Others said it out of pure opportunism. And others said it because it was inconceivable to say anything else at that time.’

Despite millions across the globe turning out to support Charlie’s right to free speech, Biard says that today there is a certain ambivalence towards freedom of expression. ‘We are in a paradoxical society, where, on the one hand we insult each other and send death threats over the smallest disagreements on social networks… The response when we disagree on social networks is “son of a bitch” or “I’m going to kill you”. And then, alongside this, we have a society where, as soon as we want to laugh at death, for example, we find ourselves in a hypersensitive society. Today, as a comment journal you cannot question yourself all the time over who you might shock, over whose feelings you might hurt. If not, we would do nothing. It’s impossible.’

Later Biard again mentions this strange contradiction between the world of online social networks and the real world. ‘I don’t like the term “politically correct”, but I will use it anyway. There are some good things within political correctness, but when it becomes an end in itself, something that dictates all behaviour or all opinions, that poses a problem… People are able to express the most disgusting things online, on Twitter, Facebook and forums… Yet, in society there is the impression that as soon as you say something that is a little outside of the norm, it is experienced as an aggression. These two forces create a completely absurd situation.’

When I ask why freedom of speech is so important, Biard is clear: ‘It’s one of the pillars of democracy’, but adds, ‘that doesn’t mean we can say everything and anything. There are things we don’t have the right to say because it’s the law. We don’t have the right to say things that are racist or anti-Semitic. I think there is a fundamental element in the respect for free speech, which should be the foundation of the right to free speech: it is not so much what we say, but why we say it.’

Later on he explains: ‘When we criticise a religion in Charlie, we don’t criticise it because it’s funny to criticise a religion, we criticise it for precise reasons. We criticise it because [religion] wants to exert a political power, because it exerts pressure on society, because it advocates a vision of life in society which is not our vision. We are involved in a debate, in the confrontation of ideas.’

Biard is not in favour of unregulated speech. He supports French laws that outlaw Holocaust denial, and is sympathetic towards laws on hate speech. As an example, he cites prosecution of French comedian Dieudonné, who has been arrested numerous times for hate speech. ‘When you have someone like Dieudonné, who spends his time doing sketches saying Jews control the world, Jews control the banks and finance, and that the Shoah wasn’t important, we know very well why he says it. Therefore, there is a problem. It is incitement to hatred. However, when we draw Muhammad, for example, when apparently it is forbidden, first of all, who decrees that it is forbidden to draw him, and why do we do it?’

Biard tells me about the time in 2006 when Charlie Hebdo re-published the cartoons of Muhammad from Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, which had sparked protests across the world when it had published the cartoons the year before. Another French newspaper, France Soir published them before Charlie, and the editor was consequently sacked. ‘So we published the caricatures in support, and we published them with a critical regard… It allowed us to advance a debate’, says Biard.

After Charlie Hebdo republished the cartoons in February 2006, with a frontcover depicting Muhammad saying ‘It’s tough being loved by idiots’, the Grand Mosquée de Paris, the Union of Islamic Organisations in France (UIOF) and the Muslim World League attempted to sue the journal for ‘public insults against a group of people because they belong to a religion’. But Charlie Hebdo was acquitted.

More than 10 years later, Biard’s only regret is that more publications didn’t follow Charlie Hebdo’s example. ‘There were thousands of articles published on the consequences of publishing the cartoons. There was not one on the consequences of not publishing them. And the consequences of not publishing them, we are paying today. We have, from the offset, given into blackmail, into violent blackmail, into a racket. The principle of a racket is the more you give in to it, the more the price to pay rises. Today we pay for the fact that very few people and very few newspapers dared not to give in to this racket – which is a religious racket, a totalitarian racket and which comes from undemocratic states.’

The 2006 cover was the start of a long and tumultuous relationship with critics of their Muhammad caricatures. On 31 October 2011, following the Islamist party Ennahda’s victory in Tunisia, and Sharia law being proclaimed in Libya, the journal renamed itself ‘Charia Hebdo’ with a cover depicting a happy caricature of Muhammad, whom the journal had ‘made’ editor-in-chief, with the words, ‘100 lashes if you don’t die of laughter’. Two days later their offices were petrol-bombed. In 2013, the then editor Charbonnier was included in a ‘wanted dead or alive for crimes against Islam’ list published in an al-Qaeda propaganda magazine, and Charbonnier was placed under police protection. On 7 January 2015, this chapter of Charlie’s life reached its murderous climax.

Today, all Charlie staff have the option of police security, on top of the strict security at the office, though as Biard points out, it is a tough decision. ‘It changes daily life’, he says. Biard has his own security, though understandably declines to go into detail about it.

I ask him why he thinks Muhammad and more generally criticism of Islam has become the final taboo when it comes to free speech. Biard says it is an ‘essentially political’ problem. ‘We are faced with a religion which seeks to exert a political power… The problem of Islam today is Islamism. It’s a politico-religious ideology, which like all politico-religious ideologies is of a totalitarian nature. There is no democratic theocracy – it does not exist. As soon as we base the social and political order on divine law, no democracy is possible. Because divine law is decreed as indisputable, unmoveable and unchangeable. That is against the idea of a democracy where all of the laws are discussed and can be changed. When you want to change a religious law it takes centuries. It took almost five centuries for the Vatican to redeem Galileo, to admit that the Earth is not flat.’

Biard is adamant, however, that Charlie’s cartoons depicting Muhammad are not disrespectful to Muslims, and that, conversely, it shows more respect for Muslims to publish such images, than to refuse to. He tells me what he thinks of the decision of many English-language publications, including most UK ones, not to publish the Charlie Hebdo cover the week after the attack. The picture was a Muhammad caricature with a tear in his eye, and the words read ‘Tout est pardonné’ (all is forgiven).

‘They did not ask themselves the question: what does it mean not to publish them, to refuse to publish the caricatures? Because refusing to publish them, by saying that it was because of so-called respect for the Muslim population, is not respect; it is contempt. It is to consider Muslims as people who have no sense of humour, who are not capable of thinking about society, who are not capable of accepting a view different to their own. It’s basically saying they are uncivilised. That’s what it’s saying. It is we who respect Muslims by publishing these caricatures. By making these caricatures we are treating them as people who are adults, who are responsible and intelligent.’ He paraphrases Salman Rushdie: ‘Everything that we call respect, is just fear disguised.’


The politics of Charlie


Charlie Hebdo has always been a strong supporter of the French ideology of ‘laïcité’, best translated as secularism. Biard himself believes strongly in keeping religion as far away from politics as possible. ‘There is a complete incompatibility between divine law and civil law – and this is the principle of “laïcité”’, he says.

He explains that ‘secularism’ is a poor translation for laïcité and that he often encounters problems when trying to explain it to English-speakers. ‘You talk about “secularism”, but it isn’t the same thing. The principle of the separation of the Church and the State in Anglo-Saxon countries, in general, says, the state will not interfere in religious affairs. In France, we say religion does not interfere with State affairs. Religion is seen as a political problem and a political danger.’

Particularly at the moment, in the midst of the French presidential election campaigns, Biard despairs of the French left, whom he says have abandoned the principal of laïcité. ‘For [the left], laïcité is either a swearword or a non-topic.’

When I ask him about the election, he barks a short laugh at the absurdity of it all and immediately declares, ‘Don’t ask me who I’m going to vote for, because I don’t know’.

He is alarmed at the unpredictability of this election. ‘This election is the most volatile and dangerous that people have known for a long time. It’s driven by polls that change minute by minute, which don’t correspond to anything, and with candidates who come out of nowhere, like Emmanuel Macron. He is even predicted by some polls as the victor of the election – and this boy still doesn’t have a programme. We are just two-and-a-half months away from the election. This guy fills halls… but still has no programme!’, Biard exclaims.

As far as Charlie Hebdo is concerned, Biard says it never supports any candidate, with the sole exception of the second round of the 2002 presidential election, when Charlie called for readers to vote for Chirac, after Jean-Marie Le Pen, the leader of the far-right Front National, infamously got through to the second round of voting. Though Biard is quick to point out that this does not mean he and his colleagues supported Chirac as a candidate.

Charlie employees today do not all adhere to the radical left sentiment of the journal’s origins in the late 1960s, says Biard. The staff’s political views cover the whole spectrum of left-wing politics, he says.

He is dismayed that, of all the presidential candidates, the Front National’s Marine Le Pen is the only one to talk about laïcité. However he does not trust her apparent commitment to it. ‘It’s a con’, he says. He cites Front National’s historic ties to Catholicism.

As our time together draws to a close, I ask him about the ‘Charlie’ page on the Charlie Hebdo website, which manages so brilliantly to sum up the journal: ‘Charlie Hebdo is a punch in the face.’ I ask why he thinks provocation is so important. ‘Because it provokes a reaction. Because it wakes you up. The point is not the shock; it is why we shock. It is why people think they are shocked by such and such. There are plenty of things which shock me, but I’m not going to broadcast it all over social networks sending death threats to people who shock me. Or I’d spend all my time doing it’, he says.

I tell him that some UK students’ unions found the provocation of Charlie Hebdo to be too much and have banned its sale in their unions. Biard chuckles. ‘We also have the right to live in a bubble, and ignore the fact that the world is not “Care Bears”, and we have the right to boycott Charlie Hebdo.’

And on that brilliantly flippant note, that so perfectly encapsulates the raison d’être of Charlie Hebdo, he departs.

Naomi Firsht is staff writer at spiked and co-author of The Parisians’ Guide to Cafés, Bars and Restaurants. Follow her on Twitter: @Naomi_theFirsht

Picture by: Getty Images.

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Topics Long-reads Politics


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