The story of Charlie Hebdo cannot be understood without understanding something about France’s long-standing tradition of satirical press. The cradle of this kind of magazine, the French Revolution paved the way for the genre to be born in 1789 – earlier than in other European countries.
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It has often been subversive, left-wing, hostile to the established order and sometimes vehemently anti-colonial. Its influence was even greater given that the majority of the population at the time did not know how to read or write. Its reach extended beyond political life and was used by political forces of all persuasions. In the 1930s, fascists and Nazis also used cartoons as a weapon against the left, the revolutionaries and Jews.
The magazine Hara-Kiri was first published in its weekly form in 1969. It was a counterpart to the monthly edition of Hara-Kiri which had existed since 1960 and was banned on several occasions, in particular due to its anti-colonial stance.
In November 1970, the front-page of the weekly version following the death of General de Gaulle read, “Tragic Ball in Colombey [where de Gaulle was born]: one dead”. Ten days earlier, nearly 150 people had been killed in a fire in a nightclub Saint-Laurent-du-Pont, causing emotions to run high across France, and the publication wound up banned by the Minister for Home Affairs.
To sidestep the ban, it became Charlie Hebdo, but was forced out of print in December 1981 through lack of readership. This period at the publication had been largely characterised by a form of political indifference; riding on a taste for provocation and a desire to shock, rather than any specific ideas.
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The weekly publication was re-launched in 1992 under Philippe Val. It maintained its provocative stance, and initially identified with the causes of the radical left. But it came to a significant ideological turning point at the end of the 1990s. Philippe Val supported NATO’s military intervention in Kosovo in 1999 and adopted an anti-Palestinian position during the Second Intifada. From then on it took on Islam, which was seen as a fundamental threat.
In November 2002, the columnist and philosopher Robert Misrahi published an opinion piece entitled Intellectual Courage praising Oriana Fallaci’s work, The Rage and The Pride. In it, he wrote that, “Oriana Fallaci demonstrates intellectual courage […] Not only does she protest against murder in the name of Islam […] she also protests against the element of denial in European opinion, whether Italian or French, for example. We are unwilling to see, nor to condemn clearly the fact that it is Islam that has gone on a crusade against the West and not the contrary.”
(It is important here to remember that Oriana Fallaci compared Muslim immigrants in Italy to rats.)
One example, of many others, of this Islamophobia was the 2006 publication of caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed in Denmark. It was in March of that year that Philippe Val, along with Bernard-Henri Lévy, Caroline Fourest and Antoine Sfeir signed The Twelve’s Manifesto: standing together against the new totalitarianism, published in L’Express. It stated that, “after having conquered fascism, Nazism and Stalinism, the world faces a new, totalitarian global threat: Islamism. We, writers, journalists and intellectuals call for resistance to religious totalitarianism and for the promotion of freedom, equal opportunities and secularism for everyone.”
The manifesto caused several members of the team to resign and the magazine underwent many internal crises. Charlie Hebdo, which claimed to stand for freedom of the press, fired one of its star cartoonists – Siné, on false accusations of anti-Semitism. Siné founded the newspaper Siné-Hebdo taking with him a significant proportion of the Charlie Hebdo readership. It is not surprising that on being elected as the President of France in 2007, Nicolas Sarkozy pushed Philippe Val towards taking the helm at France-Inter. The path from the left to Sarkozy was a long one, however.
Charlie Hebdo can certainly not be reduced only to this tendency towards Islamophobia. The magazine attacks all kinds of religious symbols, all religions and all political institutions. And this is also probably why many French people identify with the magazine despite not necessarily reading it. Its impertinence, which is sometimes of little consequence, embodies the spirit of the times.
Obviously, too, to criticise the magazine is by no means to provide the slightest excuse for the criminal act to which it fell victim and for the assassinations that bloodied France. And the murdered journalists themselves would probably have been very surprised to see such an outpouring of support for their magazine, from those they mocked incessantly, from Nicolas Sarkozy to François Hollande, and many autocrats along the way.