By Thibaut Luckel '15
The recent terrorist attacks in Paris have sparked international debates around freedom of expression, Islam and geopolitics. We are still trying to make sense of what this means for France, Europe, the Middle East and the rest of the world. In this context, Charlie Hebdo‘s editorial choices have been heavily criticized and incorrect facts have been used in many international op-eds.
Charlie is a satirical newspaper, with a very modest print run (60,000 weekly). Together with another newspaper, Le Canard Enchaîné, and the puppet show Les Guignols de l’Info, Charlie has been an important component of the political landscape in France, continuing a centuries old tradition of political satire. Born in the wake of the May 1968 protests – a wave of strikes, student protests and civil unrest that fought for a more progressive, inclusive French society, Charlie carried this rebellion spirit forward and as such, had influence far beyond its print.
In the recent international coverage, Charlie has been misconstrued as having an anti-Islam agenda, or a racist bias by thousands of people who have never read it. In fact, Charlie has been at the forefront of the fight against racism. For depicting contradictions in the extreme-right’s discourse through their cartoons, Charlie is a notorious enemy of the far-right Front National party.
What, then, led to all the controversy around being or not being Charlie?
First, Charlie cartoonists use a dark, tongue-in-cheek humor that can be easily misunderstood. They use irony to denounce the abuse of power. Reprimanding Charlie as anti-Islam is akin to criticizing Stephen Colbert for being anti-Asian and anti-Mexican. Charlie caters to a specific audience, and it is only when they published the Muhammad caricatures that it began to draw attention from a wider range of people, who might take its cartoons too literally or outside of their context.
Second, many voices have argued that Charlie overstepped the boundaries of appropriate free speech - going further than what is acceptable in many parts of the world. Here again, the French context must be kept in mind. France is very proud of its history of State secularism, “laïcité” - a progressive concept that guarantees legal protection to all citizens, irrespective of one’s religion. Under this principle, the State and Church have been strictly separated since 1905. The French government does not recognize any official religion, and guarantees the freedom of individual beliefs. For example, in France all marriages must be registered in State courthouses to have a legal effect; religious authorities are not empowered to grant the civil protections of marriage. Similarly, public hospitals and schools are strictly secular – free of any religious affiliation. Laïcité has often created tensions between religious authorities and the French State, especially since the French Revolution in 1791 introduced the right to blasphemy. But laïcité is a core value of the French people, a part of our national identity.
Why I am Charlie
In France, the only legal limits to freedom of expression fall into two categories: defamation and insult, attacks against an individual’s reputation, and hate speech, which includes racist or homophobic discourse, glorification of crimes against humanity and negation of genocides. Beyond these topics, there is no requirement for self-censorship.
Charlie has always embraced its right to publish provocative criticisms, while staying within these boundaries. Charlie uses lightness and humor to take on heavy subjects such as the abuse of power and violent religious extremism. Their humor might be childish (their favorite subject, by far, is lewd sex jokes about politicians) – but by making fun of the bullies, they have a history of protecting victims. I sometimes disagree with their choices. But I always respect their right to try, and sometimes fail, to make people laugh. Charlie is not a violent group. Their message is about using shock and laughter to inspire reflection.
Like many French citizens, I occasionally bought Charlie. I started reading it before I could fully understand their complex messaging. Charlie sparked my interest in politics and critical thinking. I laughed at some cartoons, did not at others. But I always appreciated its presence, which stood for courage and engagement with current affairs. French people value the right to independent thought and criticism, seen as an engine for societal progress, even if at the expense of what some cultures may call political correctness.
Attacking Charlie is attacking these principles of laïcité and provocative political thought. This, in essence, is what French people meant when they declared “We are Charlie”.
Building a multicultural France
However, this discussion raises a very serious issue: how can our societies become more inclusive, and how can we combat inward-looking and populist trends across the continent? Three French citizens perpetrated the attacks at a time when Islamophobia was already on the rise in Europe. In France, the far-right FN party had experienced its highest approval ratings in history. In Germany, the anti-Islam Pediga group had organized large-scale demonstrations in all major cities across the country. Ironically, Charlie’s journalists were discussing how to address these very tensions when the terrorists stormed into their editorial meeting.
The timing and the political ramifications of the attacks have to be taken very seriously. Governing parties will have to make difficult decisions: how to design strong social, judicial and foreign policies to respond to global threats while promoting greater multiculturalism and inclusion.
On January 11th, 3.5 million people took to the streets of France to march “I am Charlie”. Beyond free speech, the marches were an expression of national solidarity, the rejection of violence targeting certain groups and a call for building a peaceful, cohesive France.
Thibaut Luckel is a second year student from France, who worked in public affairs in Brussels before school.