Looking for 'Charlie Hebdo'

Jeremy Harding

Paris yesterday: all copies of the post-mortem Charlie Hebdo issue with the Prophet on the front, a tear in his eye, rapidly sold out. In our local backwater in the south-west, I’d already driven to the nearest newsagent. There, too, sold out. ‘They should have sent us 150 copies,’ the man on the till explained, ‘but we only got 11.’ Then came news of a massive new run, bringing the total number of copies to five million, with deliveries to retail outlets spread over several days. But this morning it was the same story: every copy gone by eight in the morning, though this time the local shop only received six. Tomorrow for sure.

France is now at war, apparently. The prime minister, Manuel Valls, announced it – not for the first time – on Tuesday. He was speaking at the National Assembly, after a minute’s silence and a chorus of the ‘Marseillaise’ from the deputies. War against anyone in particular? No. Valls proposes to pursue ‘terrorism, jihadism and radical Islamism’ while avoiding any collateral damage against ‘Islam and Muslims’. The plan is to beef up the security services, cull more inquisitive data on airline passengers, carry out closer internet and social media surveillance, isolate living quarters for radical jihadists in jail, and counter a ‘new anti-semitism’ founded on hatred of ‘the state of Israel’. The prime minister wants to ‘protect’ French Muslims, and come down hard on offenders desecrating mosques and cemeteries. Muslims, meanwhile, should have their own ‘debate’ with a view to stamping out ‘conservatism and obscurantism’.

Valls hit all the right buttons; there were tears in the chamber, there was thunderous applause, and the following morning the controversial comedian and actor Dieudonné – an incontinent anti-semite – was arrested on suspicion of condoning terrorism. He’d proclaimed on his Facebook page that he felt a bit of a ‘Charlie Coulibaly’, a provocative reference to the hostage-taking and murder of four Jewish customers in the kosher supermarket in Porte de Vincennes.

At the time of writing there are roughly 40 cases, like Dieudonné’s, of ‘apologie du terrorisme’, an offence with harsh consequences since a change in the law last year. There will not be a French version of the Patriot Act, but ‘freedom of expression’ is under scrutiny. And it will now be even harder than it was a week ago to speak up against Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, or another onslaught in Gaza, without being accused of anti-semitism.

What did Dieudonné mean by ‘Charlie Coulibaly’? It’s opaque but I think it goes something like this: ‘Charlie Hebdo did enviably well as transgressors, and doubtless you think they’d gone to the limit by putting their lives on the line, but now watch this: I, Dieudonné, am ready to identify with Amedy Coulibaly, the kosher killer, so screw you and your hypocritical Republican values, and screw the staff at Charlie Hebdo for trumping my high-density brand of anti-semitism with their hand-me-down Islamophobia.’ (Despite a major row in 2008 CH has, by and large, steered clear of Jew-baiting.)

So Dieudonné exercised a right to freedom of expression before the remark was removed, even if he may have infringed the law against condoning terrorism. But what is it with all this sounding off? Does the right to freedom of expression need to be exercised with monotonous regularity? Is it really the case that every moment we refrain from airing an opinion or firing off an insult, we undermine a bulwark of democracy, or a key Republican value? These are good questions for Dieudonné.

They’re also questions for CH, even though it’s obvious that Charb and his colleagues were never going to back down. Theirs was a militant libertarian view of freedom of expression, informed by a tough Republican antipathy to ‘cults’ and clergy, a strong identification with the left and maybe even a dash of Anglo-Saxon atheist radical chic. A lot of things the magazine has run are very funny but not much of it is harmless fun. French culture understands the power of the sign. Paris built much of its (dwindling) reputation as an intellectual centre on a prolific study of ‘discourse’: during the heyday of structuralism and its long, creative decay, language and representation were teeming sites of intellectual labour, so it isn’t as if cartoonists reach for their pencils like angels reaching for their harps.

And there’s more than freedom of expression at stake if you decide to depict Muslim women at prayer with their buttocks exposed; or ridicule the Prophet; or commend the Dutch cartoonist Gregorius Nekschot, collaborator of Theo van Gogh, for his drawings, which run from Islamophobic sexual insults to crass generic defamation (an idle Arab on a cushion announcing that ‘the Koran doesn’t say we have to do anything to draw 30 years of unemployment and social benefits’). Don’t we worry that somewhere in all this, the racial stereotype is looming, even if it’s operating behind the shield of secularism, an honourable Republican tradition? That’s how Olivier Cyran, a journalist of German origin, who broke away from the paper in 2001, came to think of it. In 2013 he published an open letter to Charlie Hebdo’s editors in Article 11, setting out his criticisms with a measured fury. The piece, which resurfaced recently in Mediapart, now carries a postscript that advises anyone who believes it was an a priori justification of the Charlie Hebdo murders to get stuffed.


  • 15 January 2015 at 3:51pm
    frmurphy98 says:
    There wouldn't be too many leftist radicals on this side of the channel capable of depicting black, North African and Jewish people in the manner that Charlie Hebdo routinely does. I guess we lack Parisian sophistication.

  • 15 January 2015 at 10:39pm
    ander says:
    You've omitted an important class of targets, the Catholic clergy, which has elicited some of the most decisive satire from CH. If you haven't seen it, look up for a gratifying example.

  • 16 January 2015 at 6:12am says:
    Depicting Muslim women at prayer(segregated by the way) with bare buttocks is satire and hardly as offensive as even "moderate" Islam's relegation of women to such an inferior status or least of all its heinous treatment of gay people. Why can't satirists ridicule the Prophet, the Pope, Jesus, or a rabbi? Who is whiny Jeremy Harding to chastise such freedom of expression, which, for better or worse, is not offensive to millions of us? He should work for the Financial Times or the American Catholic League. He also diminishes and defiles the deaths of Hedbo's cartoonists, however he tries to cut it.

    • 16 January 2015 at 8:45am
      Alan Benfield says: @
      I think it's you who's being whiny, actually. Your comments are typical of the sense of entitlement so many people seem to have these days: all rights, no responsibilities.

      You further make the common error of confusing culture with religion and the extent to which one informs the other. You will find the same "relegation of women to.. inferior status" and "heinous treatment of gay people" in the writings of the Old and New testaments of the Christian tradition. It is not so very long since homosexuals were imprisoned for 'gross indecency' in the UK. The present Pope is at present grappling with entrenched anti-gay sentiment in his clerisy. You want subjugated women? Have a look at some more extreme Christian sects in the US. Want seriously anti-gay Christian sentiment with oppressive laws and violence against gays? Try Uganda.

      Which is not to condone Islamist (or any other flavour of) violence in any sense, merely to point out that we in the secular West no longer take our religion as seriously as some people elsewhere do. Christians aren't very happy about you ridiculing Jesus, but normally don't kill you for it these days (although Christians in the US have killed a few abortionists). But sensitivity to the feelings of others is not censorship.

      What satirical point was being made by showing Muslim women at prayer with bare buttocks, anyway? Any idea? Or is your point really: "I don't care, I do as I like"?

    • 16 January 2015 at 5:40pm says: @ Alan Benfield
      As a gay person, I'm well aware of most of the world's religious bigotry and ignorance towards gay people, including Christian Uganda resembling Muslim Iran, and the obvious points which you have stated. If political/social satire were to be dictated by "sensitivity to others," it would be ridiculously limited.
      Whose sensitivity? Yours or mine?
      Your timid, apologist approach illustrates your own issues, as well as your lack of understanding of elementary satire.
      You also assume taking one's religion seriously is a virtue, as opposed to the source of much of the violence and conflict in today's(and yesterday's) world.

    • 20 January 2015 at 10:36am
      Alan Benfield says: @
      As a timid, apologist straight person, with absolutely no understanding of elementary satire, I am of course not equipped to comment on anything at all, I realise now.

      Thanks for that wake-up call. My sincerest apologies for my presumption.

      P.S. remarking that some people take their religion more seriously than others is simply stating a fact, not seeing any virtue in it. If that had been my intention (and I defy you to provide any evidence apart from your own prejudices in support of this) it would also be very odd on my part, as I am an atheist.

      P.P.S What 'political/social' satirical point was being made by showing Muslim women at prayer with bare buttocks, by the way? You seem to have overlooked that one. While having absolutely no understanding of elementary satire, I am nevertheless willing to learn at the feet of the master...

  • 16 January 2015 at 6:18am says:
    One more thing, who is looking for "harmless fun" in social/political satire?

  • 16 January 2015 at 6:19am
    frmurphy98 says:
    Yes. About as funny as any other CH cartoon I've seen in recent days. The fact remains, however, that, unlike Private Eye, it is a publication better known for punching down at the powerless than punching up.

    • 16 January 2015 at 9:03am
      ander says: @ frmurphy98
      Err...have you seen the one on Monsignor Vingt-Trois? Hardly downmarket.

    • 16 January 2015 at 11:19am
      frmurphy98 says: @ ander
      No, you misunderstood me. Charlie Hebdo certainly is not downmarket.
      What I said is that, unlike Private Eye, CH is better known for punching downwards at powerless targets - like poor immigrants and the unemployed - than it is for punching upwards at the powerful. The fact that its readership is generally well-educated and well-heeled makes this all the more unfortunate. (But lest there be any confusion, the distaste I feel for the publication is far outweighed by my repugnance at the human misery inflicted last week).

    • 16 January 2015 at 1:11pm
      ander says: @ frmurphy98
      I'm afraid you misunderstand me. CH's punch against Vingt-Trois is what you call an upward punch (if I understand the expression.) The cartoon in question by the way got just published at

  • 16 January 2015 at 10:16am
    stettiner says:
    Mr Harding - as many others, like for example Joe Sacco in the Guardian - conflates the issue of racism with blasphemy.

    • 16 January 2015 at 2:15pm
      Alan Benfield says: @ stettiner
      I assume you are referring to this strip by Joe Sacco:

      I know I'm probably a bit slow, but could you explain to me :

      1. what "conflates the issue of racism with blasphemy" means in this context and
      2. how it applies to either the above cartoon or Jeremy Harding's piece?

    • 16 January 2015 at 4:19pm
      stettiner says: @ Alan Benfield
      1. What has racist "Jew-baiting" to do with blasphemy?
      2. Please, visit for a more eloquent than I could manage response to your question

      WARNING! It's possible that the piece in Hurryupharry is written by a Jew, I don't know. You may have problem with that.

    • 20 January 2015 at 10:22am
      Alan Benfield says: @ stettiner
      Thanks for the link. He makes some very good points.

      Why would I have problems with it being written by a Jew? Do you consider me an anti-Semite for some reason? Would you have problems if it was written by a Muslim?

      And where does Jeremy Harding equate/conflate "racist “Jew-baiting”" with blasphemy?

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