Thursday, January 22, 2015

Charlie Hebdo and French satire

This is a continuation of my post entitled Pine Trees, fir trees, Old Happy New Year and more ... Everyone was happy in Paris on New Year's Day 2015, ready for a great year, but in the morning of January 7, 2015, two French radical extremist brothers, born from Algerian emigrants to France, killed 11 staff members of a French satirical weekly newspaper, Charlie Hebdo (hebdo is short for "hebdomadaire" meaning weekly.)  Then they executed a Muslim policeman outside the building.  A friend of the two terrorists above, a French citizen born from an emigrant family from Mali, terrorized a Jewish kosher supermarket in Paris and killed 4 hostage.  This tragedy was shown on television internationally and written up in most newspapers.  I do not have a picture of the Charlie Hebdo building but below is a mural painted by Philippe Rebuffet on the wall of the Theatre Comedie Bastille located on the same block, a number 5 Nicolas Appert Street (courtesy Paris dans mon Oeil and the picture of the Hypermarche cacher is from French Wikipedia (photo by JJ Georges.)  In the collage above, top right, is the French flag flown in Toronto, Canada, in solidarity and memory of the victims.  Bottom left are tricolor pencils in the pocket of the Premier of Romania, and on the right people marching in Atlanta, Georgia.

France has a very long tradition of satire.  It started even before the country was called France but Gaul.  The Gauls (a Celtic people who lived in the region from 5th century BC to 3rd century AD) would create potteries of people with heads of monkeys or other animals to make fun of them.  There are caricature paintings of French King Philippe IV (Philippe le Bel - 1268-1314) showing him with the head of a donkey.  In the 16th century after paper and printing arrived in Europe, cartoons would be released in greater numbers throughout the kingdom of France.  At the time cartoons were most often made to mock the Church but later on they included the monarchy, and everyday life in general.  King Francis I (1494-1547) authorized the publication of cartoons in France, although when cartoons were made of him, he later censured them.  People did not speak "French" then, just in the area around Paris, but every region had their own dialect, like Provencal in the south of France, or Normand in Normandy and Breton in Brittany, so cartoons could be visually understood by everyone in the kingdom (even if they were illiterate.)  In the 18th century since cartoons could no longer be made about the king, the clergy became the favorite target of the artists, as well as the sexual antics of the nobility.  During the revolutionary period of 1789, cartoons were used as information tools, to mobilize and to call the citizens to rebel against the monarchy and the Church.  (click on collage to enlarge.)

The golden age for satirical press in France came after the Revolution.  It became popular and had a wide distribution, such as: La Caricature published from 1830 to 1904; Le Journal pour Rire (The Journal to Laugh) from 1848 to 1855; Le Journal Amusant from 1856 to 1953; La Lanterne 1868-1876; Le Rire, from 1894 to the 1950s; La Calotte, an anticlerical paper started in 1907; L'Assiette au Beurre from 1901 to 1930, and many others.  The French public has always had a high tolerance for satire.  The French Courts did not condemn humor as it would have been a serious violation of freedom of expression, even when politicians and the church brought lawsuits against satirical newspapers.

As I was growing up in Paris my mother had a subscription to Le Canard Enchaine (canard in French means duck but in slang it means newspaper, so the Chained Duck of Paper) a weekly satirical paper started in 1905 and still published every Wednesday (some of Charlie Hebdo's artists often published cartoons in this weekly as well.) My mother enjoyed the cartoons and would explain to me what they meant, as they were usually political cartoons against various members of the government.  But they also followed the long French tradition of making fun of any personality, writer, clergy, sports, etc.  They also revealed some scandals that caused some politicians to step down.  My mother had a pointed sense of humor, mocking everything, and we laughed so often.  Even when she was paralyzed with Parkinson's disease, we would laugh to tears.  Here in the US I found comedy pretty tame and juvenile, mixed often with sentimentality and hardly ever making fun of religion.  Cartoons in general are not as strong in their political comments as in France or Belgium.  Below are vintage cartoons of Victor Hugo, Emile Zola and Charles de Gaulle.

Even Gustave Eiffel, the builder of our venerable Paris Eiffel Tower had many cartoons drawn against him before the tower was built.  Now the Eiffel Tower is world known and recognized.  In 2010, 250 million people, from everywhere, visited it.  It is the most visited paid monument in the world.  I have many pictures of it taken over the years, postcards, souvenirs, etc.  In my kitchen is a large photo of the tower on canvas, and last month at an estate sale I bought a picture cartoon of it (for $2!)  I don't need it, but could not resist it.  At Christmas I took a picture of the tower as an ornament on our daughter's tree.

On February 4, 1887, a letter was published in the French newspaper Le Temps (The Times.)  It had been written by well-known French artists and creative minds such as Alexandre Dumas fils, Guy de Maupassant, Charles Gounod, William Bouguereau and more, protesting the building of this "ugly" tower that was to be erected at the entrance arch of the 1889 World's Fair in Paris.  Here is the letter reproduced below:

It is too long for me to translate it, but in the letter they do say that "... Finally when foreigners will come to visit our Exhibition, they will exclaim, astonished, "What? What is this horror that the French have found to give us as an idea of their taste that is so touted" "And they will be right to make fun of us ..."  Gustave Eiffel answered, in the same newspaper, saying that the tower will possess its own beauty, and talking about tall monuments he said: "And why what is admirable in Egypt would become ugly and ridiculous in Paris?"  So cartoons were drawn showing Gustave Eiffel with his hands on a small sized Pyramid.

This was just to show that cartoons are drawn against many subjects.  In France comic books, comic films, comic strips, and editorial cartoons are considered a part of the same art form, unlike in the US.  The four killed cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo worked also for other newspapers, magazines like "Paris Match" and television.  They were famous and the public knew their names for many years.  They would appear as guests on talk shows.  One of them, Cabu, regularly appeared on television and would draw cartoons and discuss the day's issues.  One of my favorite comic strips here was drawn by US cartoonist, Garry Trudeau.  I was surprised to learn that more than 30 US newspapers censored his strips many times or banned his work from daily newspapers (some would place his work in the classified ads section!)  Garry said:  "Satire is unfair.  It's rude and uncivil.  It lacks balance and proportion, and it obeys none of the normal rules of engagement.  Satire picks a one-sided fight, and the more its intended target reacts, the more its practitioner gains the advantage."  But in France cartoonists are genuine cultural celebrities and French people grieved their passing.  Below are some cartoons drawn in solidarity with the killed artists (the cartoon on the top right is drawn by Mile Luckovich of the Atlanta Journal newspaper and the top left is drawn by a Muslim cartoonist in a Tunisian newspaper.)

The reason I gave this history of satire and cartoons in France is to show that this is a long standing and deeply rooted tradition that is truly an integral part of French culture.  Since the Revolution it has been used against the excesses of government and religion, to cut down the powerful and sacred.  It is a French specialty and it is used to denounce and break down barriers, and to give an unsparing and sardonic look at the news.  This type of French sarcasm is not well understood in America and other countries.  There is no equivalent here.  US irony is very soft by comparison, watered-down and politically correct (apart from French bashing during the Iraq war ...) and that is OK for the local culture.  But France has different traditions and sensibilities.  Sometimes French cartoons are offensive, vicious, obscene and objectionable, true enough, but French society accept this with patience and resignation as a defense of individual freedom.  Charlie Hebdo really intends to offend, (not easily understood here in a media-correct culture) and make fun of extremists.  France does not automatically treat faith with reverence anyway.  French people believe that religions are ideologies that should be open to criticism.  In the US making fun of religion is frown upon, but each country manages its freedom of speech according to its one culture and taboos.  To have free speech is to make sure that people can say unpopular things against the current powers, be they political or religious.  That is why almost 4 million people were not afraid to march in France - to keep this freedom.  They wanted to show that radical extremists cannot silence their fellow countrymen and women, even under threats of death. (Click on collage to read signs.)

 As you can see above many people of Muslin faith marched as well.  Muslims in France are some of the most secular Muslims in Europe; it is just some in the younger generation who have become more militant.  It is the same for Jewish people.  One of my best friends in high school was Jewish and she never went to a synagogue - the same for my Algerian friend who did not go to a mosque - it is not only the people of long French lineage who are secular.  France has a very strong law on separation of church and state which they call "laicite" that cannot really be translated by "secularism" as it is stronger, but it is not atheism.  In comparison the separation of church and state in the USA is very weak and in some places, nonexistent.  For example, for almost two decades now there has been a national trend in the US to lead evangelical church meetings in public schools, averaging about 50 new school per year.  Some new Protestant congregations don't even finance and build churches to avoid mortgages and expenses.  It is cheaper for them to have meetings in public schools paid by the US tax payer.  Some churches have been meeting in schools rent free for years.  Since the US public is timid about protesting against anything religious (at least against the Christian religion,) the movement is growing.  The US religious right has advocacy groups with combined budgets of more than $100 million per year to plant more churches in public schools and to target younger children.  There is even a new type of entrepeneur called a "church planter."  If Catholic churches decided to celebrate mass in French schools there would be a popular uprising I think!

The French are proud of their law and the majority of the French public agrees with it (78%.)  For centuries the authority of the Church in France was immense - they had total political and social control over the country.  It took a long time for the French to free themselves from the domination of the Church and they now view all religious matters to be totally private.  My friend Peter of Peter's Paris blog said "laicite is a must for democracy!!...Here, in France, we live together in a democratic state, not under any particular religion.  It's all about the defense of secularism and at the same time a struggle against religious fanaticism, of any religion.  This includes of course the right to be non-religious!"  see his post here .  This means that candidates don't mention their religion when seeking office, don't swear on the Bible when taking office, and the President does not say "So help me God" after taking the oath of office like in the US.  It also means that atheists can hold office (seven US states still prohibit non-believers to hold office in their states.)  There is no "In God we trust" on the money like on the dollar bills, no "a nation under God" as in the US pledge of allegiance, and no "In God we trust" as on the state of Georgia motor vehicle license plates.  The separation is total - the French state is neutral.

French weekly Charlie Hebdo (named after the American cartoon character Charlie Brown and also for Charles de Gaulle) was a niche type newspaper with a low circulation.  The paper was having financial difficulties and management was not sure how much longer they could keep it in circulation.  Ironically, considering that one of the reasons it was attacked was to silence this weekly, I read on January 18, 2015 on the Israel newspaper Haaretz "Charlie Hebdo printing 7 million copies of first post-massacre issue.  Paris magazine at center of terror attacks usually prints 60,000 copies; first 3 million copies sold out within hours."  (All profits from selling these issues will go to the family of the victims.)

From being a marginal French weekly it has become internationally known.  People in France and several countries stood in line to buy this latest issue.

French and people in many countries stood up and marched to show they were not afraid to make it clear that every civilized person, of any or no religion, repudiates the outrageous concept that a person should die for drawing a cartoon.  (Photo below courtesy of original Schultz cartoon by Magus.)

Since the Charlie Hebdo attacks, Voltaire's Treatise on Tolerance has been snapped up in bookstores all over France.  This post is already very long, so I'll continue on Voltaire on another post.



50 comments:

bayou said...

Absolutely brilliant, Vagabonde! You should write in a newspaper. I love the way you express your thoughts, how carefully you gathered all the details. Félicitations!

Valerie-Jael said...

WONDERFUL post! Valerie

claude said...

Bonjour Vagabonde.
La caricature peur toucher tout le monde, sauf...
J'ai été bouleversé par ce qui s'est passé et extrêmement touchée
par tous ces rassemblement, surtout celui de Paris.
Nos gouvernants semblent vouloir se remuer un peu, car on a laissé venir, on a laissé faire et voilà le résultat.
Merci pour cet excellent post.
Bises

Jeanne said...

Very fascinating history here, and love all of your photos. This recent event was such a tragedy in Paris. These terrorist happenings are something terrible in all of the world and makes people feel so vulnerable. Hope that your new year is going well. I always so enjoy your posts!

DJan said...

I have cried many tears over the events in Paris. I knew that the French really understand freedom of expression, but your post has made it all clear to me as to how long this has been part of French history. That I did not know. Thank you for this, VB. I wish the same freedom of expression was as well documented here in the US, but as you say, we are not as tolerant of differences here.

Nadezda said...

Vagabonde, you write that there is a long tradition of satire in France. I remember Tartuffe, have read in school. What had happened in Paris - this is madness.

David said...

Vagabonde, Very interesting history lesson...well written as usual. You are right that American political/societal cartoonists are not as biting as some other countries. Religion is generally not a topic but there are exceptions...such as the Catholic Church sex scandals. The father of American Political cartoon satire was Thomas Nast and he took on just about any topic and he was very aggressive! Thomas Nast, 1840 - 1902, check him out at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Nast. There is no doubt that earlier US editorial cartoonists were more outspoken! To view current political cartoons...daily...go to
http://editorialcartoonists.com/?utm_source=twitterfeed&utm_medium=twitter. Great post on your part! Take Care, Big Daddy Dave

Kay said...

Thank you so much for this post. I understand so much better now. From the American point of view, I was seeing the paper as being too much over the top. Now I can appreciate the French point of view and the history behind it.

The Solitary Walker said...

This is an excellent, informative, comprehensive post, Vagabonde, and I thank you for it.

Nous sommes Charlie.

Frances said...

Vagabonde, I thank you so much for this post. I have learned much, and gained a greater appreciation of just how horrific the recent attacks in Paris were, and are.

I particularly thank you for your comparisons of journalism, freedom of expression, etc., in France and in the States.

xo

Jeanie said...

The events in Paris have upset me deeply. It became non-stop viewing and yet I wanted to walk away and look at photos from my visits or beautiful blogs and think of Paris as I knew it. But I also know that I only know the tourist's Paris. Not the demonstrations that I learned are so frequent or the complexities of speech or satire as you have so beautifully explained.

It's interesting -- I've always appreciated satire. Whether it is the Daily Show or Life of Brian or Mad Magazine. I think there's a point where it becomes mean and I'm not big on that. And not being from that kind of ultra-fundamental culture, I don't know what buttons can be pushed. Apparently something. But you don't kill for that.

I'm grateful that you shared all the info you did -- the background, the current events. Another chunk of our world changed that day. I don't want to know what is next.

Julie said...

Hello Vagabonde,

I visit courtesy of Peter's blog.

I thank you for this post and for the post on Voltaire, which I read first. I have learnt so much, for which I am grateful I appreciate your thoughts, and your considered, easy-to-read prose.

Glenda Beall said...

your posts are exemplary and this one is a history lesson I really enjoyed Sometimes in the U.S. we seem to be isolated from the world, ignorant of the history of other countries. Thank you for enlightening us.

The Solitary Walker said...

Vagabonde — I would like to link to this excellent post on my blog, and quote a little from it, if that's OK.

Ruth said...

Many writers have responded to the Charlie Hebdo attacks and have expanded my thinking and understanding. Yours has multiplied that even more, with this history of the depth of French protection of this idea of freedom. I so appreciate it.

I had not even come across anything about Charlie Brown being one of the sources of the name!

Also, this helps me understand how much and why religious fanaticism in the U.S. has been such a challenge for you!

Retired English Teacher said...

You have given us a very informative piece of writing. Thank you.

am said...

Thank you so much for this post. I'm here by way of Solitary Walker's Blog.

Freda said...

A wonderfully written piece which has increased my understanding. Thank you.

Nadege said...

I just love your posts so much. Journalists, if there are any good ones left, should consult you before opening their mouths or uttering nonsense on TV… You really should create a Facebook page just for your blog, "recollection of a vagabonde" page. You would be able to reach so many more people.

DeniseinVA said...

A very powerful post and a clear and succinct explanation. I feel more enlightened now. Thank you so much. I will be back to read this again.

Ginnie said...

I love how you have given such a thorough history of the French use of satire, Vagabonde, and how it is part and fiber of the French culture. I think all countries could learn a lot from France right now, including the USA!

sweffling said...

Thank you so much for two very powerful posts. I hope you don't mind but I have posted a link to them on my blog and facebook page as I believe so many of us outside France do not really know about the French legacy of satire. I have learned a very great deal from these posts and I hope others will too. They deserve a huge circulation. Congratulations!

Denise Covey said...

Hello Vagabonde.
Thank you for the lesson on French satire. I knew there was a long history of lampooning. Australia mercilessly satirises our politicians but we are becoming more politically correct about other things.

Thank you for your comment on my blog about the locks in Paris. I knew some of this. The title is more metaphoric with only a little reference to the Pont des Arts, but if it is such an unpopular thing I may have to do a rethink!

Keep up the good work.

Denise :-)

Gattina said...

There were marches here in Brussels too, for the freedom of the press. Everybody was "Charlie" too. But after the edition of "Charlie Hebdo" after the attack, it was very much criticized, people found it too provocative.

Miss_Yves said...

Merci pour cet historique complet et brillant!
Que l'avenir nous préserve, en France du"Politiquelent correct" qui commence d'éjà à sévir.

Miss_Yves said...

PB pour laisser un message!
Rien n'apparaît

Miss_Yves said...

http://photograff.blogspot.fr/2014/11/de-pere-en-fils-chez-philippe-rebuffet.html

Miss_Yves said...

il me semblait bien , lors de ces tragiques faits, avoir vu, dans des reportages télévisés, un pan d'immeuble décoré, selon le style de philippe Rebuffet: merci pour cette information!

joared said...

Thank you so very much for providing this informative historical background on the French perspective on satire. Seems I share the French view -- would that we were not so "soft" in satires use in this nation.

Marja said...

Vagebonde I loved reading this. I lie satire and I think it is healthy way to balance things. In Holland church and state are separated as well and in NZ too and so it should be. It is so multi cultural here that it couldn't be anyway else. oh and uh Je suis Charlie
Love from NZ

ELFI said...

merci! un billet formidable! mais mon anglais est resté à l'école....

Terry said...

Thank you so much for writing this! Such deep research and history. I knew the French have a much more serious appreciation of what it means to have free speech, now I have more of the background.

I hope it helps the French to know that many in the USA are also grieving and outraged at this horrible crime. We are not all idiots.

Castles Crowns and Cottages said...

Oh comme je ne vais jamais oublier ce moment, en fait, j'ai écrit un poème au sujet de ce moment. J'adore la France, et je savais qu'elle a une histoire d'écrire et publier les commentaires des bêtises de l'humanité.

Chère amie, merci mille fois d'être venue me dire, Au Revoir; ce n'est pas ADIEU. J'ai des autres chose à faire et le blogging prend trop de temps, cependent, je l'aime bien.

Merci encore pour vos mots si tendres et gentils! Anita

Jono said...

This is a wonderful piece! Your insight is a wonderful teaching gift and I still love learning. I envy the freedom of speech in France and wish we had such a tradition in the U.S.

Pat said...

The French reacted as I would expect them to react. Vive La France.
Our French son works from Paris which is a worry, but he also works from Moscow and Chicago.

musard said...

Merci de cet éclairage à destination d'anglophones forcément un peu surpris. J'ignorais pour ma part la spécificité française de cette caricature violente.

Optimistic Existentialist said...

Thank you so much for the educational nature of this post. I really feel I learned a lot. My heart is with the French people...

Lonicera said...

Hi Vagabonde, nice to be back reading your excellent blog again after 2 years of silence. I'm trying to pick up where I left off. We followed the events in Paris very closely here, with plenty of London demonstrations about it, which I think surprised (and pleased) the French. The world response generally has made me hope that the message has got through loud and clear to the terrorists, and what they're up against. Did they expect everybody to cower in fear? The terrible death of the Jordanian pilot yesterday has made me wonder if IS have any sense at all - why turn all the Arab states against you? Anyway, nice to read you again. Caroline

Jenny Woolf said...

I have always thought that France and England have had surprisingly similar patterns of satire. I wonder if this will continue. Charlie Hebdo reminds me a bit of a magazine we had here once called Scallywag.

Al said...

Yes, freedom of speech is critical, as is satire. We must not let these terrorists silence us or they have won.

Draffin Bears said...

Hello Vagabonde,

Thanks for the great post and was good to read more from you. Satire is great and have seen some of the work from the magazine - we should always have freedom of speech.
Enjoy the weekend
Carolyn

Sam Hoffer / My Carolina Kitchen said...

You should be a reporter Vagabond. Perhaps you were in another life. You do THE very best when it comes to covering a subject completely and thoroughly. I for one had no idea French satire went back to Gaul.

Hope you're having a lovely weekend.
Sam

Akelamalu said...

Really interesting post. The events in Paris were shocking and tragic. :(

Paris Rendez-vous and Beyond said...

Bravo!! Bravo!! Bravo dear Vagabonde and Peter's Paris!!

Here, in Australia, I too hold the sentiments that you so eloquently expressed in this marvellous post. Just before those dreadful events in Paris, Sydney, Australia also experienced a shocking terrorist siege event (with loss of life) which you may have heard of.

We need to hear more voices like this....not just the politically correct spiel that we are wont to hear on radio and television these days.

And I am so over that little 'thumb up' "likes" on Facebook. It seems people are now unable to write even a 'word' in response to a posting...just a little click is all they have time for.

So...I am so pleased you found moi dear Vagabonde...as it has also allowed me to find you.
What a marvellous post you have written. Merci beaucoup!

Kind regards

Robyn

Carola Bartz said...

Vagabonde, this is one of the best posts I have ever read! As an immigrant to the US myself, although from a different European country, there is not much I can add to this, but I can nod to almost everything you wrote here in agreement. Thank you!!

Cergie said...

Bonjour Vagabonde, tu parles de François 1er qui a imposé le français et justement nous remontions la rue de Belleville hier en voiture, lorsque j'ai entendu parler de lui à la radio et de l'ordonnance de Villers-Cotterêts qui a imposé le français car on parlait plutôt alors soit le latin, soit l'italien soit surtout les langues régionales

http://www.histoire.presse.fr/dossiers/la-grande-aventure-de-la-langue-francaise/et-francois-ier-imposa-une-langue-officielle-01-11-2000-3681

Cergie said...

C'est drôle comme l'ensemble des personnes s'insurge contre les nouveautés pour ensuite se rendre à l'évidence, il n'est qu'à voir comme le projet du Louvre a été décrié. Pourtant à présent la pyramide et les aménagements sont vraiment appréciés...

Cergie said...

Liberté d'expression... Mais parfois aussi l'expression peut tuer, comme la radio des 1000 collines au Rwanda ou les fatwas. Expression mais pas n'importe laquelle....
(Un message bien documenté et passionnant, comme toujours)

Sallie (FullTime-Life) said...

Beautifully written and helpful. I learned so much from this post.

Jennifer A. Jilks said...

This is very illuminating! Well done. It really helps my understanding. In Canada we are pretty mild with mockment, although with many comedians, for example, in our melting pot society, there is a lot of self-depracating humour of ethnic, religious, and cultural aspects.
You wrote: "in the US I found comedy pretty tame and juvenile" and I agree. We purchase a lot of Brittish shows, not so much US.

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