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.

On Voltaire and tolerance

Publishers in France are reprinting as fast as they can Voltaire's Treatise on Tolerance, originally published in 1763.  At the Charlie March for the Republic on Sunday January 11, 2015, many participants were holding the book high above their heads, and now bookstores cannot keep the title in stock.  The book has always been available because it is required reading in French schools and about 10,000 copies are sold each year.  But from January 7 to 14, 2015, because of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, 7,000 copies were sold.  Voltaire's book is a plea for religious tolerance.

For those reading this post out of sequence, I wrote it as a continuation to my post of January 22, 2015, titled "Charlie Hebdo and French satire" where I explained the long French tradition of tolerance regarding irreverent satire and raunchy cartoons.  (My post on Charlie Hebdo will be published after this one so it can show up first on my blog.)  The French satirical press has no taboos when it comes to mock power or religion, and this tradition dates back to way before the French Revolution.  Even if they find the cartoons tasteless or vulgar the French public thinks that cartoonists have the right to draw and publish them without fearing for their lives.

Francois Marie Arouet, known under his pen name Voltaire (1694-1778) was a French writer and philosopher.  He wrote satirical poems and was sent to jail several times because of them and had to move and live in foreign countries.  He was a friend of Benjamin Franklin and a contemporary of Mozart.  He believed that people should have freedom of speech, religion, movement, the press, etc.  He spoke against government oppression in France, against financial inequality and for social reform.  He wrote plays, poetry, essays, scientific and historical works, more than 2,000 books and 20,000 letters and pamphlets.

After having written against the Duke of Orleans, Voltaire was sent to the Bastille prison in Paris where he was flogged.  He left for England for 3 years.  His books were burnt in Paris, Geneva and Amsterdam.  Voltaire said in his Philosophical Dictionary "What can you say to a man who tells you he prefers obeying God rather than men, and that as a result he's certain he'll go to heaven if he cuts your throat?"  Voltaire was a French icon.  He was the most successful writer of his time and the most scandalous, and the French hold him dear.

Voltaire was outspoken and his ideas influenced many others, including thinkers of both the French and American revolutions.  He is known for a famous quotation that he did not pronounce - the meaning was there but not the exact words - here is the quotation below in English and French (it sounds better in English than in French since it was originally written in English first.)

"I do not agree with what you have to say, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it."

"Je ne suis pas d'accord avec ce que vous dites, mais je me battrai jusqu'a la mort pour que vous ayez le droit de le dire."

In a letter dated February 6, 1770, to the abbot Le Riche he wrote: "Dear Mr. Abbot, I hate what you are writing, but I would give my life so that you may keep on writing."  In 1906 an Edwardian British writer, Evelyn Hall writing under the pen name of S. G. Tallentyre, translated Voltaire's sentence with the well known quotation "I do not agree with what you have to say ..."  She wished not to make a literal translation of Voltaire's phrase but instead a summary of his thought.  She later said that her sentence should not have been placed between quotation marks since it was her own paraphrase.  Although by that time the book had been translated into French and the quotation had become popular.  But, in a way, even if he did not say these exact words, this quotation illustrates his philosophy very well.  (I know that French translations into English can be tricky!)

"La tolérance n'a jamais excité de guerre civile ; l'intolérance a couvert la terre de carnage."

"Tolerance has never brought civil war; intolerance has covered the earth with carnage."

Voltaire painted by Nicolas de Largilliere - 1656-1746

Here is an excerpt from chapter twenty-two of his Treatise on Tolerance -

Chapitre XXII - De la tolérance universelle
Il ne faut pas un grand art, une éloquence bien recherchée, pour prouver que des chrétiens doivent se tolérer les uns les autres. Je vais plus loin : je vous dis qu'il faut regarder tous les hommes comme nos frères.  Quoi ! mon frère le Turc ? mon frère le Chinois ? le Juif? le Siamois ? Oui, sans doute   …. Mais ces peuples nous méprisent ; mais ils nous traitent d'idolâtres ! Hé bien ! je leur dirai qu'ils ont grand tort.

Chapter XXII - Of Universal Tolerance

"It does not require any great art or studied elocution to prove that Christians ought to tolerate one another.  I will go even further and say that we ought to look upon all men as our brothers.  What! call a Turk, a Chinese, a Jew, and a Siamese, my brother? Yes, of course ... But these people despise us and call us idolaters! Well, then, I should tell them that they are very wrong."

 Voltaire welcoming his guests, painted by Jean Huber, Swiss 1721-1786

Some more quotations -

"Nous avons assez de religion pour haïr et persécuter et nous n'en avons pas assez pour aimer et pour secourir."

"We have enough religion to hate and persecute, but not enough to love and help one another."

Already in his work "Candide" Voltaire had said "If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him." ("Si Dieu n’existait pas, il faudrait l’inventer.")   In "Le Sottisier" he said: "Si Dieu nous a fait à son image, nous le lui avons bien rendu." "If God created us in his own image, we have more than reciprocated."

Voltaire discussing with the abbot Adam - engraving by Joseph Lante, 1764

By his fight against intolerance, superstition and the Catholic Church Voltaire appears to be one of the founders of the French "laique" idea.  Before the Revolution of 1789, the Catholic Church in France was the largest land owner, imposing taxes on people and taking 10% of all harvest while having peasants paying taxes on the land as well.  They imposed many types of taxes and were intolerant - you needed to go to church to get schooling or get treated by doctors or hospitals and be buried - no church attendance = nothing, not even being able to register births and deaths.  The French Revolution was in large part against the domination of the French Catholic Church and its clergy and why a strong separation of Church and State was established.  It is now firmly rooted in French law.

The French Republic was founded then in part to challenge the prerogatives of the Catholic Church.  The big difference with the American Revolution is that it established the right for everyone to practice religion of their choice.  But for the French Revolution, it was first the right not to "believe" in a god or the right not to practice a religion, since for centuries they were forced to do so.  So, it is a different concept.  If you ask French people if they are Christians, about 60% or so will say yes, because for them it is a cultural idea.  But then you find out that only 4.5% attend church regularly, compared to 65% or more going to church regularly in the Southern United States where I live.  In France "laicite" (which could be translated as radical secularism but not atheism) is cherished, enshrined in its identity and in its Constitution.  It is engraved in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 1789, offering every citizen freedom of "conscience."

France also takes freedom of speech incredibly seriously, just as Voltaire did.  Charlie Hebdo, the satirical French weekly is an opponent of all forms of organized religions of the "No God, No Master" type.  It ridiculed the pope, orthodox Jews, and Muslims equally.  It was ferocious against extremism of all types and offended everyone and has been called "a true equal-opportunity offender."  French people just defended Charlie Hebdo's right to provoke them.  Charlie Hebdo did not incite racial hatred towards Muslims, or Christians or Jews, but they mocked and criticized their religons equally and were boldly defiant of any convention.  This is OK with the French, since religion is not as important to them as it is in some other countries.  This is why, almost 4 million people, of no-religion or any religion marched in France to defend their freedom of speech.

"Let us therefore reject all superstition in order to become more human; but in speaking against fanaticism, let us not imitate the fanatics: they are sick men in delirium who want to chastise their doctors.  Let us assuage their ills, and never embitter them, and let us pour drop by drop into their souls the divine balm of toleration, which they would reject with horror if it were offered to them all at once."  - Voltaire

"Rejetons donc toute superstition, afin de devenir plus humains; mais en parlant contre le fanatisme, n'irritons point les fanatiques; ce sont des malades en délire, qui veulent battre leurs médecins. Adoucissons leurs maux, ne les aigrissons jamais; et faisons couler goutte à goutte dans leur âme ce baume divin de la tolérance, qu'ils rejetteraient avec horreur, si on le leur présentait à pleine coupe." Voltaire
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