French Humor, Turned Into Tragedy

Dominique Faget/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Dominique Faget/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

In September 2012, the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, defying the advice of the French government, published several lewd caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad.

I was in Tunis that week. There were tanks and soldiers outside the mosques, and graffiti in English, French and Spanish calling for revolution, declaring war on the West and all those who hated Islam. A few days earlier the United States Embassy in Tunis had been attacked, and the American School burned down. And shortly before that, the American ambassador to Libya had been murdered by a jihadist militia.

I spent a tense half-hour on the Avenue Habib Bourguiba, trying in vain, as a lone and very visible European, to hail a taxi before the curfew took effect. I cursed Charlie Hebdo for its willful and unnecessary provocations over the years: In 2006, the newspaper reprinted cartoons mocking Muhammad that had first appeared in a Danish newspaper, and in 2011, its offices were firebombed after it published a spoof issue, “Charia Hebdo,” a play on the word for Shariah law.

But, like everyone else in Paris, where I live, I was shocked to the core when I heard about the killings of 12 people at the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a 20-minute walk from my own office, on Wednesday morning.

I first became aware that something was wrong when I noticed heavily armed police officers and soldiers at every corner and cars being towed by military vehicles. I stopped for coffee on the Rue de Grenelle and everybody was talking at once and staring at the TV as it showed footage of the massacre, in which two police officers were killed, as well as the magazine’s editorial director, Stéphane Charbonnier, and several cartoonists.

“This is just another stage,” the guy next to me said.

“Another stage in what?” I said.

“The war against the Arabs,” he replied.

It has to be said that Charlie Hebdo is an unlikely victim of such unjustified violence. For most Parisians these days, the magazine is a quaint relic of the ’60s and ’70s that has long since lost its power to shock. Only the day before the killings, I had noticed on a newsstand a recent front cover of the magazine that showed a goofy-looking Virgin Mary giving birth to an even goofier-looking Christ. I shrugged and walked on, reflecting on how few people read the magazine these days, how it had only just begun to overcome its money troubles, and what a museum piece it had become.

To some extent, this was reflected in the ages of two prominent figures who were killed: the brilliant and much-loved cartoonists Jean Cabut (or Cabu) and Georges Wolinski were, respectively, 76 and 80. Most important, they belonged to the generation of May 1968 — the generation that had revolted against the heavy hand of Charles de Gaulle’s paternalism with a belief in unlimited liberty, unrestrained sexual behavior, drug taking and, above all, the freedom to mock all forms of moral and religious authority.

Charlie Hebdo’s relentless pursuit of provocation — or “la provoc” in slangy French — belongs to a very Parisian tradition. It dates to before the French Revolution, when it was termed “L’esprit frondeur,” or “slingshot wit.” (A “fronde” was a catapult used to hurl stones at the king in times of insurrection.)

What also made Charlie Hebdo, founded in 1970, so French was a militant, aggressive secularism. This again is an old tradition in French culture — historically, a way of policing the power of the Catholic Church. May ’68 was also the revolt of the young against the old, and anti-religious satire a key part of that revolt.

But in contemporary France, the young rebels of ’68 have long since become the cultural establishment, even if they still espouse the leftist and libertarian ideals of their younger days. Charlie Hebdo, for all its vaunted anarchism, has been a member of the establishment for a very long time.

Or at least this is how the magazine is viewed out in the banlieues — the enormous and often wretched suburbs that surround all major French cities and that are home to a huge immigrant population, mainly from former French colonies in the Middle East, Africa and Asia. What is seen in the center of Paris as tweaking the nose of authority — religious or political — is seen out in the banlieues as the arrogance of those in power who can mock what they like, including deeply held religious beliefs, perhaps the only part of personal identity that has not been crushed or assimilated into mainstream French society.

What was gunned down on Wednesday in Paris was a generation that believed foremost in the freedom to say what you like to whomever you like. Parisians pride themselves on what they call “gouaille,” a kind of cheeky wit, based on free thinking and a love of provocation, that always stands in opposition to authority.

The awful killings are the direct opposite of all that: the merciless massacre of the Parisian mind.

Andrew Hussey is a professor of cultural history and dean of the University of London’s Institute in Paris. He is the author, most recently, of The French Intifada: The Long War Between France and Its Arabs.

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