Why satire is holy to the French

Charlie Hebdo is heir to a centuries’ old tradition of political and religious satire in France.

'Paris is Charlie' is projected onto the Arc de Triomphe in Paris [AFP]

The demonstrations held in Paris on Sunday, brought together almost 4 million people in support of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and freedom of speech. The rally is widely considered as the major event in French modern history. Yet, its significance appears to be misunderstood outside of the hexagon, especially in the Middle East.

When the streets of Paris were overtaken by “Charlies”, all of them brandishing “Je Suis Charlie” placards, it did not mean that the overwhelming majority of the population were diehard fans of the magazine and its often abusive and vulgar drawings. Nor were the hundreds of thousands of “Je Suis Ahmed” placard carriers, all Muslims. In fact, many of them were agnostics, Christians and even Jews. They were all supporters of the courage this French Muslim police officer displayed in attempting to stop two barbarians from murdering defenceless cartoonists in the name of his religion.

French society is extremely diverse, enriched by the largest Muslim and Jewish communities in Europe. In all major French cities, rabbis, priests and imams marched together in defence of freedom, and the right to express any opinion – however irreverent it may be – and challenge all ideologies. It is for this reason that the banner “I think therefore I am Charlie” was raised on top of the Place de la Republique in Paris.

Permission to mock

Was Charlie Hebdo excessive? Absolutely. But political and social satire is in itself excessive and Charlie Hebdo’s cartoonists have proudly waved this excess as their coat of arms in the typical French tradition dating back to even before the French Revolution.

Why do images of the prophet offend Muslims?

Throughout the Middle Ages, French kings were accompanied by their buffoons, a comical character whose purpose was to amuse the courtesans and who had permission to mock the king himself.

This tradition lasted throughout the Renaissance and up until the reign of Louis XIV. But it has its roots in the very cradle of European civilisation, from Greece to Rome, from Aristophanes to Seneca. Aristophanes in particular is still known for his acidic portrait of Socrates entitled “The Clouds”.

When the French kings banned the buffoons, French society replaced them with writers. Among the most adored and studied writers in French schools are Moliere and Jean de La Fontaine. Both authors mocked the powerful, the zealots as well as the bourgeoisie through comical plays or fables. Their work now makes up the very DNA of French literature. Jean de la Fontaine hid behind the familiar and sympathetic faces of animals to sharpen his criticism of the French establishment. Those short stories were often accompanied by drawings mimicking the physical characteristics of kings and the leading political and religious figures of the time.

This tradition was strengthened by the French Revolution when satire fuelled the rallying popular forces and the mockeries against Marie Antoinette’s lavish lifestyle while Parisians died of hunger.

Modern satire

The importance of satire has increased over the last 20 years through the emergence of the Guignol de l’Info, a daily puppet show screened on French TV channel Canal Plus, and considered nothing short of a cultural institution in France. During the 1995 and 2002 presidential elections, the satiric show was often cited as having influenced the election of Jacques Chirac, who was regularly portrayed as more sympathetic than his opponent Edouard Balladur, frequently represented with the traits of Louis XVI, a fat, dull king.

Similarly, Le Canard Enchaine, a much-appreciated weekly newspaper, details the abuse and petty behaviour of the French political class, mocking them through puns and caricatures, regularly unveiling corruption scandals or illegal practices.

Satire, whether portrayed by Charlie Hebdo, Le Canard Enchaine or the Guignols de l’Info, is perceived in France as an enjoyable and much-needed counter power. Through playful, simplistic drawings, they contribute to the democratic game and the healthiness of society, criticising multinational corporations’ abuses and US foreign policy, and indiscriminately taunting all ideologies and religions.

Some of the members of the editorial staff killed last week were strong advocates of humanitarian efforts, support to Palestine or revolution against financial globalisation. The difference with Dieudonne who allegedly tweeted #JeSuisCharlieCoulibaly and supports an overtly xenophobic movement cannot be more obvious.

And yet, the limits to freedom of expression and satire in France have been debated for some time now, even before the Paris attacks, in the context of the xenophobic comments regularly made by former stand-up comedian – now Front National advocate – Dieudonne M’Bala M’Bala.

Even today, in extreme right circles, political militants are quick to point out the double standards of tolerance as Charlie Hebdo is canonised as an apostle of freedom of the press while Dieudonne is prohibited from continuing his humorous sketches largely filled with heinous rhetoric.

The difference between the two, however, is quite clear and regulated by French law – more specifically, the freedom of the press law of 1881, prohibiting “defamatory or insulting [comments], that would encourage discrimination, hatred or violence against a person or group of persons because of their place of origin, ethnicity or absence of ethnicity, nationality, race or specific religion”.

Charlie Hebdo’s targets

Charlie Hebdo has in the past been taken to court, but the magazine has always been cleared of charges levelled against it, whether from former French President Nicolas Sarkozy or by the leader of the extreme right, when the publication ridiculed the Front National’s xenophobia.

This is in contrast to Dieudonne who targeted one specific religion and was perceived to be advocating for violence; Charlie Hebdo mostly treated all religions and ideologies alike. Every political party, minister or presidential candidate has regularly been a target of Charlie Hebdo – but never did the publication call for any sort of violence.

Ironically, some of the members of the editorial staff killed last week were strong advocates of humanitarian efforts, support to Palestine or revolution against financial globalisation. The difference with Dieudonne who allegedly tweeted #JeSuisCharlieCoulibaly and supports an overtly xenophobic movement cannot be more obvious.

A week after what might be described as a political assassination, Charlie Hebdo is not dead. The publication, which usually sold 20,000 copies a week, is printing 50 times more on Wednesday for their first post-attack issue. The cover features a drawing of Prophet Muhammad crying and holding a “Je Suis Charlie” sign, under the heading: “Tout est Pardonne” (All is forgiven).

Standing up for the French satirical tradition and refusing to back down under the pressure of a terrorist act, it sketches again the Muslim prophet. But the message should not be misconstrued by those who forget that the representation of the prophet was only proscribed in the 13th century.

The cover of this issue of Charlie Hebdo offers forgiveness after bloodshed. It must be seen as a gesture in support of the values of freedom supported by millions of French citizens of all origins. It is also a message for those who will likely suffer most in the long run as a result of these events; the Muslim community in France, now held hostage by a few fanatics while largely happy to be an integral part of a multicultural French society.

Remi Piet is assistant professor of public policy, diplomacy and international political economy at Qatar University.