A question of taste for Charlie Hebdo

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The controversial Charlie Hebdo this week, criticised by the Kremlin. Credit: Charlie Hebdo

Just a few weeks ago, outgoing columnist at the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, Patrick Pelloux,  exclaimed: “Charlie Hebdo is dead”.

You would hardly think so after seeing the magazine’s two cartoons this week illustrating last Saturday’s downing of a Russian passenger flight over the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt, which killed 224 people.

The first depicted the smoking wreckage of the plane and a scattering of body parts surrounding a passenger’s skull wearing sunglasses which pointed to the “the dangers of Russian low-cost flights”. It was a gory, unforgiving image, even in cartoon form.

The other showed the plane’s debris – including broken bits of wings and the body of a passenger – falling on an Islamic State militant with the caption, “The Russian air force intensifies its air strikes”, after the country started its military operation at the end of September in an effort to prop up the Assad regime.

The Kremlin took no time at all in addressing the media on Friday to denounce the cartoons as “pure blasphemy”.

A spokesman from the Russian foreign ministry said they had nothing to do with democracy or freedom of expression, deeming the cartoons “unacceptable”.

Meanwhile, social media in Russia has been in uproar, with the hashtag “I am not Charlie” used to criticise the poor taste of the cartoons.

One tweet read: “Insane cynicism and a mockery of the memory of the victims of this terrible tragedy.”

The graphic depiction just under a week after Russia’s most deadly terrorist attack on its own people predictably touched a nerve. One of the country’s most popular social networks – VK – said the cartoons had been the most discussed topic among its 100 million active users.

Russian politicians have also taken to the airwaves to echo the Kremlin’s criticism.

This is a magazine which is continuing to sharpen its teeth and irreverence, nine months after gunmen stormed the magazine’s offices shooting twelve people dead.

Its editor-in-chief, Gérard Biard, came to the defence of the questionable taste of the cartoons. He said: “the Kremlin was using Charlie Hebdo to make a point.”

“They want to draw attention to two miserable cartoons and spark a controversy that’s unwarranted. It’s the usual manipulation of a totalitarian power”, he told AFP.

“We respect more values than those in power in Russia, like democracy, secularism and freedom of expression”, Biard said.

The terrorist attack back in January was seen as an attempt to threaten one of France’s most basic principles – freedom of expression, which the magazine displays in every issue.

It was a value that the French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius defended on Friday with direct reference to this week’s controversial Charlie cartoons.

Fabius said: “Freedom of expression is a pillar of French democracy. There is no question of touching it.”

He defended the magazine’s illustrations, saying front covers of Charlie Hebdo may offend other countries, but in France – where there are different religious and social contexts – “they don’t pose any problems”.

The magazine has turned to political satire and current affairs for inspiration for its front page, steering clear of sensitive religious cartoons. Some worry this is self-censorship creeping into the magazine.

Most recently in the firing line has been President François Hollande’s make-or-break climate conference later this month in Paris, which commentators say will significantly shape his political legacy. This unpopular president is an easy target for derision, seen as flip-flopping on running the country.

Ten years after heavy rioting across the country, Charlie Hebdo said the next firestarter would be far-right Front National party leader Marine Le Pen – a frequent front cover star – in the presidential elections in 2017.

The cover of a recent edition of Charlie Hebdo. It reads:
The cover of a recent edition of Charlie Hebdo. It reads: “Welcome, migrants! You’re at home here!”
Credit: Charlie Hebdo.

The flow of migrants to Europe has been a frequent cover story this year in a typically imaginative style. One September issue shows former news anchor Claire Chazal, who says ISIS treats her better than her employer after she was fired from her job.

Another depicts a migrant who had come to France to learn Latin, poking fun at controversial school reforms.

The magazine is now on a more even footing, through the weight of trauma among its staff is never too far from the surface.

Sales are up and it has recently moved into new offices, but so are the death threats. Staff live under around-the-clock protection by police and bodyguards.

Infighting and depression have spread among the survivors of January’s attack, arguing over finances and the magazine’s future as millions pour into its coffers.

Just last month, Charlie Hebdo relaunched its website, offering readers a daily cartoon on all manner of subjects.

The site is even venturing beyond France’s borders with an English-language section of some of its editorials.

Pelloux, a columnist who left the magazine last month, citing fatigue said: “A part of us has gone with the attacks.”

At the beginning of this year, Charlie Hebdo was ripped apart from the inside.

Its resistance to worldwide pressure and controversy, they hope, won’t allow the magazine to simply fade away.

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