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.

Don’t mention the G-word. Turning up the heat in Europe

Don’t mention the G-word. Turning up the heat in Europe

Greece still has many hurdles to jump through before it can see its 86bn euro bailout being enacted. First, a vote in the Greek parliament is needed by Wednesday, which seems likely with opposition support. Parliaments in several eurozone states also have to approve the new bailout. In the longer term, Greece’s economy will likely enter a serious recession – a contraction of 3%, a rise in unemployment above 26%, and that’s before the ECB announces any further emergency liquidity (ELA) to prop up Greece’s virtually bust banking system, with capital controls to be kept in place for some time yet, and banks of course, still closed. And on Alexis Tsipras’ desk, a bill of 3.5bn euros to be paid to the ECB by next Monday.

With the vote on Greece’s bailout producing a decisive ‘no’ vote last Sunday, it was as much a referendum on prime minister Alexis Tsipras and his Syriza government, who now face supporting a more draconian bailout than was previously offered. The shift to populist parties across Europe is a trend that is set to continue, given the success of UKIP as a significant player in UK politics, the rapid rise of Podemos and latterly Ciutadans in Spain, as well as other parties across the continent challenging the consensus and traditional party politics. Together with this is a growing probing of democracy in Brussels, as many politicians will use the Greek deal as a means of making bold statements on the brutal nature of negotiations EU-style. Among them, the politics – and fairness – of austerity – endlessly debated between economists, its effects witnessed on every level in pharmacies and homes in Greece.

Talks around the table about Greece’s bailout flared up European divisions on the country’s exit from the single currency it has just avoided. Similar rifts on the migrant crisis have divided north and south Europe – the lion share of the 137,000 people in the first six months of the year arriving at the shores of Italy and Greece, the majority fleeing from Syria’s bloody civil war, according to a recent UNHCR report.

A look at headlines in recent days points to the continued scale of this problem. “Hungary begins work on border fence to keep out migrants”. 80,000 migrants have already reached Hungary this year, 80% of them from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. In fact, Hungary received more refugees per capita than any other EU country apart from Sweden. The threat of migrants is causing other European states to erect walls and fences, a physical and symbolic image of this problem.

The solidarity needed to implement Brussels’ plan to distribute migrants more fairly throughout Europe and ease the pressure on its most vulnerable states was in short evidence, after the plan was rejected at the end of June by European leaders, confirming again the toxic nature of immigration.

Long ignored in the European news cycle has been Ukraine. Its economy is forecast to shrink by nine percent this year, so precarious the situation remains in the country. Russia’s frozen conflict in the east has affected production, as a trade war continues. Gas supplies from Russia to Ukraine, as of the beginning of July, have been halted.

Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko spoke yesterday of Russia’s plan to make Ukraine a “state of bondage”, wishing to exert political influence through the conflict in the east. He said: “Ukraine won’t allow that.”

He also warned of a new spike in military activity in Donbass: “We’ve got information that there is a record large number of the armed forces of the Russian federation along with the border of Ukraine.”

The Greek deal this morning has also staved off the threat of Russian economic assistance for the crippled southern European economy. Russian president Vladimir Putin was keen to ally with Tsipras, the latter describing Russia as one of “Greece’s most important partners” just last month. In addition, NATO movements in the Baltics to counter Russian aggression look unlikely to end any time soon.

A cocktail of economics and politics have already made for an incredibly turbulent year for Europe and its institutions. Disagreements are likely to create further divisions, proving the difficulty in mastering the art of diplomacy in such a divergent continent.