Preliminary warning: this may not be the best piece I have written. It was pretty difficult to write, emotional at times. I wrote it in several sessions, so the style may be uneven, typos may be plentiful. Sorry about that.
Wednesday night, last week, I returned home from work as usual, and ate dinner as usual. After dinner, as usual, I turned my computer on and started to check my emails and such, as usual.
It was about 1.30pm in France on this January 7th.
On my “twitter wall” (aka Tweetdeck), I see in the corner of my eye this picture of Charb, with a message of support. I kinda smile and wonder who he has shocked this time, or what inane controversy he has gotten himself into again.
I keep on checking and reading random tweets and emails, when another one gets my attention and gets me concerned: a shooting occurred in Charlie Hebdo’s office, about 10 people died!
You know how, facing some unbelievable reality, sometimes, your brain just doesn’t really compute for a few seconds. This is exactly what happened.
My first thought reading this was so silly: “Wow, that’s crazy! they got lucky.”
Why that thought? I’m not sure. The tweet mentioned the building, I had just saw a picture of Charb (dating from a few months ago, but in my mind, it dated from a few minutes ago). Sure, right after, I realized that it mentioned the death of 10 or more people, but my brain couldn’t process that it could be them. They’re like super heroes or something, they can’t die. Right? Right?
Then my brain started functioning again, and reality hit, and man, it hit hard!
Another tweet; Charb was severely wounded. Not good, not good at all. Apparently, it had happened two hours earlier, no other name is mentioned, that’s a good thing, right? Right?
No it wasn’t.
A few seconds (minutes? I don’t know) later another tweet and a part of my world fell apart: Charb is dead, Cabu too.
They killed Cabu!
They can’t kill Cabu!
One doesn’t kill Cabu!
There is something you need to understand here. It’s actually the reason for that post. Many foreigners don’t seem to really fathom what happened. They know the facts, but they don’t know what happened in French people’s hearts and minds. Why such a huge reaction for the past week.
I’m going to try to explain. It all starts with Cabu.
Everyone older than 30 knows Cabu in France. Everyone! And most people under the age of 30 know him too (I hope).
One of the reasons for this is that for about 10 years, in the late 70’s, early 80’s, he took part in Récré A2, a TV show for kids that was hugely popular in France (by hugely, I mean that about 100% of French kids have watched it at one point or another). Note that at the time Cabu was already famous as a cartoonist, he was already a member of Hara Kiri / Charlie Hebdo, and he also worked for Droit de Réponse, a hugely popular “debate show”. At the time, Cabu was pretty much known by everyone in France. Most people my generation (let’s say between ages 30-50) who draw or are graphic artists today most likely started drawing because they saw Cabu drawing on that show for kids. Yes, Cabu gave the love of drawings to an entire generation of French people.
As far as adults from the 60’s-80’s are concerned… If you care about France (if you’re reading this, I assume you do), you may be familiar with the concept of the “beauf”. Well, the beauf was originally a comic book character, invented by Cabu. Yes, Cabu invented the beauf!
Another thing you need to know about Cabu is that even if his drawings were sometimes a bit controversial, his personality was such that I don’t know of anyone who disliked him, even if they disliked his drawings. That guy was one of the nicest guys you could meet, and his huge fame and popularity never got to his head. Always friendly, always simple. I ran into him twice when I lived in Paris. He was simply walking down the streets, mostly between one of his offices (at Charlie Hebdo, at le Canard Enchaîné or somewhere else) and his home. I never dared to speak to him despite the fact that I know he would have stopped and be very friendly to me.
This was Cabu for me. This nice and smiling guy who made me love drawings as a kid, who taught me that funny drawings can also have messages and content as a teenager, and a kind of former almost-mentor who always drew the right things at the right time as an adult.
He always had this childlike spark in his eye. Always ready to make you laugh or to make you dream.
How can anyone kill Cabu?
What about Charb?
I have to admit, I didn’t really know the man, only his drawings. If you’re in France and have the slightest political sense, you know Charb’s drawings. You may not like them; they could be fierce. Most of the time they were. His characters were always ugly, often stupid, and if you didn’t like a drawing, you knew (even if you didn’t want to admit it) that it was because that character was you, and that he depicted you the way he did to underline one of the worst aspects of your personality. And when they weren’t aimed at you, they were almost always hilarious.
Charb wasn’t only using his pen to skewer people in Charlie Hebdo, but also in Fluide Glacial, a very popular humor magazine, not as virulent and as political as Charlie, but as famous and as popular if not more. Charb really had become the heart and soul of Charlie Hebdo in recent years.
And while I was trying to process this information, holding back tears, two more names appeared: Tignous and Wolinski. Two more punches in my stomach.
Tignous… When I was a teenager, I used to play role-playing games, yes, the Dungeons & Dragons kind. There was these two magazines called Casus Belli and Jeux & Stratégie that most role-players in France read (the second one was dedicated to all sorts of games, not just role playing games). They were, especially Casus Belli, the public voice of that community, serving both as a news outlet about the hobby, as well as a source of tips, material and other stuff. Among the artists that used to illustrate them, there was this guy Tignous. I didn’t know anything about him, except that I loved his drawings, and that his nickname meant stubborn, fierce, tenacious, but also “pain in the ass” in Occitan. He also illustrated Mega, the very first French role-playing game as well as the first edition of Rêve de Dragon, considered by many as the best role-playing game of its time (late 80’s). His drawings in it were just beautiful. I lost track of him for a few years and found him again in Charlie Hebdo and Marianne (a weekly news magazine I read quite regularly when I lived in France). First, I was surprised that he would make political cartoons, but gladly surprised I was, as they were also pretty fierce and funny. So, yes, while I never really knew the man, I kinda grew up with his drawings alongside too.
And then, there’s Wolinski. I don’t even know where to start with Wolinski. If you think that Cabu was hugely popular and famous, know that it’s nothing compared to Georges Wolinski. He had as many haters as he had fans, but everyone knew him in France. There was a time, in his younger years, when he was everywhere. Every newspaper and magazine of importance seemed to have drawings by Wolinski here or there, every talk show of importance had him as a guest, or even as a cartoonist. Yes, cartoonists are such a big part of the media in France, that they even work for TV shows. That’s how much they matter in the country. In case, you wonder how this works, they draw live, as the show happens, about what’s happening on the show, or what is discussed. Wolinski kinda was the ultimate cartoonist. Also, while he was tackling political issues like all of his colleagues, he also loved drawing about sex, and he played a huge part in making talking about sex not a taboo anymore in post-1968 France.
Should I mention that he has been the recipient of the Grand Prix de la Ville d’Angoulême, the most prestigious award a cartoonist or comic book artist can receive (and you know that cartoons and comic books are – rightly so – considered as art in France) and that he’s also a Knight of the Legion of Honor.
Those are these four guys that those assholes have killed.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not implying in any way that the other victims didn’t matter, but fact is that I didn’t know them, except Bernard Maris a little, one of the few decent economists in France.
That was my “relationship” with these guys. Other French people had different personal stories, but we all had one.
My mom cried when I called her, just after learning those terrible news. You don’t know my mom, but she’s a woman who likes consensus. She chastises me every time I say something slightly controversial, she most likely didn’t approve of many of the things that were published in Charlie Hebdo. And yet, she was in tears.
Simply because all of France was in tears last Wednesday.
Those who weren’t can’t decently call themselves French.
Because, that’s the thing, beyond our personal stories and our fandom with those guys, Charlie Hebdo, despite not being read by many people (I won’t lie, I didn’t buy it very often), despite what most members of the newspaper dead or alive would tell you, is one of the most important symbols of France.
You may have heard about the concept of freedom of speech, freedom of the press. Concepts that are prerequisites for a functioning democracy. Well, Charlie Hebdo is Freedom of the Press incarnate.
I’m not a patriot, far from it, but you can be sure of one thing, France has the best motto any country can dream to have: Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité.
Charlie Hebdo is the living allegory of the first principle: Liberty, Freedom.
Trying to destroy Charlie Hebdo is trying to destroy French Freedom, trying to destroy free speech!
It’s as simple as that.
It’s hard to understand what Charlie Hebdo was for English speaking readers. There is – to my knowledge – no real equivalent in the English speaking world. Maybe some sort of Mad Magazine, but much more political, and much much fiercer, as fierce as South Park. No, scratch that, fiercer than South Park. South Park maybe the thing that is closest to Charlie Hebdo in the US. Not sure. Yes, maybe that’s a good comparison. Imagine some sort of South Park magazine run by John Stewart, Stephen Colbert and Jon Oliver, except imagine that those three have been around and relevant not for 15 years or so, but for more than 40 years for some of them. This is roughly what Charlie Hebdo is, and what those bastards attacked and who they killed.
During the past few days, there has been a bunch of articles in a bunch of English speaking sites and magazines and some were appalling. The authors had a very slim understanding of what Charlie Hebdo was, when they didn’t completely misunderstand the thing. Some articles went as far as calling Charlie Hebdo racist (I’m looking at you the New Yorker), a clear indication that the so-called journalist who wrote that paper didn’t bother looking any further than the caricatures related to Islam. If they had, they would have known that Charlie Hebdo was probably the fiercest anti-racist paper there is in France.
I won’t try to explain what Charlie Hebdo is. First, this post is already getting pretty long, and some people did it very well during the past few days. Please, take the time to read the following articles :
- Dear US followers, by “the great Hiatus”
- Understanding Charlie Hebdo cartoons
- And, probably the best piece I have read in English on the topic: “On Charlie Hebdo: a letter to my British friends” by Olivier Tonneau.
A few last words. You may have seen images of the demonstration on Sunday. Being so far from France at the moment, it seems pretty unreal to me. Those images moved me, 4 million French people in the streets! The largest demonstration in the history of the country!
It also angered me when I saw the heads of states who were present there, very few friends of free speech. I almost think that those who don’t have a clear conscience about it were the ones who were the most eager to be there for some reason.
I’m worried, I’m very worried. No, it’s not the terrorists that worry me. Sure, they may attack again one day, they may kill more people, but they can’t win. Terrorism has a zero percent success rate. Always have had.
They can’t win, but we can lose.
We can lose if we betray what we stand for, the same way the US lost its ways and its soul after September 11th with the Patriot Act, Guantanamo Bay, the Iraq Invasion, the use of torture, you know the list, no need to remind it to you.
Last Sunday, the French people seems to have found again the last part of our motto, “Fraternité.” God knows that it has been in shambles lately, and yet, on Sunday it was alive and well. Maybe this event has changed French people for the best, has made them open their eyes on their recent erring: the raise of fascist political parties, of racism, of general dislike of each other. I hope they did. I also hope that while not ostracizing the Muslim community, French people all dare to “be Charlie”, to remind the world what secularism is, and while you have the right to have whatever faith you want, you have no right to impose your ways because “it is your faith” and while you have the right to not be discriminated, you have no right not to be offended!
French people may have open their eyes.
But how about those who govern us?
Calls for a French Patriot Act have already been made by the Conservatives.
I’m not optimistic.
I’ll end with what it one of my favorite quotes, usually attributed to Benjamin Franklin:
“Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”
Nobody should ever forget that!
5 thoughts on “Charlie Hebdo, France, me and the rest…”
Thanks for taking the time to write this David. It’s good to have the background to explain why this event resonated so strongly in France apart from the straightout tragedy of the violence. Your post chimes with others I have read by French people.
Thanks for taking the time to read it all Susan. 🙂
I really appreciate your article. I want to know exactly about the things you wrote about. I don’t have words to express how this event has affected me. I am sad, outraged, and also fear for the future of the global society. How can we live in peace, not hurt one another, and appreciate our differences ? Is there a person out there who can lead us in this direction ?
“Is there a person out there who can lead us in this direction ?”
Jackie, don’t you think that “leaders” are part of the problem? The vast majority of people on earth want to live peacefully, regardless of their walks of life, their religion and whatnot.
It’s their leaders who push them to violence and hate, be it invading a country in the name of democracy or killing people in the name of their god.
Yes, you are correct. I guess the question might be why do the masses have a herd mentality ? Why does society keep letting bad leaders lead ? I suppose most people are just trying to survive, pay bills, work, and eat. It’s complicated. People are not thought to think for themselves, to process information and come to their own conclusions.