Why Charlie Hebdo is Important to France

(Helene Ferrarini is a French freelance journalist. Her pieces are regularly published in the French media, like Liberation or Slate.fr. She studied journalism in the Mass Communication Center of the Jamia Millia Islamia University in New Delhi. Based in France, she visits India regularly.)

Every Wednesday, the newspaper kiosks in the French streets are full of the satirical covers of Charlie Hebdo. Using cartoons as illustrations, Charlie's sketches could be seen as crude, provocative or terribly funny. While the magazine may not be read by all French citizens, its strong satirical bent of work has ensured everyone knows Charlie Hebdo.

Mocking almost everything and everyone from religion to politicians, from businessmen to the French middle class, Charlie Hebdo would delight the readers with its dry humour, a trend that takes its roots in  French history.

During the monarchy, satirical cartoons of the king or the priests would be circulated discretely among readers. The XIXth century-French cartoonist Daumier, mocking the French King Louis-Philippe, was in a way the ancestor of Cabu and Wolinski, killed today among other cartoonists at the Paris office.

Launched in 1969, Charlie Hebdo was born in the aftermath of the events of May 1968 when civil unrest was brewing all over  French society. Of libertarian trend, Charlie Hebdo encountered rapidly troubles with powers of all kind. In 1970, the State censorship tried to forbid the newspaper after a cover mocked the death of former French President Charles de Gaulle.

The right to be rude, the right to be crude, the right to be pornographic at times... are at the core of Charlie's fight for freedom of speech. Its cartoonists and writers strongly believe that one should be able to laugh at everything, from genocide to fundamentalism. Black humour and raucous laughter were the beliefs Charlie's members subscribed to. Never one for subtleties, it always tried to jolt the reader into realisations, which for me worked very well.  

To keep its belief in freedom of speech intact, the pages of Charlie Hebdo are free of advertisements. In the 2000s, the magazine enjoyed a weekly circulation of over 1 and a half lakh (considered good for France) but the recent years had seen a drop in its circulation to about 50,000 per week.

Charlie made a mark for itself with several covers on religions considered outrageous. In 2006, they published the cartoon of the Prophet Mohammed by Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten which had created a furore in the Muslim world. In 2011, in a special edition renamed Charia-Hebdo, Prophet Muhammed was drafted on the cover page of Charlie. A criminal fire destroyed the offices of the newspaper just before the release of this controversial edition. Since then, the journalists of Charlie had been under the protection of the police.

While religion formed a large part of its work, it was not the only target. Charlie's columnists and cartoonists would train their guns on all kinds of power structures and conservatives. With its political incorrectness, Charlie Hebdo carved its own unique space in the French press and gave a new way to mock our society.

The bloody attack on Charlie is an assault not just on the magazine or its journalists but on what they stood for : freedom of speech. It has struck at the very heart of the journalistic ideals, the French press stands for. Je Suis Charlie.

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