Charlie Hebdo, the French tradition of satire, and cherry-picking cartoons

Adam Tinworth
Adam Tinworth

Charlie Hebdo - LePen

There’s been a growing consensus online that Charlie Hebdo is a “racist” magazine. In fact, I’ve ended up in a couple of online skirmishes with people because of their insistence that use of #jesuischarlie was tantamount to identifying positively with racists. I had issues with that view – because, as The Guardian put rather succinctly – you don’t have to celebrate what someone says to stand up for their right to say it.

The problem with many of those arguments, and they have been legion in the last few days, is that they were based on cherry-picking a tiny handful of cartoons from the thousands published every year in the publication, with no exploration of the cultural tradition of satire in France, nor the prevailing politics of the magazine itself.

This, I think, has been the best counter to that line of thought I’ve seen, written by a (self-proclaimed) militant left-wing Frenchman:

It might be worth knowing that the main target of Charlie Hebdo was the Front National and the Le Pen family. Next came crooks of all sorts, including bosses and politicians (incidentally, one of the victims of the shooting was an economist who ran a weekly column on the disasters caused by austerity policies in Greece). Finally, Charlie Hebdo was an opponent of all forms of organized religions, in the old-school anarchist sense: Ni Dieu, ni maître! They ridiculed the pope, orthodox Jews and Muslims in equal measure and with the same biting tone. They took ferocious stances against the bombings of Gaza. Even if their sense of humour was apparently inacceptable to English minds, please take my word for it: it fell well within the French tradition of satire – and after all was only intended for a French audience. It is only by reading or seeing it out of context that some cartoons appear as racist or islamophobic.

On Charlie Hebdo: a letter to my English friends

cartooningcharlie hebdofrancePoliticssatire

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Adam is a lecturer, trainer and writer. He's been a blogger for over 20 years, and a journalist for more than 30. He lectures on audience strategy and engagement at City, University of London.