Understanding ‘Charlie Hebdo’ in the Context of French Society: A Reading List


Now that the wave of American media thinkpieces about French affairs and the shocking Charlie Hebdo massacre has begun to abate, we’re starting to move beyond the immediate urge to fit the tragedy into our own simplistic narratives (“the cartoonists were heroes” vs. “the cartoonists were racists,” etc.).

For me, it’s been important to hear from more French voices about the unique context of the magazine and the society that produced it, which like all societies has its own deep hypocrisies and unique values. This is the country that arrested 54 people this morning for “inciting terrorism” and hate speech — all in the name of freedom of expression:

That’s raising questions about whether Hollande’s Socialist government is impinging on the very freedom of speech that it so vigorously defends when it comes to Charlie Hebdo. Among those detained was Dieudonne, a popular and controversial comic who has repeated convictions for racism and anti-Semitism.

This authoritarian response shows the way power closes its fist around power more than any abstract values. After all, what did the Charlie Hebdo journalists and cartoonists stand for if not the right to be reprehensible in public?

I rounded up some pieces that put the French political situation, and Charlie Hebdo, in context. The sum total of these pieces doesn’t in any way provide a clear narrative, but it does re-center the conversation around French society.

What is the specific context of some of these cartoons?

A new website, Understanding Charlie Hebdo, seeks to put each of the most “offensive” French cartoons in context, explaining which subway ads and popular images they were spoofing. Of course, this doesn’t exonerate their charges of racism, but it does show the double and triple meanings of many of the comics that would be immediately noticed by French readers and not by Americans.

Why do some French citizens still find some comics oppressive?

Because of France’s brutal colonialist history, particularly in Algeria. “I would invite those who insist that the magazine was always and exclusively satirizing ideas to consider the geographic origins of turbans and veils, as well as France’s history in North Africa,” writes Laila Lalami.

What is the Quenelle and who is Dieudonné, the comedian arrested today?

The Quenelle, popularized by anti-Semitic French comedian Dieudonné, is a reverse (or slang) Nazi salute, which may have originated as a way of avoiding laws restricting Nazi imagery. It has been described as “the Grumpy Cat of anti-Semites.” It’s a viral symbol that has been used in selfies and photos at places like Auschwitz. To me, both the comedian’s popularity and his detractors are the clearest demonstration that a “humor gap” exists across cultures and borders.

What’s the relationship between the French right wing, anti-Semitism, and Islamophobia?

This September piece in Foreign Affairs contextualizes both anti-Semitism and Islamophobia and their exploitation by the French nationalist right wing. It describes Jews and Muslims as two minority groups, never fully accepted into the homogenous European mainstream, that are alternately played against each other for political expedience. And it predicted that while the Gaza war led many nationalists towards anti-Semitism and alliance with Muslims, the pendulum might swing back, which it seems to be doing as we speak.

“Since it is so tempting to play Muslims and Jews off against each other, and the millions of Muslim immigrants pose a far more numerous threat to European identity than the continent’s remaining Jews, liberal Islamophobes will soon rediscover their insincere philo-Semitism…” “Far from being mere playthings in the majority’s shifting priorities, Jews and Muslims can try to reclaim some agency of their own in shaping this future. To do so, they will have to keep in mind that their interests overlap to a surprising degree: a nationalistic Europe that maintains a homogeneous conception of the nation will wind up being inhospitable to both groups.”

What do French people think of all his?

A French academic writes that French prisons must do better in fostering freedom of expression among inmates, rather than leaving them prey to fundamentalists.

I feel that, to best defend our academic culture of free speech, we must reflect on its absolute absence in French prisons… Perhaps this is another ideal that I share with the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists: I believe that if we let pens and pencils come into prisons rather than ignorance and intolerance, we can make a difference.

A long and sometimes rambling letter from a French leftist ends on a strong note, discussing the fear that the far right will use the attacks to stoke Islamophobia:

This is the difficult argument I am having with my French friends: we are all aware of the fact that the attack on Charlie Hebdo will be exploited by the Far right, and that our government will use it as an opportunity to create a false unanimity within a deeply divided society. We have already heard the prime minister Manuel Valls announce that France was “at war with Terror” – and it horrifies me to recognize the words used by George W. Bush. We are all trying to find the narrow path – defending the Republic against the twin threats of fundamentalism and fascism (and fundamentalism is a form of fascism).

And a writer friend of mine, an American expat who has made Paris her home, writes simply that while her adopted homeland has a lot to reckon with, “I have never felt so proud to live here. I love that many held up pens in the air.”