The Freedom to Be Funny: Reflecting on France’s Tradition of Satire

In a 2012 Le Monde interview the late publishing director of Charlie Hebdo, Stéphane Charbonnier said these now iconic words: “I would rather die standing up than live on my knees.” (In fact the quote originates with Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata.) In the same article, another of the magazine’s cartoonists injured in the attack, Riss (a pen name), said, “We do not want to be afraid, but to laugh, to take life lightly.” Riss, who will take over leadership of the satirical publication, articulated the simple mission of Charlie and its peers: humorously and universally challenging power.

Cheeky, fearless humor is of France’s grandest political traditions. Particularly considering the price five of Charlie’s employees paid for it, as well as the upcoming 100th anniversary of France’s other major satirical publication, Le Canard Enchaîné, it is worth reflecting on caricature’s role in French and global freedom of the press.

Satire has long been one of the most powerful political tools of democracy and one if its bellwethers. In France especially, mocking authority has played a crucial role in the nation’s political atmosphere. Satirists like Voltaire and Molière remain fundamental to French literature, and shocking cartoons hold a significant place in history. In the 17th and 18th centuries lewd images of nobility and clergy circulated, and the practice hit new levels during the Revolution. This special version of shocking, vulgar mocking has a name: gouaille.

The tradition of attacking the “establishment” through humor heavily featured religious institutions as well as political, namely the powerful Catholic Church. This culminated in the de-Christianization of France after the Revolution, with anti-clerical laws passed beginning in 1792: divorce was legalized, church lands seized, clergy attacked, and religious iconography destroyed. A philosophical replacement even developed: the Cult of Reason.

And so with democracy evolved secularism, a tradition well maintained today in France, known as laïcité. Also well practiced was the tradition of often offensively satirizing both government and religion. France’s freedom of speech legally protects what many consider the blasphemy featured in Charlie and its like-minded predecessors and peers. This is all despite flack, threats and frustrated comments throughout the years by people like Jacques Chirac, Rachida Dati and Laurent Fabius, essentially bemoaning what they viewed as unnecessary provocation of sensitive groups.

Interestingly though, it remains illegal in France to “provoke discrimination, hatred, or violence toward a person or group of persons because of their origin or belonging to a particular ethnicity, nation, race, or religion,” which explains why brash comedian and frequent Holocaust denier Dieudonné has faced so many run-ins with the French government. Some view this as hypocritical, but it is rooted in the tradition of anti-clericalism, which makes insulting the institution okay, but attacking its people specifically a crime.

Charlie Hebdo has reportedly been sued by Christian organizations 13 times, and its offices were firebombed in 2011 after an especially incendiary issue entitled “Charia Hebdo” was allegedly guest-edited by the Prophet Muhammad. Since 2013, Charbonnier had resorted to a police bodyguard, who also perished in the attack. But as Gerard Biard, Charlie’s editor in chief, put it in the aforementioned Le Monde article, “If we say to religion, ‘you are untouchable,’ we’re f—ked.” While its caricatures of masturbating nuns, the pope with a condom, and Muhammad kissing a man have earned it some enemies, as this quote tells, satire without mercy remains fundamental to democracy, in that it goes where mainstream journalism often does not, in order to provoke critical analysis. The vehement response that The Interview received from the North Korean government speaks volumes to the potential political power of satire.

In the same spirit, with less vulgarity (although definitely not without it), Le Canard Enchaîné provides the French with weekly news in a mocking, satirical tone, and serves as arguably the country’s most powerful news outlet, in terms of striking fear into France’s leadership. The now century-old publication has been responsible for breaking countless scandals and has been the prompter of many political resignations. Its writers are reportedly paid better than any of their peers, and it continues to turn a profit despite its refusal to build a website. Its average weekly circulation stands at about 500,000, compared to Charlie’s previously typical 50,000. Le Canard holds a uniquely powerful place in the French political landscape and proves the continued sway of satire in politics. It has also apparently received threats since the Charlie Hebdo attack.

Charbonnier’s words from 2012 have taken on entirely new levels of meaning given the recent tragedy. While Charlie might not have been reaching as many people as Le Canard and was not as financially stable (in November it solicited private donations), their shared mission remains all the more worth protecting. Indeed, the world seems to agree as indicated by Google’s recent donation of €250,000 and the Guardian’s of £100,000 to Charlie.

As Thomas Jefferson said, “Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.” The democratic nations of which we are so proud, for which so many people have fought, depend on this right to poke fun wherever there is something to poke. Without it, laughs won’t be the only thing we lose.

Emma Hurt is a native of Washington, D.C. and is currently freelancing from Houston, Texas while studying history at Rice. She has previously lived in Paris and London. The opinions expressed in this editorial are her own and are not indicative of LJP’s views.

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