Suis-Je Charlie?

Michelle Kraft

“. . . one must wonder, are they really Charlie? I had to question, am I?”

In mid-April 1834, Paris’s National Guard entered a workers apartment block in one of the poorest parts of the city and systematically shot dead twelve of its inhabitants. The men, women, elderly, and children, who were killed by troops under the command of General Thomas-Robert Bugeaud, lived at 12 rue Transnonain, near one of the largest of the barricades erected during a workers’ uprising. The horrific slaughter, which came to be known as the Massacre at Rue Transnonain, shocked Parisians. It embedded itself into the psyche of the city to reemerge repeatedly, in fictionalized form, in the works of Flaubert, Stendhal, and Hugo.

The incident appeared more pointedly in an edition of lithographic prints by the artist Honoré Daumier, titled Rue Transnonain, le 15 Avril 1834. In his image, the lifeless bodies of three generations of family members lie on the bedroom floor. The central figure, a man in his sleeping gown, has fallen across the body of his infant child who is lying facedown. Only the baby’s head and chubby hands are visible from under the father’s corpse as blood pools around the pair. The parent’s head is propped up by an overturned chair and adjacent bed; his nightcap slides askew. In the foreground an elderly man, the baby’s grandfather, is sprawled so that his frame runs off the right edge of the picture. His balding head, sunken cheeks, and the formality of his bearing in death anticipate his repose in a coffin. On the left side of Daumier’s image, in the background shadows, lies the mother. She is anonymous as her feet point toward the viewer, her face obscured by her torso. It is the eerily quiet moments in the aftermath of the massacre that the artist represents; the startling silence of the scene heightens the viewer’s recognition of the violence that has just occurred. And the unjustness.

When Daumier created his prints, his purpose was twofold: to share the events of the massacre with the people of Paris and to raise money to promote freedom of the press. By this time, the artist had already spent time in jail for his political cartoons criticizing the regime of King Louis-Philippe. That the Rue Transnonain incident occurred under that same administration did not deter Daumier, but it wasn’t long before the police became aware of the print series, confiscating all they could find, along with the lithographic stone, to prevent further printings.

* * *

When two gunmen entered the magazine headquarters of Charlie Hebdo in the first week of January 2015 and killed twelve of its staff, including writers, editors, and cartoonists, the refrain “Je suis Charlie”—I am Charlie—echoed poignantly among supporters of free speech in Paris and beyond. It appeared on placards at demonstrations in the grieving city, was emblazoned on T-shirts and stickers, and chorused throughout the Twittersphere.

The satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo (hereafter CH) was founded in 1970, but its “founding” really amounted to a renaming of the existing monthly Hara-Kiri, a move designed to dodge a government-imposed ban for a cover that mocked the death of French president Charles de Gaulle. By January 7, when the killings took place, CH had already been targeted in a firebomb attack, its website had been hacked, and it had been censured by the government. It had endured a decade-long publication hiatus, had been the subject of multiple lawsuits stemming from its offending content, and had been hit by fines for condemning France’s drug laws.

While the “survivor’s issue”—as CH dubbed its first publication following the massacre—ran three million copies in sixteen languages (with an extra two million to come), a typical weekly run was much smaller, somewhere between 30,000 and 60,000 issues (citations for this figure have risen in the weeks since the shooting, from 30,000 to 40,000 to 60,000 as of this writing). The cover of the survivor’s issue defiantly featured an image of the prophet Muhammad (similar depictions were the purported catalyst for the January terrorist attack), holding a “Je suis Charlie” placard, with the phrase “Tout est Pardonée,” All is Forgiven, overhead. Past cover art included pregnant “sex slaves” of Boko Haram shouting Don’t Touch Our Child Benefits!, Pope Benedict XVI holding a condom over his head, and a nude, running Islamic woman (with paper protruding from her derrière) and the caption Yes to Wearing the Burqa. Given that the magazine’s outrageous content was not to most Parisians’ tastes (as evidenced by low circulation), one must wonder, are they really Charlie? I had to question, am I?

As the Daumier Rue Transnonain episode indicates, France has a conflicted past—and present—with freedom of speech, while it simultaneously owns a rich heritage of rebellious printed text and imagery. During the pre-Revolutionary decades of censorship, only a few dozen political and ideological pamphlets were printed and circulated to French readers. After the fall of the Bastille, though, more than 3,000 such tracts were printed. During the time of the Revolution, 1789-90, there were two hundred newspapers in print, including L’Ami du Peuple, or Friend of the People, which advocated the rights of the marginalized working classes (and was written by the same Marat of the Jacques-Louis David painting). Under the post-Revolution Terror, freedom of expression could earn one a trip to the guillotine, and some four decades later, in 1832, Honoré Daumier was jailed for six months for his political cartoon depicting King Louis-Philippe as Gargantua devouring the resources of the people. Even now, French law prohibits criticism of the country’s drug policies (this is what earned CH its government-enforced fines). Likewise, France’s Gayssot Law of 1990 prevents discrimination based on ethnicity, race, religion, or nationality. (Remember John Galliano’s drunken anti-Semitic remarks in a Paris café in 2010?) In the aftermath of the terrible CH killings, the French self-described comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala faces the possibility of seven years in jail for his Facebook posting, “I feel like Charlie Coulibaly.” His comment represented a mashup of Charlie Hebdo and the terrorist Amedy Coulibaly who killed a jogger, an unarmed policewoman, and four people at a kosher supermarket in the days surrounding the CH incident, and who himself was killed in a police shootout.

Images, in particular, can be profoundly powerful in their ability to express an idea as well as to rankle; both Daumier’s work and the cartoons of Charlie Hebdo attest to this. In the days after the CH massacre I listened to a BBC Global News interview with French-Algerian journalist Nabila Rambani and Alexandra Schwartsbrod, deputy editor of Libération, the newspaper that lent is facilities to CH for publication of its survivors’ issue. In the discussion, Schwartzbrod cited the necessity of publishing the cover cartoon featuring Muhammad in deference to the journalists who lost their lives in the terrorist attack, claiming that French citizens’ rights to freedom of expression superseded any offense that the image might cause.

Rambani argued that the need to rush to publication with the “deeply offensive” cover image, out of some sort of spontaneous response to the terrorists’ actions, was preposterous. When the moderator of the interview, Tim Franks, suggested that the depiction on the cover of CH was sympathetic, Rambani returned, “Any depiction of my Prophet is seen as a blasphemy.” While she conceded that, as a journalist, she was in favor of freedom of speech, Rambani asserted that such freedom must be accompanied by responsibility. At this point in the conversation, Schwartsbrod defended the image as a positive, rather than blasphemous, portrayal of Muhammad.

“I’m afraid it’s not for you, Madame, to say whether it’s blasphemy or not. It’s for the followers of the faith,” Rambani responded.

What this conversation points to is the tension inherent within the exercise of liberty. There is, after all, no such thing as absolute freedom. Optimal levels of liberty for all only come by agreement within the community to yield certain freedoms to one another. Normally, this is accomplished through mutual assent that we abide by laws. In matters where law is not the question, the decision is up to us as to how we might wield our freedoms in relationship with others within our community. The cover of the survivor issue of CH was, at best, racist in its depiction of Muhammad rather than sympathetic. In the cartoon, the prophet is a stereotype, with a hooked nose overhanging his mouth and overly bulbous turban atop his head. It is only with the accompanying text on the CH cover that can one even remotely propose that the image might be favorable, but it’s not the text that’s in question. What is in question is the extent to which one group is willing to yield its freedom to another when those freedoms are in friction. When we are more concerned with asserting our rights than we are with mutual respect, we risk marginalizing those with whom we share community. Did not Charlie Hebdo practice such disregard regularly? Were not the murderers of the magazine’s staff themselves extreme versions of this same kind of contempt?

I do not mean to suggest that the staff of CH were, in any way, responsible for the violent attack that took place on January 7. Images—even when offensive or heretical—are, after all, merely pictures. Human life is sacred. Noam Chomsky said, “If you believe in freedom of speech, you believe in freedom of speech for views you don’t like. Stalin and Hitler, for example, were dictators in favor of freedom of speech for views they liked only. If you’re in favor of freedom of speech, that means you’re in favor of freedom of speech precisely for views you despise.”

I am advocating that in our exercise of freedom of expression, we respect one another and practice tolerance. Images are powerful in their ability to open dialogue and debate, as well as in their capacity to offend. There is a famous quote oft attributed to the French writer and philosopher Voltaire (but actually written by his biographer Evelyn Beatrice Hall): “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” In this spirit, I hope, I am Charlie.

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