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Understanding Charlie Hebdo and French Secularism

je suis charlie stencil

Who is Charlie Hebdo? The short answer is that it’s a French satirical magazine published weekly. But today it’s known as the target of (and excuse for) several deadly Islamic terrorist attacks in France. But how did it all start and where are we now? This article chronicles the timeline of ongoing events surrounding the attacks, and offers some insights into the French Republic’s staunchly secular foundations and its struggle to protect Freedom of Expression without allowing hate speech.

Charlie Hebdo’s Controversial History: A Basic Timeline of Events

Hara kiri cover
“Tragic ball at Colombey, 1 Dead”

1970-1981 Early Years

Charlie Hebdo was first created in 1970 by the staff of the Hara-Kiri after their magazine was banned by the French government for publishing a cartoon mocking the death of former President de Gaulle at his hometown Colombey-les-Deux-Églises (the same week 146 people died in a nightclub fire).

Charlie either comes from Charlie Brown (the first issue featured a Peanuts strip) or a wink at Charles de Gaulle. Hebdo is short for hebdomadaire, or “weekly”. Created not long after the Algerian War of Independence and the May ’68 cultural revolution, Charlie Hebdo published intentionally shocking satirical cartoons and articles that were pointedly anti-colonialist, anti-clerical, anti-military, anti-racist, and anti-Gaullist. They lampooned politicians (especially on the Far Right), celebrities, religion, capitalism, social injustice, and anything it deemed “taboo” and therefore worthy of mockery. They were staunch leftists (even anarchists), and also very pro-environmentalist from the start. Although well-known in France, since their staff were some of the most famous cartoonists in the country, they didn’t have enough subscribers to keep the newspaper afloat, and closed in 1981.

1992 Revival

The magazine is relaunched in July 1992 with some of the original cartoonists including Jean Cabut aka “Cabu” and Georges Wolinski. The new Charlie Hebdo was just as incendiary as the original, and sold over 100,000 copies its first week.

2006 Testing the Limits of Free Speech

Charlie Hebdo’s first major international scandal erupts when the February 9th issue reprinted the 12 Prophet Muhammad cartoons from the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten (which caused riots around the Muslim world when published the previous September). The Charlie Hebdo cover of the edition showed Muhammad crying as he says: “It’s hard being loved by jerks”. The caption says “Muhammad overwhelmed by fundamentalists”. They were sued by the Grand Mosque of Paris, the Muslim World League, and the Union of Islamic Organizations of France for racism. The French courts ruled in favor of Charlie Hebdo, stating the cartoons specifically mocked violent fundamentalists, not all Muslims.

2008 Firing a Cartoonist for Anti-Semitism

The next scandal to hit Charlie Hebdo was when they fired cartoonist Maurice Sinet aka “Siné” when he refused to sign a public apology for a cartoon denounced as anti-Semitic by French news commentator Claude Askolovitch. It insinuated President Sarkozy’s son Jean was going to convert to Judaism to marry his girlfriend because she was the rich heiress to the Darty fortune). Siné said he was mocking the Sarkozy family’s ambition, not the religion he was supposedly converting to. Lawsuits start flying: Siné sued Askolovitch for defamation (he lost); the International League against Racism and Anti-Semitism (LICRA) sued Siné for anti-Semitism (they lost); but finally the courts ruled that Charlie Hebdo had to pay Siné €90k for wrongful termination (so Charlie lost).

2011 Terrorists Firebomb Charlie Hebdo Offices

Charlie Hebdo’s offices in the 20th arrondissement were fire-bombed and their website hacked after publishing the November 3rd issue, renamed “Charia Hebdo” with Muhammad listed as the “Guest Editor-in-Chief”. On the cover he’s shown saying “100 lashes if you don’t die laughing!” The edition coincided with the post-election introduction of sharia law in Libya and the victory of the Islamist party in Tunisia, and specifically denounced the oppression of women, gays and dissenters under sharia law. Charlie Hebdo sold over four times the usual number of copies the week after the bombing (which didn’t cause any injuries) with a cover of two men kissing and the caption “Love is stronger than hate”. The editor Stéphane Charbonnier aka “Charb” was quoted saying the attack was probably committed by “stupid people who don’t know what Islam is.”

Two Charlie Hebdo covers
Covers before and after the bombing.

“What I’m about to say is maybe a little pompous, but I’d rather die standing up than live on my knees.”

– Charb, in a 2012 interview in Le Monde.

2014 Running Out of Money

Charlie Hebdo is suffering from a lack of subscribers, selling only about 50k copies per week (compared to 500,000 for Le Canard Enchaîné, its rival in the satirical press). They hold a fundraiser to keep the magazine afloat and manage to raise €200k. They were heading for bankruptcy, until…

2015 Terrorist Murders at Charlie Hebdo and Kosher Supermarket

January 7th – French Muslim brothers Saïd Kouachi and Chérif Kouachi forced their way into Charlie Hebdo offices in the 11th arrondissement with machine guns, killing 12 people: staff cartoonists Charb, Cabu, Philippe Honoré, Bernard Verlhac aka “Tignous”, and Wolinski, economist Bernard Maris, editors Elsa Cayat and Mustapha Ourrad, guest Michel Renaud, building maintenance worker Frédéric Boisseau, and police officers Ahmed Merabet and Franck Brinsolaro. Eleven others are wounded, four of them seriously. The brothers, claiming to have avenged the Prophet Muhammad in the name of al-Qaeda, escape in a getaway car after a shootout with police. The hashtag #JeSuisCharlie immediately starts circulating first on Twitter among journalists, then all over the world in support of free speech.

January 8th-11th – While the terrorists are on the run, killing a young policewoman patrolling the Montrouge suburb south of Paris on the 8th, the French observe a national day of mourning. I published an article in Secrets of Paris, Je Suis Charlie, about what was happening in Paris. It includes video from Notre Dame’s bell Emmanuel ringing for the dead on January 8th, and photos from the Marche Républicaine (Unity Rally) on January 11th where two million Parisians and 40 world leaders marched in silence to honor the victims. In addition to carrying signs saying “Je Suis Charlie”, people also hold up pencils and pens, a reference to the expression “the pen is mightier than the sword”. 

Unity Rally in Paris
March Républicaine – Unity Rally in Paris

January 9th – The terrorist brothers are finally tracked down to a printworks building 27km north of Paris in Dammartin-en-Goële. After a siege lasting almost nine hours, they died in a shootout with the French anti-terrorism brigade. The printworks manager had been released before the shooting, and a second employee hiding in a cardboard box escaped unharmed.

During the standoff in Dammartin-en-Goële, a third heavily-armed terrorist, Amedy Coulibaly (who had met the brothers in prison), invaded a Jewish Kosher supermarket on the eastern edge of Paris at the Porte de Vincennes. He immediately murdered four Jewish hostages, then held fifteen others for over four hours. Over the phone to the police, he threatened to kill them if the Kouachi brothers were harmed. The police ended the siege by storming the store and killing Coulibaly. Several hostages and two police officers were wounded in the rescue, but there were no more casualties. See France 24’s visual timeline of the events covering all three days.

“All is Forgiven”

January 14th – The surviving Charlie Hebdo staff, including Corinne Rey aka “Coco” and the Laurent Sourisseau aka “Riss”, who took over the publishing director role, publish the first issue after the murders. The Prophet Muhammad is on the cover holding a “Je suis Charlie” sign with the caption “All is Forgiven”. They are saying that Muhammad isn’t responsible for the murders; that religious fanatics are responsible. They sell almost eight million copies (a record for the French press) and got almost 200k new subscribers. The issue’s profits were distributed to the victims’ families.

Aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo Killings

Almost immediately after the initial international wave of support for Charlie Hebdo’s slain cartoonists came the critics. They felt the murders were somehow justified, always starting their phrases with, “Of course I don’t condone murder, but…” This criticism mostly came from people outside of France who don’t know anything about the history and work of Charlie Hebdo, the cultural and political context in which their cartoons were published, or the long and deeply-ingrained secularism of the French Republic. Their cartoons are supposed to be offensive. But far too many people clearly didn’t understand who was supposed to be offended and cried “racism!” at an anti-racist cartoon. 

Controversial PEN Award

The PEN American Center gave the Freedom of Expression Courage Award to Charlie Hebdo on May 5th, 2015, despite a media campaign against it by prominent liberal American writers and cartoonists (including Gary Larson). They felt Charlie Hebdo’s cartoonists were simply a bunch of powerful white men who were using their platform to “punch down” at poor and marginalized Muslims. “If you look around the world there are any number of journalists who are working in difficult situations whether it be in Russia, or in places in the Muslim world where people are speaking out and face real threats not only from radicals but from states, and that’s the kind of writers who need to be defended,” said a New York Times Op-Ed writer Clay Risen to France24.

Attacks on French Mosques

Several mosques were vandalized across France in the 24 hours immediately following the Charlie Hebdo attack. “The role of Islam in France is important for understanding the culture war in which the magazine’s satire is entrenched, and its implications for a sense that France can be unwelcoming or intolerant of Muslims,” writes Vox journalist Libby Nelson. “In a very different way, it’s also important for understanding the attacks on French mosques. This is not to say that Charlie Hebdo and the mosque attackers share the same beliefs or motivations — there is every evidence that they do not — but rather that they exist in the same complicated melange of French identity politics.”

Charlie Hebdo cover, "They have weapons. We piss them off, we have Champagne!"

The New “Normal” and the November 13th Attacks

Charlie Hebdo’s offices were moved into a secret, guarded location. For the next five years they continued to provoke, shock, and draw criticism by publishing cartoons based on horrific current events that address bigger social issues and people in positions of power, including Europe’s unwelcoming treatment of refugees, the Italian mafia, Vladimir Putin, sex trafficking, and – of course – Islamic terrorism.

When terrorists struck again on November 13th, 2015, they indiscriminately killed 130 people who were outside the Stade de France soccer match, watching a concert at the Bataclan concert, or sitting on one of the café terraces enjoying drinks with their friends. Charlie Hebdo published a cover the following week that said, “They have guns. We piss them off, we have Champagne!” Because none of the people killed in this attack published cartoons of Muhammad, and it’s naive to think that all we have to do is ban freedom of expression and the terrorists will stop.

So, is Charlie Hebdo Racist?

Many excellent articles were written to address this issue. I encourage anyone who still feels uneasy about Charlie Hebdo to read one or all of them for a change in perspective:

Charlie Hebdo: They’re Not Racist Just Because You’re Offended (Lliana Bird of The Kindly Collective): The Charlie Hebdo team were also very much pro-Gaza, and often fiercely critical of Israel’s actions in the Israel-Palestine conflict…Charlie Hebdo also strongly and regularly denounced the plight of minorities, they wrote in support of the Kurds, and they campaigned relentlessly for all illegal immigrants to be given permanent right of stay. One of Cabu’s most famous creations was Mon Beauf, which caricaturised an ignorant, racist and bigoted Frenchman, and Bernard Velhac, also known as Tignous (and a member of Cartoonists for Peace) once said, “I would love to think that every time I make a drawing it prevents a kidnapping, a murder, or removes a land mine. What joy it would be! If I had that power I would stop sleeping and would make drawings non-stop.”

Image Conscious (Artforum): “Universal condemnation of their murders, though, has not stopped them from being misread, deprecated, or totally exploited in the English-language press…Might not art historians and art critics have a role to play in putting things to rights? How did anti-racist, anti-military, anti-church artists end up, in the late 2000s and early 2010s, producing images that antagonized some of France’s most vulnerable citizens? It certainly isn’t because of any change in Charlie Hebdo’s political line—the paper angrily protested Israel’s incursions in Gaza, and ran a weekly column campaigning for the rights of undocumented immigrants. Nor can this be put down to a lack of diversity on staff…It was because of unresolved, perhaps unresolvable conflicts between the ideal of laïcité and the segregated reality of French life, and the unfeasibility in such a situation of what the French call second degré humor, which we might translate imperfectly as “ironic” or “tongue-in-cheek.”

Charlie Hebdo Racist? Are You Joking? (Comixtrip): “These cartoonists are (or were, for those who are now dead…) anarchists and anti-racists, and they were drawing cartoons in a print weekly newspaper for leftist and anti-racists and anarchist French readers. Their cartoons were never meant for Pakistanis, Malaysians, or American people.”

The Dangerous Myths About Charlie Hebdo (The Atlantic): “France’s immigrants are not Charlie Hebdo’s targets; fundamentalist ideas are. In fact, one of Charlie Hebdo’s favorite targets is the far-right, anti-immigrant National Front party, the enemy of France’s Muslims.”

Let’s not sacralize Charlie Hebdo (Al Jazeera America): “If the magazine’s omnidirectional impudence had been limited to words, it probably would not have ended in a bloodbath. Language creates boundaries that words cannot transcend, even with the help of translators. Images, however, can cross linguistic boundaries as if they did not exist. Images are immediate, their effect is visceral, and as the journalist Jeet Heer reminds us, they move rapidly. The artists at Charlie Hebdo made no effort to blunt their impact or to convey the full historical context out of which their imagery grew.”

Charlie Hebdo: its history, humor, and controversies, explained (Vox): “Charlie Hebdo’s satire of religion in general, and Islam in particular, plays out in a country where religion officially has no place in the public sphere; secularism is a cherished tradition in France. But it’s also taking place amid a conflict about the role of Islam, religion, racism, and cultural identity in French public life…This is the fraught, complicated, and often tense French national identity crisis that is the context for Charlie Hebdo and its satire. This is important for understanding the culture war in which the magazine’s satire is entrenched, and its implications for a sense that France can be unwelcoming or intolerant of Muslims. But it is also important for seeing that the cartoons at the expense of Islam, as pointed as they would be in the American context, still stop well short of the open Islamophobia of France’s political far right.”

Philippe Lançon on “Disturbance: Surviving Charlie Hebdo” with Dinaw Mengestu and Michael Reynolds: One of the survivors of the shooting, journalist Philippe Lançon, gives a fascinating talk (only partially in French before he switches to English), including the observation that in the early 2000s, efforts to repress free speech that used to come from governments and those in power in the previous decades started coming “not from the summit, but from the base”, including Muslim groups.

2020 As Trial Begins, More Attacks

Charlie Hebdo cover "all this for this"
“All this, for this”

September 1stCharlie Hebdo republishes a series of cartoon depicting the Prophet Muhammad – the first in over five years – to mark the start of the terrorism trial of the suspected accomplices in the January 2015 murders, with the caption: “All this, for this.” An editorial explains the pictures now belong to history: “Reproducing these caricatures this week of the opening of the January 2015 terrorist attacks seemed essential to us. All the reasons that could be opposed to us relate only to political or journalistic cowardice. Do we want to live in a country that prides itself on being a great free and modern democracy, and which, at the same time, gives up on asserting its deepest convictions?”

Charlie Hebdo: “You marched for free speech in 2015, ensure it is respected now” (Reporters without Borders): “Calls for violence, condemnation by senior religious dignitaries and demonstrations in which protesters have trampled on the French flag – such have been the reactions in various parts of the world to the republishing of the cartoons to coincide with the start of the trial of those accused of complicity in the 2015 Charlie Hebdo shootings…RSF appeals to all the world leaders who participated in the historic march in Paris on 11 January 2015, or to their successors, to ensure that issues related to religious intolerance are included in legislative and prescriptive initiatives and international actions for the protection of journalists. This means decriminalizing “blasphemy” in all UN member states.”

September 2nd – Originally scheduled to start in April but postponed because of Covid-19, the trial begins of 14 defendants charged with a variety of crimes related to helping the terrorists carry out their attacks. There are about 200 plaintiffs in the trial, and survivors of each attack at Charlie Hebdo and the Kosher supermarket are expected to testify. Charlie Hebdo staff are documenting the trial in daily articles and sketches (and weekly roundups in English, such as this harrowing testimony of what happened in the Jewish supermarket). The trial is expected to last until November 10th, and the verdict will be announced on November 13th, the five-year anniversary of the deadly terrorist attack on the Bataclan and surrounding cafés.

A few articles about the trial:

For Survivors at Charlie Hebdo Trial, Wounds Are Still Raw (New York Times): “Disturbing pictures of the crime scene and silent video surveillance footage of the attack were shown in court. But most time was spent listening to stories of lives brutally cut short and of lasting consequences for those who survived: interrupted careers and personal turmoil, hypervigilance and insomnia.”

Trial of the January 2015 attacks – week one (in English, Charlie Hebdo)

France to relive the grief of 2015 as Charlie Hebdo trial gets under way (The National News)

Charlie Hebdo: a trial for history and memory (Cartooning for Peace): Some of the cartoons from around the world (with English translations) about the start of the trial.

Paris terror attacks trial recalls ‘terror’ and ‘cruelty’ of kosher store rampage (France24)

September 25th – A Pakistani man seriously injured two people in a knife attack outside the former Charlie Hebdo offices in the 10th arrondissement, mistaking them for Charlie Hebdo staffers (they work for a TV production agency in the same building). Police quickly apprehended the suspect in front of the Bastille Opera and confessed to the attack. Authorities originally believed he was an 18-year-old refugee. It turns out he’s actually a 25-year-old Pakistani, Zaheer Hassan Mehmood, who made a video before the attack saying he was seeking vengeance against Charlie Hebdo for publishing the Muhammad caricatures. His family in Pakistan has been quoted in the international press as being “proud” of their son. He’s being charged with “attempted murder with relation to a terrorist enterprise.”

October 16th – An Islamic terrorist stabs and beheads French middle-school teacher Samuel Paty near his school in Conflans-Sainte-Honorine (northwestern suburbs of Paris) Paty had shown Muhammad cartoons from Charlie Hebdo to his class as part of a lesson on free speech two weeks earlier (as the Charlie Hebdo trials were starting). The terrorist, an 18-year-old Muslim Chechen refugee from Russia, Abdoullakh Abouyedovich Anzorov, didn’t know the teacher, but saw several social media videos posted by an angry parent at the school demanding Paty’s dismissal (which the school’s principal addressed by holding a special meeting that the parent did not attend). The terrorist bought a knife, had friends drop him off near the school, then paid two students standing outside several hundred euros to point the teacher out to him. After the beheading, Anzorov immediately posted a photo on Twitter “In the name of Allah…” Police shot and killed him a few moments later.

Several suspects were immediately arrested for complicity in the murder: the father of the student whose hate campaign put a target on Paty’s head (he had also been in contact with Anzorov before the killing); the outspoken Islamist militant Abdelhakim Sefrioui who had also denounced the teacher and who had connections to the terrorist; the two students who identified Paty even after Anzorov told them he wanted to “hit and humiliate” him because of the Muhammad caricatures; and three of Anzorov’s friends who helped purchase the knife and drive him to the school.

October 18th-21st – On Sunday the 18th there are memorial marches in Paris and other French cities in honor of the teacher who lost his life doing his job. On the 21st, Samuel Paty is given a hero’s funeral ceremony at the Sorbonne, where President Macron posthumously awards him the French Légion d’Honneur. Here is the fully translated speech.

The Aftermath of the Samuel Paty Killing

After teacher’s murder, a hunt for appeasers who ‘disarmed’ French secularism (France24) “Radical islamists seek to portray their ideology, and their ‘separtist’ stance, as a defence of Islam. Those who denounce this should not be treated as ‘Islamophobes’. The difficulty is to find the right balance between denouncing this imposture while also recognising the legitimate grievances of marginalised communities”

French Police Conduct Raids Against Suspected Extremists After Teacher’s Beheading (NPR) “Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin said the raids were aimed at sending a message that “enemies of the Republic” would not be given “a minute’s respite.” French authorities said 15 people had been detained and that 51 Islamic organizations in France were also being investigated. French President Emmanuel Macron, who earlier characterized the attack as Islamist terrorism, held a defense council meeting Sunday at the Élysée Palace. His office said the government will reinforce security at schools when classes resume on Nov. 2 after two weeks of holidays.”

French newspaper receives threats after republishing Charlie Hebdo cartoon (RFI): “It was not meant as a provocation, but as our way of saying no more barbarism and of recalling our values.”  

October 29th – A 21-year-old terrorist killed three people with a knife at Notre-Dame Basilica in Nice. He was shot by police and taken to a local hospital (as of today, he’s still in the intensive care unit), where he was identified as Brahim Aioussaoi, a Tunisian national who travelled by boat to the Italian island of Lampedusa in September. He was placed in coronavirus quarantine there before being released and told to leave Italy. Nice’s Mayor Christian Estrosi said the suspect had “repeated endlessly ‘Allahu Akbar’ (God is greatest)” during the attack and after being arrested. In the same day, there were other attacks (without victim casualties) and arrests around France (and a French base abroad).

Attacks in France put Islamist extremism back in spotlight (The Guardian UK): “The attacks are unlikely to be part of a concerted campaign organised by a major group but responses to each other – experts have noted how one attack will frequently trigger more, often with the same tactics – and to the febrile atmosphere created by the angry rhetoric of some leaders in the Muslim world in response to Macron’s reassertion of France’s secular principles.”

Why the American Press Keeps Getting Terror in France Wrong (translated from the article in Marianne) French journalist Caroline Fourest asks “Who are the victims, and who the perpetrators?”

Two Important French Concepts: “Gouaille” & “Laïcité”

When the French started repeating “Je suis Charlie” (I am Charlie) in the aftermath of the killings, they weren’t just honoring those who died, but also vehemently defending the Republic’s strict secular foundations and the “Freedom of Expression” guaranteed under its laws. They probably don’t even like Charlie Hebdo’s over-the-top cartoons, but they are willing to fight so they’re allowed to exist, to uphold a centuries-old satirical tradition of irreverently mocking any and all symbols of authority, whether political, religious or cultural.

Charlie Hebdo cover "Invention of Humor"
“The Invention of Humor: Oil + Fire”

 “Gouaille”: A Very French Version of Satire

 “There is an old Parisian tradition of cheeky humor that respects nothing and no one,” wrote French author and translator Arthur Goldhammer on the day of the Charlie Hebdo killings. “The French even have a word for it: gouaille. Think of obscene images of Marie-Antoinette and other royals, of priests in flagrante delicto with nuns, of devils farting in the pope’s face … It’s an anarchic populist form of obscenity that aims to cut down anything that would erect itself as venerable, sacred or powerful. Such satirical humor has little in common with the kind of witty political satire with which Americans are familiar today through watching Jon Stewart or John Oliver.

While not apolitical, gouaille does not seek to stake out a political position or mock one political party to the benefit of another. It is directed, rather, against authority in general, against hierarchy and against the presumption that any individual or group has exclusive possession of the truth. The satire that Charlie Hebdo exemplified was more blasphemous than political, and its roots lie deep in European history, dating from a time when in order to challenge authority, one had to confront divinity itself. In that one respect, the fanatics are not wrong: Charlie Hebdo was out to undermine the sacred as such.”

“Satire is central to French political culture,” wrote Libby Nelson for Vox. “Le Canard Enchaîné, another weekly satirical newspaper, doesn’t only mock the government; it has revealed scandals that have caused cabinet ministers to step down. And Les Guignols d’Info, an eight-minute satirical segment on TV news featuring latex puppets, has had tremendous cultural influence.”

Paris-based journalist Andrew Hussey wrote in the New York Times: “In contemporary France, the young rebels of ’68 have long since become the cultural establishment, even if they still espouse the leftist and libertarian ideals of their younger days. Charlie Hebdo, for all its vaunted anarchism, has been a member of the establishment for a very long time. Or at least this is how the magazine is viewed out in the banlieues — the enormous and often wretched suburbs that surround all major French cities and that are home to a huge immigrant population, mainly from former French colonies in the Middle East, Africa and Asia.

What is seen in the center of Paris as tweaking the nose of authority — religious or political — is seen out in the banlieues as the arrogance of those in power who can mock what they like, including deeply held religious beliefs, perhaps the only part of personal identity that has not been crushed or assimilated into mainstream French society.”

A lot of people criticize Charlie Hebdo by saying “It’s just not funny.” But satire isn’t always supposed to make you laugh (or at least feel bad about it when you do). A lot of political cartoons and satire are “funny because it’s true.” Humor (even tasteless humor, or dark humor) is an effective way to get people to think about subjects we might not want to think about. Charlie Hebdo consistently makes us think about modern issues affecting our society: anti-immigration sentiment, racism, corrupt politicians, sexism, inequality, and homophobia. The point isn’t just to entertain, but to make you think. And sometimes only the most cringe-worthy images will get people to stop and think.

 “Laïcité”: A Very French Version of Secularism

Charlie Hebdo cover, "Where's Lacïcité?"
“Where’s Laïcité?”

“In seeking to understand the cartoons and their impact, it may be as important to understand the European secular identity of the cartoonists who draw them as it is to understand Muslim religious identity. Although Western European countries are traditionally Christian, Western Europeans today are not particularly religious. This is especially pronounced in France, which holds secularism in high regard, but it isn’t limited to that country. As a result, Mogahed notes, “holding religious symbols as sacred is in and of itself seen as backward, superstitious, and pre-modern.”

By contrast, opinion polls consistently find that the majority of Muslims say religion is an important part of their daily lives. That is a significant difference — even before any overt conflict takes place. Cartoons depicting Islam negatively, then, end up hitting on a preconceived, and not totally groundless, sense among European Muslims that their core values, and not just Mohammed, are under attack.” The real reasons cartoons of Mohammed offend so many Muslims (Vox).

France’s deep-seated tradition of subversive satire (The Globe & Mail): “There is a strand of French cartoons so over the top that it has no North American counterpart, aside from the underground works of Robert Crumb (who now lives in France, perhaps not surprisingly),” writes Canadian journalist Jeet Heer, who explains the Charlie Hebdo attacks as “the clash of two ancient traditions – that of a subset of fundamentalist Islam, with its long-standing iconophobia; and that of France, with its tradition of aggressive cartooning.”

“The modern French model of society is partly founded on the works of the Enlightenment philosophers Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Voltaire, and Montesquieu. Rousseau’s lasting idea was that France is a society of assimilation, in which equality, rather than liberty, is emphasized. This is very different than the British or American ideas of liberty being placed above other values; based on the teachings of John Locke and Thomas Hobbes, Americans and the British adhere to the idea of “natural” rights endowed by the Creator, protected by the government.

The ideas of the French Enlightenment such as those of Rousseau helped inspire the 1789 Revolution, in which the monarchy was overthrown to declare a republic lead by the people. For France, in other words, the people, and no other higher power, were sovereign. Article X of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen declared that each citizen had the right to follow their own religion, apart from government interference….More importantly, secularism was understood by the French to mean “freedom from the moral authority of a single, dominant religion.” The 1946 postwar Constitution officially included the term laïcité, and it declared a reaffirmation of the rights set forth by the 1789 Declaration of Rights. It named France “an indivisible, secular, democratic, and social Republic.” – Succès de Scandale: The Role of Satire in French Society by Connor Holeman.

“Laïcité provokes a lot of incomprehension outside of the country, which isn’t surprising given the current financial globalization trend that privileges individual rights over collective fraternity. Yet, in France, the political community takes precedence over subjective communities, as it is the only body able to guarantee both freedom and equality,” says Anastasia Colosimo, French professor of political theology in her article Laïcité: Why French Secularism is So Hard to Grasp. “French law protects those who criticize religion as a whole, compared with criticizing individual believers. You can say, for example, that Christianity is awful – but you cannot say Christians are all horrible people, because then you are naming people, which is against the law.”

Long before Charlie Hebdo’s Muhammad covers solicited protests, French officials doubled down on laïcité in 2004 by passing a new law banning overt religious symbols in public schools. While this included Jewish kippahs and large Christian crosses, critics say the law targets Muslim girls by preventing them from wearing traditional headscarves. Going one step further, in 2010 President Sarkozy passed a law in the name of public safety making it illegal to wear anything covering your face in public spaces, including masks, helmets (except while riding a motorcycle, of course), balaclavas, burqas and any veils that fully cover the face (except in specific circumstances, such as the current Covid-19 crisis where masks are obligatory in public). The debate continues today about whether headscarves are a sign of radicalization and female oppression, or simply an expression of religious freedom.

More Questions than Conclusions

Freedom of expression vs hate speech and incitation to violence is just one issue. France’s laws (like many in Europe) are already very different from the United States where Nazi symbols and neo-Nazi marches are protected by free speech.

But freedom of expression and, within that, the right to mock any religion or religious practice (even “blasphemy”), is just one aspect of the bigger problem facing France: the clash between personal religious values and Republican secular values. The French believe religion is something that should be a private matter and should not interfere with your life as a French citizen. In the case of public spaces and public servants, this secularism is the law (one that many complain is too vague to be useful in court cases challenging it).

This is why many French people are horrified when religious values are imposed on public spaces or practiced by public servants. Some recent examples: demanding public swimming pools have “women-only” hours for Muslim women, demanding that ALL of the women in a public sports center cover their arms and legs, or mosques broadcasting the Muslim call to prayer over loudspeakers in certain neighborhoods, and RATP metro employees who refuse to shake hands with female colleagues or drive a bus that was driven by a woman before them. And of course the Rassemblement national (RN), Le Pen’s “rebranded” National Front party, takes full advantage of these fears that France is being “taken over” by religious fanatics.

Some politicians and pundits think it’s time to change the laws regarding freedom of expression, to ban criticism of any religion out of politesse and fraternité. Does that simply open up the slippery slope of what the community as a whole considers “polite”?

And if we start to censor critics of religion, what else should we ban? How much hate and intolerance are simply hidden behind “religious values”? Should we ban gay couples from holding hands or kissing in public because it “offends” someone’s religion (keeping in the mind that almost half of France’s Catholics are opposed to gay marriage, legal here since 2013)? There are many in France who want make abortion illegal, too (including Catholic medical professionals who try to deny women abortion through delays). If all the vegetarians in France convert to Hinduism, would a ban on beef be acceptable?

“As France goes into a second-wave COVID lockdown, its economy on its knees and its people anxious and fearful, the spectre of duelling extremisms and an escalating cycle of violence is the last thing the country needs. This is a difficult time to be French, but it is especially difficult if you are a French Muslim. Macron understands this, he recognises the barriers presented by soaring rates of unemployment for French youth in general and Muslim youth in particular, and he recognises the enormous problem of systemic racism and bigotry. But, so far, he, and the nation of France, are stuck in a rut, endlessly repeating the mistakes of the past, burdened by a flawed framing of identity and a needlessly narrow path to belonging.” – For French Muslims, every terror attack brings questions about their loyalty to the republic (The Conversation)

I’ve been watching (and participating in) the debates over these issues since moving to France in 1995. It’s not hard to see that both sides have valid points, but disheartening to think there’s no common ground that will make everyone happy. This article is here to try and shed a bit of light on the subject. I don’t pretend to have any answers. Like most people, I just want the violence, hate and mistrust on both sides to end. But what’s the price for peace, and who will have to pay it?

Let’s not forget: the 130 people killed in the November 2015 shooting rampage, the 87 people crushed under the wheels of a cargo truck in Nice on Bastille Day 2016, and the three stabbed to death at the Nice Basilica this week were only “innocent” because the terrorists didn’t cherry-pick an issue that offended them as justification for their murders.

“Terrorism is one problem. This is a military war, not mine. Then there is the war at the level of the ideas,” says French journalist Caroline Fourest in a France24 interview about racism. We need to be able to discuss and debate and express viewpoints and accept that we’re not all going to agree with or like everyone’s ideas without anyone being silenced out of fear of violence.


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  • Great reading Heather, my hat off. Gérard Biard (rédacteur en chef de “Charlie Hebdo”) published another important reading here:
    And this is fundamental: “En France, la séparation des religions et de l’État repose sur un principe clair : ce sont les religions qui doivent se tenir à l’écart des affaires de l’État, et non l’État qui doit se tenir à l’écart des affaires religieuses. Quand le religieux s’immisce dans des domaines qui relèvent de l’État, ou met en péril la société et sa cohésion, l’État intervient. La loi de 1905 n’est pas une loi d’« apaisement », c’est une loi d’ordre public – les cultes ne dépendent pas du ministère du Bien-Être, mais du ministère de l’Intérieur. Elle punit de prison quiconque prononce ou diffuse, dans le cadre de l’exercice d’un culte, des discours qui appellent à résister à la loi, à enfreindre les principes fondamentaux de la République ou à opposer des citoyens les uns aux autres. Elle ne dit pas que l’État reconnaît toutes les religions, mais qu’il n’en reconnaît aucune. Ce qui signifie que les croyances religieuses sont des idées comme les autres. Elles ont droit de cité, comme toutes les autres idées, mais quand elles se révèlent politiquement ou socialement malfaisantes et dangereuses, on les combat, comme toutes les idées malfaisantes et dangereuses.”
    “Laïcité” IS THE LAW, and bob’s your uncle!
    Thank you again heather 🙂 Strogoff

  • Hi Heather

    Thanks for shedding some more light on, among other things, la laïcité. Your hypothetical example of banning gay couples from holding hands was helpful in seeing how difficult it is to draw the line on what could be construed as “offensive behaviour” towards a particular religion.

    However, this line:

    “This is why many French people are horrified when religious values are imposed on public spaces (demanding public swimming pools have “women-only” hours for Muslim women, demanding that ALL of the women in a public sports center cover their arms and legs, or mosques broadcasting the Muslim call to prayer over loudspeakers in certain neighborhoods in Nice and Lyon)”

    provokes more questions.

    1. If call to prayer is considered imposing muslim values in the public space, what about the annual foot procession with incense & mournful chanting that goes through my neighbourhood every fête de l’assomption? It’s followed by a nighttime candle-lit procession of bateaux mouche along the Seine, with chanting that carries from the parvis de l’hotel de la ville to place Maubert.

    2. Why is including non-pork options in school cantines the subject of heated debate, but not the fact that the Friday plat du jour is almost inevitably fish?

    3. Why then are so many Catholic rituals still so pervasive? in offices we celebrate the Epiphany with a galette des rois, that people bring in treats to celebrate their saint’s day, and indeed even weather forecasts often end with “aujourd’hui on fête les brigittes/marcs/sebastiens…”.

    I’m not expecting you to answer these, but if any French readers should shed light I honestly would appreciate it.


    • Hi Sarah, thanks for the comments and your questions, which you’re not the first to ask. 😉
      I’m sure you’ll get a reply from some of the French readers here, but I can answer from what I’ve been told, read in French press, and experienced myself living in France for 25 years. Two main points:

      1. The Catholic rituals are more cultural than religious at this point. As Jean-Manuel alluded to it in his comment, while the country has over a thousands years of Catholic history, and many might have been raised by Catholic parents, the number of practicing Catholics in France today is quite small (which you can see if you ever visit a Catholic church outside Easter and Christmas Eve; I personally have only met two people under the age of 60 who regularly attends church in all my years here…it’s very different here than in the US). Like me (raised Catholic, no longer practicing), they like the food, the decorations, and the rituals, but they’re not interested in the Catholic church’s laws, and certainly not trying to get anyone to join the Catholic church if they don’t want to. The bakery doesn’t require you to attend Sunday mass to buy and enjoy a Galette du Roi (the famous French laïcité, where the French basically extricated all political power from the Catholic Church after the French Revolution). Which brings up the seond point…

      2. This isn’t at all the case with the growing Islamicism in France, which is the radical politicized version of the Muslim faith. Almost ten percent of France’s population is Muslim, the largest in Europe, and according to polls taken in 2020, over 75% of Muslims under the age of 25 believe that Sharia Law takes precedence over the laws of the French Republic, and 45% think that “Islam is incompatible with the values of French society ” (only 24% of Muslims over 35 share this opinion). Add to that the growing influence from Imams trained in foreign countries that practice Sharia Law and repression of freedoms we have in most western countries (Iran, Pakistan, and increasingly Turkey), plus the number of attacks carried out by extremists in France, you can see why the French government and its citizens — including Muslims themselves who are seeing the young people in their community radicalized — are nervous. The symbolism of the call to prayer, requiring girls to be covered head to toe, and requiring hallal meats in the schools, is therefore considered political, not just cultural.
      I realize it’s hard to see this from an outsider’s perspective, and even living in Paris in our “expat bubbles” it’s easy to miss how serious the situation has become in the past decade. On Saturday I was shopping for the reconfinement (food and toilet paper), doing the rounds at my usual shops near my apartment. On Sunday morning someone forwarded me an article in Le Parisien (https://www.leparisien.fr/paris-75/paris-un-homme-radicalise-arrete-a-temps-dans-la-rue-31-10-2020-8405962.php) “Paris: a radicalized man arrested “in time” in the 13th arrondissement” which describes how a young man with a Coran and a 25cm kitchen knife was arrested by police about 100 meters from where I was shopping just a half hour later. His own parents alerted the police that their son was about to “take action”. This happened just two days after the knife murders in the Nice Basilica, and didn’t even make it into any other press outlets in French or English. Police stats on how many attacks are thwarted – and thus rarely making news – is disturbing, no matter what your politics or religion might be.

      Anyone else with a better comprehension of French law want to correct or add to this?

    • Hi Heather (again)

      It seems I didn’t make myself clear in my OP: the need to stop terrorism and to halt people with that as their mission from coming in to the country is essential. The current threat is so obvious I didn’t feel it needed restating. 

      [Some background: my mom’s from Mindanao. If you want a case study in what life is like when faced with decades-long, radical muslim terrorism, look no further. Also, I spent my first 11 years in Quebec and eventually majored in French and Quebec lit. at university. Suffice to say France’s separation of Church and State came up a few times, as did the lack thereof for franco-canadians until the 1960s.]

      Perhaps it’s best for me to frame the terrorism issues similar to Covid, i.e. the need to put out the fire is now so urgent that it’s a waste of resources for hand-wringing about how it spread, societal consequences, never mind how we got to this point in the first place.

      What concerns me, however, is that unlike with Covid, French society seems profoundly uncomfortable with digging into those questions even when we’re not in crisis mode, as exemplified by the outcry when Macron acknowledged France’s complex history with Algeria during his 2017 visit. 

      La laicitié seems even by French standards a particularly complex concept to explain, as Macron himself is learning. While the Parisian intello class might have no problems distinguishing the finer nuances and dissecting them in Le Monde, I do wonder about the rest of France, and Europe, in general. 

      Questions of national identity +  mass upheaval + fear for the future on multple fronts  +  an easily-identified religious minority, the vast majority of whom are law-abiding…. Europe’s been here before.

      A key difference of course being the unique virulence of certain strains of Islam. “Mutations” might be the better term.

      Like you say, there are no easy answers. And after this crisis passes, they’ll be another. Like with Covid, the issue isn’t just with how to stamp out this particular infection, but how can societies avoid unleashing new ones in the future? 


  • As far as I have casually noticed, Charlie Hebdo has never done anything illegal.
    On the other hand I’ve so often found their cartoons sophomoric, not funny and needlessly obnoxious.
    Case in point: Search Google images for
    Charlie Hebdo Une étoile est née
    to find the drawing of the prophet with the star on his rear end.
    Whatever purpose did that drawing serve except to piss people off? Hopefully it didn’t make anyone laugh.
    Nothing a cartoonist might draw merits extra-judicial summary execution
    That said, I figure the best punishment for creating, publishing and printing bad art is to be ignored, left unpurchased, bereft at the news stands…

  • Bonjour Heather : -) Compliments for that colossal article.
    BUT, one VERY important thing is missing, or more precisely, is not explained enough.

    The core of the US is : a nation of immigrants, built against a colonial power.
    The core of the UK is : an island nation, built with a view to a fine balance between democracy and a figurehead, but important monarchy
    The core of Japan is : an extremely insular nation, who knows how to take ideas from other nations and make them Japanese.
    The core of France is : a formerly catholic nation, who built its democracy against 150 years of Church active fight against democracy.

    If you don’t get that, you can’t get our present situation.
    Attacking “laïcité” is at least as bad as would be, in the US, saying “let’s get rid of the Constitution”.
    That bad !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    Or saying in the UK, “send the Queen packing”.
    Or saying in Japan “who cares about an Emperor, anyway ?”

    From Voltaire till 1945 (the higher echelons of the French Church happily collaborated with Pétain), the French had to choose between being good sons of the Church or having a democracy.
    The fight against the Catholic Church has been won… after 150 years of constant struggle.
    And now, we’d have to bow to… Islam ????

    The point is NOT the (obvious) racism of some.
    The point is the fact that very few people want to abandon “laïcité” which in a French mind is absolutely indistinguishable from democracy.“

    You guys don’t get our secularism ?
    You cannot understand how shocking US religiousness is to us.
    It is one thing that most of the French mock (when they feel friendly to Americans) and loathe (when they don’t) about America.
    It is near universal.
    Only diehards Catholics, and maybe religious Jews do not share that view.
    Every body else automatically equates democracy with laïcity.

    Charlie is just the extremely fine tip of an extremely small needle on top of a gigantic iceberg.

    Not understanding the equation laïcité= democracy would have been not understanding
    marxism-leninism = Soviet Union.

  • Merci.
    Tellement compliqué d’expliquer tout ça.
    Je suis franco-canadienne mais résolument française dans ce débat. Je suis démoralisée de voir que mes proches canadiens ne comprennent pas que caricaturer Mahomet n’a rien à voir avec du racisme, que Charlie n’est pas un torchon d’extrême-droite – bien au contraire…
    Et la réaction du monde musulman ces dernières semaines m’horrifie.
    Je suis et serai toujours Charlie sans la moindre ombre de doute.