Four years later, what have we learned from the Charlie Hebdo Attack?


In April 1961, a reader named Victor de Blancpré sent a letter to François Cavanna, founder and editor-in-chief of Hara Kiri magazine and Charlie Hebdo, saying: ‘Never have I read such a heap of insanity and foolishness. It’s disgraceful! I’m suffocated with indignation. You disgraced the French press. You must be thinking you are very smart? Let me tell you that you are actually stupid and mean’. [1]

Cavanna reported that he loved the reader’s distaste for the magazine’s vulgar and puerile humour so much that he decided to appropriate it. He borrowed the expression bête et méchant (stupid and mean) to change the title from Hara Kiri: journal satirique, to Hara Kiri: journal bête et méchant. The term bête et méchant was coined to label Hara Kiri’s satirical ethos and its brand of humour, and the slogan continued when Cavanna launched Charlie Hebdo in 1970.

The bête et méchant humour, a trademark of Charlie Hebdo, is impossible to define. It has elements of satire but it is not unequivocally satirical. It displays an anarchic spirit but is not anarchist. It attacks the Catholic Church but anticlericalism cannot be considered its self-proclaimed identity. There is no doubt that Cavanna distilled the loathing he felt for the Catholic Church, and the Pope in particular, into many of his editorials, but nowhere in 1970s’ Charlie Hebdo could an attack on Islam or Muslims be found.

Through deliberate strategies of inflation and misrepresentation, Cavanna established a doctrine that intentionally singled out and exposed idiocy, imbecility, and malice in people. It deliberately celebrated existing idiocy and nastiness by adding more of its own, going farther to ‘the point of absurdity, to the point of odiousness, to the point of grandiloquence’, in Cavanna’s words.

One thing is for sure; a satirist will very often propagandize for his own way of writing satire.  He can define it in moral terms, or in terms of wit, humour, self-derision, iconoclasm or the carnival spirit. Frankly, the bête et méchant humour is so absurd that it’s hard to determine whether it has any critical value. If it succeeded at anything, it would be that it shocked and repulsed, while running the risk of reinforcing the existing and widespread discriminatory behaviour it satirised.

Charlie Hebdo comes out of a dizzying array of forms of humour: satire, irony, farce, hyperbole, darkness and morbidity. It was no coincidence that Hara Kiri’s first three issues in 1960 deployed the term “journal satirique” as a subheading. By so doing, the magazine classed itself within the borders of the satirical tradition, while soon afterwards adopting “journal bête et méchant” as a label that does not resemble or refer to anything recognizable. Cavanna’s prescribed identity for his paper, in the 1970s, was intentionally unclear, due to the fact that it was a new enterprise still growing and trying to position itself within the press market. This fluidity was also due to a desire to identify with having an overlap of, or indefinite lines between humour and satire, moving freely between the two genres. Like a catch-all category of press, the publication called itself something that did not place a label on its identity.

However, when Philippe Val, with a hope of starting his own newspaper that would voice his interests, decided, along with several ex-Charlie Hebdo contributors, to resurrect Charlie Hebdo in 1992 after a ten-year hiatus, what ensued was critical in shaping the future of Charlie Hebdo as we know it today. Under Val, Charlie Hebdo became positioned at the centre of a conflicted political debate dominated by dichotomies of freedom of speech versus hate speech, anti-islamophobia and anti-Semitism. Such dichotomies cannot contain the complexity of political satire. The magazine became just too serious.

Over the past thirty years Charlie Hebdo, a large fraction of mainstream media, and a certain ‘intellectual class’ shifted public attention to new social questions, with free speech, laïcité [state secularism], and French national identity at the forefront.

A social and political crisis that became more visible in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo shootings was preceded by a certain flow of anti-Islam rhetoric which has come to characterize French public life. This is exemplified by Michel Houellebecq’s novel Soumission (January 20015) as well as the success of Eric Zemmour’s Le Suicide français (2014) which laments the failed project of integration of Muslims into the French society, or his previous essay Mélancolie Française (2010). When interviewed by the Corriere della Sera, Zemmour was quoted as saying that France should consider deporting Muslims. The abundance of the best-selling literary works which treat the question of Islam in France tells us that Charlie Hebdo once again finds itself preaching to the choir.

The consensus around the importance of protecting certain Republican values has shaped the debate in the 2017 elections. One look at the editorial of Gérard Biard, editor in chief, in the Charlie Hebdo’s survivors’ issue published on 14 January 2015, showcases the fixation on questions of republican norms and values almost exclusively focusing on freedom of speech and laïcité (rather than égalité and fraternité):

“We will hope that starting from 7 January 2015; the firm defense of laïcité will be granted for everyone…Yes, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a reality; yes, international geopolitics is a succession of manœuvers and dirty tricks; yes, the social condition of what we call ‘communities of Muslim origins’, in France is profoundly unjust; yes, racism and discriminations should be fought relentlessly. Fortunately, there exist several tools to try and resolve these serious problems, but they are all inoperable if one thing is missing: laïcité.” [2]

Laïcité, from Charlie’s perspective is thus the backbone of the Republic, and is the solution to the social fracture. The French elite’s obsession with Islam has demonstrates how, historically, the ruling classes have always prioritized the language of freedom over equality. As one article put it: “Many Muslims in France feel marginalised because of their low economic status. Yet, the question of their social integration returns continually to the issue of secularism and whether or not this secularism, the benchmark of French values, is compatible with Islam.” It is thus clear that talking about laïcité when the conflict with the Roman Catholic Church is long gone in France means that the object of debate has changed to: how best could the republic manage multiculturalism? [3]


[1] Some argue that the article was not sent from a reader but was actually written by Cavanna himself. The magazine did publish a few ‘fake’ but satirical readers’ letters over the years.

[2] My translation

[3] To read more on this topic, Abi Taylor argues that: ‘The [French] state invokes universalism and secularism to reserve the right not simply to determine who can become a member of French society, but more generally to maintain a stronghold on symbolising Frenchness. And so the state defends the republic’s indivisibility, unity and social and moral order – no more so than when the nation perceives itself plagued by insecurity.’

Imen Neffati is a PhD researcher at the History Department University of Sheffield researching the history of the satirical press in France from the 1960s to the present with a special focus on Charlie Hebdo, questions of free speech, and the right to offend.

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Undead Letters: Ireland’s Blasphemy Referendum


On 26 October Ireland will go to the polls not only to elect a President, but to vote in a long-awaited referendum on whether or not to remove the offence of blasphemy from the Irish constitution. The importance of cutting out Article 40.6.1, which reads ‘the publication or utterance of blasphemous, seditious, or indecent matter is an offence which shall be punishable in accordance with the law’, is difficult to overstate.

Although the blasphemy law was finally repealed in the UK as recently as 2008, we tend to think of it as a quaint legal anachronism. The same might be thought in Ireland, where no one has been prosecuted under the law since 1855. So the question must be asked, why even bother with a referendum? As Senator Rónán Mullen has pointed out, the constitutional reference is largely symbolic and a referendum would be, he argues, of no public benefit and yet would cost over €3 million.

UK humanist organisations have rightly noted that the Irish law is frequently cited by other countries to justify keeping their own blasphemy laws, but the heart of the matter is that even long-dormant laws are always at risk of rearing their heads again, especially when it comes to blasphemy. The case of such laws in England during the 20th century illustrates this well.

As long ago as the late nineteenth century, English blasphemy law looked outdated. A public meeting was even been held at St. James’ Hall in May 1884 to demand the removal of blasphemy laws for being ‘obsolete enactments’ [1]. With the year 1921 seeing the last prison sentence for blasphemy, by 1949 the distinguished judge Lord Alfred Denning could declare the offence a ‘dead letter’ whilst Lord Goddard in 1951 was able to refer in passing to the ‘somewhat obsolete offence of blasphemy’ [2].

In 1957, C.E Ratcliffe observed in an article that, despite their redundancy, ‘the blasphemy laws, relics of the Bad Old Days, are still on the Statute Books’ [3]. In fact the statute law of blasphemy was repealed in the late 1960s but the common law offence of blasphemous libel (the instrument which was actually used to prosecute blasphemers in England) remained in place, despite it being recommended for abolition by a committee. Blasphemous libel, then, continued to exist in theory but was obsolete in practice – symbolic, more than anything.

Quite suddenly however, in 1976, blasphemy was revived. When Danish filmmaker Jens Jørgen Thorsen attempted to make a film in Britain about the supposed sex life of Jesus, Mary Whitehouse and her National Viewers and Listeners Association whipped up a press campaign and sought advice on how to initiate a prosecution, finding recourse in the dusty old law of blasphemous libel.

In the event Thorsen was refused entry to the country, but the episode had drawn attention to the fact that blasphemous material was being produced and that there were in fact courses of action available to prevent this in the seemingly archaic blasphemy laws. This became relevant the following year when Whitehouse did initiate a private prosecution for blasphemous libel against the magazine Gay News and its Editor Dennis Lemon for publishing a poem by James Kirkup entitled ‘The Love That Dares To Speak Its Name’, along with an illustration, that graphically described a Roman Centurion having sex with Jesus after his crucifixion.

After a dramatic and controversial trial at the Old Bailey in July 1977, the first blasphemy trial for 56 years, a jury found both the journal and Lemon guilty. The judge declared the poem ‘blasphemous upon its face’ and handed Lemon a nine month suspended sentence and a £500 fine. The verdict was upheld by the Court of Appeal and the Law Lords, though the prison sentence was later quashed.

A letter from the Home Office to the Department of Public Prosecutions (DPP) in August 1977 summarised the situation well – ‘as to blasphemy and other religious offences, they are no longer, as we thought here in 1971, obsolete curiosities but a live issue’ [4].

Blasphemy had made a comeback and accusations of it subsequently increased. Hundreds of complaints were made about the blasphemy of Monty Python’s Life of Brian in 1979 and the DPP did actually consider bringing charges [5]. The Last Temptation of Christ was similarly declared blasphemous by numerous commentators with widespread calls for a prosecution.

Though no action was brought against these films, as a result of the controversy the short 1989 film Visions of Ecstasy, about the sexualised visions of Saint Teresa of Avila with the body of Jesus, was effectively banned by the British Board of Film Classification who refused to issue the video with a certificate because it was the Board’s view that a jury would find the production blasphemous. This was the first time the Board had censored a film for blasphemy.

Not only did this mean an official body in the UK had censored a film for adults on the grounds of blasphemy, but it also strengthened the case of those who were calling for a prosecution to be brought against Salman Rushdie for his novel The Satanic Verses in that same year. The end result of all this was that freedom of expression in Britain was left severely bruised.

What the English example shows, then, is even when it is thought an offence has been consigned to a legal wasteland, its very existence still represents the possibility of a revival. The only way to ensure blasphemy is banished to the history books for good is complete abolition of all laws, including ‘dead letter’ ones, wherever they are found, as the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion and Belief has called for.

Historian David Nash’s claim in 2007 that blasphemy ‘is at the forefront of legal and philosophical dilemmas facing contemporary western governments’ still rings true [6]. Whilst the law in England was abolished in 2008 under the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act, the concept of blasphemy has continued to have resonance in the context of ongoing discussions about freedom of expression, religious freedom and multiculturalism, especially after the Charlie Hebdo attacks of 2015.

Malta, Norway, Iceland and Denmark have all recently repealed their blasphemy laws. A Bill to do the same is currently making its way through the legislature of Canada. At the same time, Imran Khan, the new Prime Minister of Pakistan, is pledging to export his country’s blasphemy laws to the rest of the world. In the face of this, Ireland may wish to bear history in mind when considering the views of Senator Mullen and others. Blasphemy remains, as it always has been, more than merely symbolic.

Hallam Roffey is in the first year of his WRoCAH-funded PhD in the Department of History at the University of Sheffield. His research concerns freedom of expression, censorship and offensive / obscene material in modern Britain.

[1] Justice, 10 May 1884, p.1.
[2] N. Walter, Blasphemy Ancient & Modern, p.61.
[3] The Word, November 1957, p.10.
[4] National Archives: D.P.P, 2/6231, Thørsen, Jens Jorgen, 1976-1977.
[5] National Archives: HO, 300/193, ‘Monty Python’s Life of Brian’, 1979-1980.
[6] D. Nash, Blasphemy in the Christian World: A History (oxford, 2007), p.1.


Image CreditThe Art Society Køge Bay: The director Jens Jørgen Thorsen debates the movie ‘Stille dager i Clichy’ in Munkebio, May 1, 1980. 


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