Charlie Hebdo in History: A Few Contextual Notes on its Origins

Terror is nothing other than justice, prompt, severe, inflexible; it is therefore an emanation of virtue.
— Maximilien Robespierre

Charlie’s Roots: The Algerian War and May 1968

The cartoonist Jean “Cabu” Cabut was six days away from his 77th birthday when he was killed by gunmen in the attack on the weekly editorial meeting at the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris. Georges Wolinski, one of the other slain cartoonists, was 80 years old. Cabu and Wolinski had been contributing to Charlie Hebdo since its beginning, with roots in the Algerian War and the events of May 1968.

In the late 1950’s Cabu was conscripted into two years of service with the French Army, an experience which left him with a strong distaste for militarism and the political establishment. France had conquered and settled Algeria almost 130 years earlier, and the French forces were in the middle of losing an 8-year-long struggle against nationalist guerrillas. By the time Algeria had won its independence on July 5, 1962, around one million people had been killed, millions more displaced, and thousands of men, women, and children had fallen victims to the systematic torture and mutilation employed by both sides. Conditions remained unstable in Algeria, and in the 1990’s it fought its own civil war against Islamist rebels in which massacres were committed against several villages.

The effects of 132 years of colonization and decolonization are still playing out in French and Algerian societies and psyches. Most of the six million Muslims who live in France are of Algerian descent, including the brothers who attacked the Charlie offices. A great number of French Algerians as well as Muslim immigrants face daily poverty and political exclusion in poor suburbs surrounding cities like Paris.

In 1960, after his army service, Cabu was a founding contributor to a satirical monthly magazine called Hara-Kiri. Wolinksi was also compelled to serve in the military in Algeria, which is where he saw posters advertising the new satirical publication. He sent in some samples, then moved to Paris where he also became an early contributor to Hara-Kiri.

Six years after the war, in May 1968, tens of thousands of anti-capitalist (and anti-Stalinist) students with cobblestones and molotovs defended the barricaded streets of the Latin Quarter of Paris against police with batons and tear gas. Hundreds of people on both sides were hospitalized and hundreds of protesters were arrested (an historically peaceful socialist insurrection by Parisian standards — as a comparison, when the National Guard crushed the Paris Commune of 1871, between 10,000 and 20,000 Communards were killed in battle in the streets or executed by soldiers after the commune fell.)

In the weeks following the battles between the students and police in 1968, workers joined the students, occupied factories, and the entire city stopped working. It is estimated that for two weeks more than ten million workers and students throughout France were on strike — the first wildcat general strike in history to shutdown an entire industrial nation.

During the events of May 1968, Wolinksi and an anarchist cartoonist named Maurice “Siné” Sinet helped launch a satirical paper, L’Enragé (The Enraged), which said of itself: “This magazine is a paving stone. It can be used as a wick for a Molotov cocktail. It can be used as a baton shield. It can be used as an anti-gas handkerchief.” Siné would also go on to draw for Charlie Hebdo, where he was accused of anti-Semitism after writing a column in which he suggested Jean Sarkozy was going to convert to Judaism in order to marry his wealthy fiancée (in 2008). The editor of Charlie Hebdo at the time asked Siné to apologize; when he refused, he was fired. Siné eventually won a wrongful termination suit against the magazine — although in light of last week’s attacks, being fired may well have saved his life.

The May 1968 strike did not end until Charles de Gaulle agreed to dissolve the National Assembly and hold new elections in June — whereupon he was promptly re-elected with an even more right-wing Assembly. A year later, de Gaulle stepped down, and a year after that he died at his home in Colombey-les-Deux-Églises. Meanwhile, Hara-Kiri had spunoff a weekly edition, Hara-Kiri Hebdo (hebdomadaire is French for weekly). A week before de Gaulle died, there was a fire at a discothèque which killed 147 people. Following de Gaulle’s death, Hara-Kiri Hebdo's cover declared “Tragic ball in Colombey: 1 death” The insinuation, I guess, being that the French media put undue importance on the death of one man as compared to the many victims of the fire. Whatever the joke was, the French government didn’t like it, and Hara-Kiri Hebdo was forced to shut down.

The publisher of Hara-Kiri also published a monthly magazine of comic strips called Charlie (named after Charlie Brown). The week after Hara-Kiri Hebdo was shutdown, it returned, with the same cover, as Charlie Hebdo — its new name having meaning both as the weekly version of Charlie and as a satirical tribute to Charles de Gaulle.

While the strike resulted in few political changes, the libertarian anti-capitalist spirit of May 1968 lives on in France, including in the irreverent mocking of politicians (especially France’s neo-fascist National Front party), racist football fans, and religionists by the likes of Charlie Hebdo.

It is not surprising, though, that many anarchists, leftists, and people in general don’t think publishing sexualized and racialized caricatures of politically marginalized people — even if the depictions are intended to mock racists — is a particularly good way to express the spirit of '68. Even many French speakers who enjoy the sort of humour Charlie Hebdo peddles think the magazine’s portrayal of Muslims is tone deaf and doesn’t keep with its original editorial line. Olivier Cyran, who was employed at Charlie Hebdo from 1992 until he quit in 2001, wrote a scathing letter to the magazine’s editors (“Charlie Hebdo”, not racist? If you say so…) about a year before the attack in which he charged the magazine of becoming obsessed with Islam after September 11, 2001, to the point of transforming itself into a racist mouthpiece of Islamophobia:

You claim for yourself the tradition of anticlericalism, but pretend not to know the fundamental difference between this and Islamophobia. The first comes from a long, hard and fierce struggle against a Catholic priesthood which actually had formidable power, which had - and still has - its own newspapers, legislators, lobbies, literary salons and a huge property portfolio. The second attacks members of a minority faith deprived of any kind of influence in the corridors of power.
— Olivier Cyran (translated by Daphne Lawless)

After the shooting, the Charlie Hebdo cartoons were widely disparaged by the English-speaking Left, usually with neither context nor understanding. I will write about that in the next article in this series, but I also highly recommend Leigh Phillips article “Lost in translation: Charlie Hebdo, free speech and the unilingual left” (Ricochet, January 13, 2015) which says almost everything I want to say and better than I’ll say it.

Scope and Sources

I originally wrote this to provide a little bit of historic social and ideological context for the various political and “free speech” controversies ignited by the Charlie Hebdo murders. For many of the facts relating to the history of the publication, I relied on The Telegraph's obituary of Sabu (January 7, 2015) and The Independent's obituary of Georges Wolinski (January 9, 2015). See the in-text hyperlinks for my other sources (tertiary and crowd-sourced though they may be).

Already since writing this things have changed significantly in terms of the availability of information in English. The Wikipedia entry on “Charlie Hebdo” is continuing to grow and improve and provides a much more complete history of the magazine proper than I’ve presented here.

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