Feature on Charlie Hebdo shooting, Paris - January 2015

Jesting verged on obsession

Madeleine Byrne 
Published: January 10, 2015 - 12:15AM

The magazine Charlie Hebdo is a marginal, albeit highly symbolic, presence on the French media landscape. Few of the thousands holding "Je suis Charlie" placards in the cold on Wednesday night in the Place de la République would have bought it. And yet, this bratty magazine born in the 1968 student-led revolution, named after President Charles de Gaulle who tried to ban it and Charlie Brown, reflects a broader trend in France at the moment that encompasses Left and Right. 

Whether it is the punk libertarian novelist Michel Houellebecq creating a dystopian view of a future France with a Muslim president in 2022 or the leader of the revitalised far-right political party, the National Front, Marine Le Pen, likening the act of Muslims praying in the streets of Paris as an "occupation", Islam is routinely seen as a threat here.

In the aftermath of such an atrocity – journalists being gunned down at their place of work – many will now believe that the Lépeniste view is justified. 

France has the largest Muslim population in Europe at more than 4.7 million, or 7.5 per cent of the population according to 2010 figures, but unlike in Australia where there are efforts to present a nuanced view of Islam in the media and schools, few French people see the religion as anything other than a menace. When, in Australia, I used to see the various interfaith events and the official Harmony Day as sappy window-dressing, I now wonder if they provided the ground for the "I'll ride with you" hash tag in the wake of the Sydney Lindt café hostage-taking.

French people will argue that their negative view of Islam reflects their dislike of all religions and their much-cherished value of secularism, or laicité. But the divide between the communities is easy to see. 

French people will argue that their negative view of Islam reflects their dislike of all religions and their much-cherished value of secularism, or laicité. But the divide between the communities is easy to see. 

While Paris museums excel in their presentation of Islam's artistic glories, no school in the neighbourhood where I live with its large north and west African community teaches Arabic. Furthermore, while Christian holidays, including the archaic Pentecost and Ascension, are celebrated and allow workers to enjoy long weekends, there is no official recognition of Ramadan.

Some argue that Charlie Hebdo carries on a long tradition of anti-authoritarian jesting that goes back to Ancien Régime pamphlets, but there was also something unpleasant about its obsessional targeting of Islam.  

The magazine took on the role of provocateur in a global campaign: reprinting the Danish cartoons in 2006 that caused mass riots across the Middle East. Five years later, the magazine's website was hacked after a cartoon depicting the Prophet as gay. The same year the magazine announced a special issue to be edited by the Prophet Mohammed and to be renamed "Charia Hebdo". The cartoon of the Prophet on the cover had a tagline threatening readers with "one hundred lashes if you don't die laughing". The magazine office was then firebombed. Other issues included cartoons of Mohammed nude, or in pornographic poses. 

The French react to tragedy via a public return to what they call core values of the Republic. Unlike the Australian preference for pragmatism, the French perceive themselves as part of a nation that is based around core values. But while there is no question that the attack on the journalists and cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo was an act against free speech and must be condemned, it was not a surprise. 

Even those working at the magazine expected it, almost taunting their critics to attack them (the most recent issue included a cartoon wishing all the best to the magazine's "followers" and wishing Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of Islamic State, "the best of health"). On one level there is something wonderful about this reckless bravado, but as police continue the search for the gunmen, while desperately trying to seal the borders of Paris, I fear for how all this will end.

Madeleine Byrne is a former SBS TV News and ABC Radio National journalist based in Paris.

This story was found at: http://www.theage.com.au/comment/jesting-verged-on-obsession-20150109-12l0ne.html