Charlie Hebdo is notorious for its irreverent satirical cartoons, but French culture has held political cartoons in high regard for centuries. Brooke speaks with Laurence Grove, a professor of French text and images at University of Glasgow, about the complex history of French illustration culminating in Charlie Hebdo.
BROOKE: Laurence Grove is a professor of French text and image studies at the University of Glasgow, where he specializes in French cartoons. He also has an apartment in Paris not far from the offices of Charlie Hebdo. He says that cartoons have long played a crucial role in French politics and culture, starting in the 19th century, but especially in the years after World War Two.
GROVE: And that's where I'd say that France particularly came into it's own because the Communists and the Catholics -- the two main ruling parties at the time--used comics to put their message forward. So if you were a young Communist kid you'd be reading 'Vallon,' you'd be seeing a dog called 'Pif le Chien,' and you'd know be knowing that that dog was far better than any consumerist mouse that somebody else might put across the Atlantic. On the other hand if you were a Catholic child you'd be reading ??? but this wouldn't have a communist dog outwitting Coca-Cola, this would be telling you how to lead a good wholesome life and make sure that you wash properly in the morning. A lot of the kids reading this would enjoy the stories. I've known friends who've grown up with Pif le Chien and they didn't know he was a Communist dog at all.
BROOKE: But then how would you place Charlie Hebdo in this context? I mean, you called the shooting an attack on a national institution. Was this carrying on a propagandistic tradition?
GROVE: Part of what Charlie Hebdo did was to show people that comics weren't just for kids. We can now be fully and openly adult. Sexual references, scatology, I won't tell you exactly what Sarkozy was doing in the last issue of Charlie Hebdo, but it was very rude and it didn't involve clothing
GROVE: This was a way at getting at what they considered to be his closed mindedness, by showing him doing exactly what he was criticizing other people for doing. It was a journal which has always been on the cutting edge of looking to say what really is taboo and not allowed and then doing exactly that.
BROOKE: Charlie Hebdo was born out of L'Hebdo Hara-Kiri which was closed in 1970 by the French government after it mocked the death of Charles DeGaulle. So we're going back a ways. I mean many of the people who died were quite old. 76 years old. 80 years old. These were old hippies--or yippies, right?
GROVE: Yep. Cabu, the person with whom I had the honor and pleasure to work, was very much a "soixante-huitard" he was out manning the barricades in...
BROOKE: In 1968...
GROVE: In 1968 - when the riots were happening in France. It was the underground. It was Robert Crumb. One of the things he said was what he really wanted was a fairer society. And I think even up until yesterday he lived with that 1960s ideal of just making things better for people.
BROOKE: Such purity side-by-side with so much cynicism.
GROVE: That's it. There were so many contradictions. It was a left-wing idealistic organization that would go out and offend absolutely everybody.
BROOKE: Right. I went thru some of the covers. I saw pedophile priests, the birth of Jesus, a range of politicians. But the ones that have been the most notable, at least from an international perspective would be the ones that are related to Mohammed. In October 2011 they picked up on the Danish Mohammed cartoon scandal by publishing an issue guest edited by Mohammed and rebranded "Sharia Hebdo."
GROVE: That was one of the famous ones and it was in the wake of that that the police protection was put on Charlie Hebdo. Apparently now that particular issue has been going on the market and selling for quite a high price.
BROOKE: In 2012, in the wake of outrage in the Muslim world over a YouTube video called "The Innocence of Muslims" Charlie Hebdo published a series of cartoons, again of the prophet. One is something that says, 'The film that will set the Muslim world on fire' and you see him lying naked in a bed being filmed from behind saying, 'Do you like it? My rear-end?' Which I guess is a reference to the 1963 Godard film 'Contempt' in which Brigitte Bardot asks pretty much the same question?
GROVE: This wasn't just stupid humor, although they liked to pretend it was. It was humor with all sorts of cross-literary references, inter-textuality... It was Monty Python, but 50 times as rude.
BROOKE: Monty Python crossed with Mad Magazine crossed with South Park.
GROVE: Yep. And doing even things that even South Park couldn't get away with.
BROOKE: Could you tell me about the last cartoon it published?
GROVE: On the day of the massacre it had tweeted a cartoon showing the leader of ISIS wishing everybody a happy new year and above all good health. The fact that they were so taboo breaking right to the end - that the people running Charlie Hebdo left this cartoon which was really the blackest of black humor on their Facebook page even after the attack was saying to the outside world -- excuse my French - it was say 'merde!' And they were going to continue and they even announced that there will be Wednesday's issue as normal. Well, no, not as normal because for print run it is due to be a million copies.
BROOKE: Now it had huge number of enemies - mostly on the right. And I'm assuming those people must be feeling some cognitive dissonance this week. Because it's always condemned the weekly and now it may feel compelled to defend it, right?
GROVE: It could almost be a perfect cartoon for Charlie Hebdo. So you're in this situation where you have a certain, as you say, right wing implicitly racist Islamophobic population who hated Charlie Hebdo - these are the very people who, in jest probably, would have said 'these lot deserve to be shot down.' Well, now that they have been shot down, how are they reacting? Who shot them down: the very people the racists are racist against.
BROOKE: But a person who might conflate this kind of extremism with the religion in general will find it very easy to harden in their views.
GROVE: I think the average person in France knows Charlie Hebdo; it's a household name. And they know what Charlie Hebdo stood for. That Charlie Hebdo stood for left-wing iconoclastic ant-racism, anti-homophobic beliefs. I think the questions are coming maybe from outside readers who could take individual copes, and could see individual images -- see them out of context... When you don't know the people, you don't know their struggles and the history, you can see some of these images and say, 'yes, that's sexist, homophobic, Islamophobic" but that's not context of the journal.
BROOKE: This kind of publication -- the tradition is known as the irresponsible press, right?
GROVE: Right. The 'journal irresponsable' is the nickname it gave itself.
BROOKE: So, ultimately, what do you think will be the impact of this attack on that? On free speech in France in general? And on the public's appetite for it.
GROVE: Well I think we're seeing that already. We're getting people out in the streets. We're seeing national shows of solidarity. We're seeing a print run of a million. We're seeing the magazine continuing. It was in financial difficulty two days ago -- well it certainly isn't now.
BROOKE: It isn't'?
GROVE: You're seeing financial aid coming from sources who probably never would have given it financial aid in the past. It's once again put the visual medium of cartooning at the forefront of French culture. It's always been something which the French have proudly said, 'What do we beat the Americans at? We beat them at jazz, we beat them at detective novels, we beat them at comics.'
BROOKE: Jazz? Oh come on!
GROVE: (Laughs). This is being seen worldwide as something for which France has a special place and it excels. You might not agree in the way it excels, but it certainly excels.
BROOKE: Laurence, thank you very much.
GROVE: An absolute pleasure.
BROOKE: Laurence Grove is a professor of French text and image studies at the University of Glasgow, where he specializes in French cartoons.