What Charlie Hebdo Taught Me About Freedom of Speech

By Jacob HamburgerJanuary 7, 2017

What Charlie Hebdo Taught Me About Freedom of Speech
IT IS HARD to think of a more blatant affront to free speech than the murder of journalists and cartoonists. But in the wake of precisely such an attack at Charlie Hebdo two years ago, I found myself in a difficult position, committed in the abstract to defending freedom of speech against such attacks, but uncomfortable with Charlie Hebdo’s use of that freedom. Like most Americans, I had never heard of the satirical paper, but the story seemed relatively straightforward: they had made themselves a target for al-Qaeda by repeatedly drawing the Prophet Muhammad and mocking Islamic fundamentalism. Their cartoons seemed to belong to a post-9/11 genre of anti-Muslim satire that I found to be in poor taste. At best, it seemed, the cartoonists were indifferent to the increasingly perilous position of France’s Muslim population; at worst, they helped to perpetuate it. I was not sure that Charlie Hebdo was Islamophobic, as some on the left asserted. But I also could not bring myself to join the calls for solidarity. Like the writers protesting PEN America’s decision to award Charlie Hebdo for journalistic courage, I began to suspect that the ideal of free speech was being used as a cover for darker impulses.

I moved to Paris several months after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, and since then the country’s political discourse has taken a direction that seemed to confirm my suspicions. The terrorist attacks of the last two years have helped France’s far-right Front National dominate the conversation. The party’s leader, Marine Le Pen, has framed the FN’s opposition to Muslim immigration as a defense of Enlightenment values against people incapable of appreciating them, and mainstream politicians like former president Nicolas Sarkozy have been increasingly eager to follow her down this road. Last summer’s “burkini” affair emblematized many politicians’ willingness to appeal to nationalist sentiment by distorting France’s tradition of laïcité, which, though a doctrine of state secularism, actually affirms the right to religious expression. At the same time, I watched Donald Trump take advantage of a similar crumbling of liberal values in my own country. Despite his hostility to journalists, Trump achieved the amazing feat of casting his opponents as “politically correct” enemies of free speech. In today’s political climate, demagogues and neo-nationalists have begun stripping the notion of free speech of its meaning, and liberals have largely failed to counter their destructive rhetoric.

So when I was offered the chance to do some translation work for Charlie Hebdo last year, I had my reservations. But I was curious, and as a graduate student, happy to have another gig. As I learned more about Charlie Hebdo’s history and came into contact with their surviving staff, I discovered how far off the mark my reservations had been. France’s historical and legal traditions of free speech create an important niche for satirists that Charlie Hebdo has long filled. Despite the rebellious attitude of a paper that has called itself a journal irresponsible, its staff has been constantly attuned to the responsibilities that their role demands. Its confrontations with Islam, as well as with Catholicism and the Front National, were an attempt to fulfill these responsibilities. And in a time when the ideal of free speech is in danger of losing its meaning, Charlie Hebdo sets an increasingly rare example of a commitment to defining and defending its bounds.

The paper is an example of what an authentic commitment to free speech looks like in practice. Recognizing this can help us distinguish responsible and intelligent satire from its many sorry imitations today — the internet trolls and the self-proclaimed “provocateurs” like Breitbart’s Milo Yiannopoulos who glorify nastiness for its own sake. Of course, my discomfort with some of what I had seen them print has not gone away. As with all good satire, it isn’t supposed to. Understanding Charlie Hebdo in context does not mean always liking it, but for those struggling to affirm their commitment to free speech in today’s climate, the paper’s example is worth exploring and, yes, celebrating.


Charlie Hebdo is a product of an idealistic vision of free speech, one that inspired the radicals of Mai ’68. In the ’60s, its founder François Cavanna helped run a paper called Hara-Kiri, whose mission was to build a more open and permissive society by ruthlessly attacking taboos and symbols of authority. Committed secularists, pacifists, and social libertarians, the cartoonists who later became Charlie Hebdo mainstays — including Cabu, Georges Wolinski, Willem, and Vuillemin — delighted in grotesque mockery of the pillars of French society: above all, the Catholic Church, the military, and the personality cult of Charles de Gaulle. Needless to say, this did not make them popular with the authorities; in 1970, after Hara-Kiri put out a cover making light of de Gaulle’s death, France’s interior minister issued a decree effectively banning the paper, citing a law against selling indecent material to minors. The former staff of Hara-Kiri was able to continue publishing through a sort of ruse: Charlie, a comic-strip review named after Charlie Brown and edited by Wolinski, announced that it would begin publishing a weekly version called Charlie Hebdo (hebdomadaire meaning “weekly”). Charlie Hebdo was born in response to official censorship, and though the new paper remained attached to the idealism of its predecessor, it gained a much more concrete sense of the political consequences of provocative speech.

These political consequences are in some sense a possibility for all political satirists, even those less confrontational than Charlie Hebdo. Satire is inherently iconoclastic, mocking what is serious, stating plainly what is taboo, and profaning what is sacred. Cartoons can be a particularly powerful form of satire simply because they are a visual medium, with the power to put something offensive right in people’s faces. But good cartoons do not merely cause outrage — they provoke critical reflection. By making the viewer laugh at something one ought not to laugh at, they start a conversation that leads to a serious point. A textbook example is a recent cartoon by Charlie Hebdo staff cartoonist Felix entitled “Earthquake, Italian Style,” depicting victims of last summer’s tremors in the Alps as bloody pasta dishes. As the Italian writer Francesco Mazza explains, the point was not to mock people’s suffering, but to highlight Italian officials’ neglect of infrastructure in quake-prone areas (which, according to Felix’s label, collapsed like “lasagna”). Charlie Hebdo’s cartoonists feel a responsibility to tackle sensitive subjects — they find something healthy in learning to laugh at death and tragedy — but this responsibility cuts both ways. Cartoons that offend without making a productive statement (typically a critique of powerful people or ideas) risk channeling the emotional power they provoke in dangerous directions.

This emotional power makes the genre almost by necessity a confrontation with the issue of free speech. It often takes some interpretative work to understand a cartoon’s critical message, as a helpful English-language blog demonstrates, and not everyone is willing to put in that work. Reading cartoons literally as an attack on some untouchable target — religious symbols, victims of war and natural disasters, oppressed minorities — often leads to calls for censorship or even punishment for the cartoonists. This is especially true when the butt of the joke is a group with power or influence. Indeed, political cartoons tend to function as a test of a society’s freedom of speech.

Charlie Hebdo is unique in the degree to which it cultivates controversy. Part of this has to do with the paper’s format, which has changed little since the ’70s. Few newspapers in the world provide such a consistent venue for exploiting the potential of satirical cartoons: 16 pages every single week featuring editorial cartoons mostly by paid staff cartoonists (Matt Bors estimates that more cartoonists were killed at Charlie Hebdo than had full-time jobs in the United States at the time). The paper’s creative process is highly collaborative. Walk into a Charlie Hebdo editorial meeting, and you’ll find cartoonists, writers, and editors deciding together on how to pair cartoons with articles on politics and culture, and choosing a cover that best captures their take on recent events. But even more importantly, though the ’60s are long gone, Charlie Hebdo stays true to its radical origins. The paper’s cartoonists still include members of the generation that got started with Hara-Kiri, and most of the paper’s younger staff grew up with Cabu and Wolinski as their heroes. As a result, they remain adamant critics of those in power, and oppose all nostalgic views of the past: far-right xenophobia, social conservatism, and religious fundamentalism. The act of censorship that gave birth to Charlie Hebdo looms large in the paper’s institutional memory, giving its staff a militant understanding of free expression as a struggle in which satirists are on the front lines.


It is a mistake, however, to confuse this militancy with an absolutist view of free speech, an interpretation that ignores the way this concept operates in the French context. French jurisprudence is less liberal than the United States’s First Amendment tradition. The legislature and courts play a far more active role in defining and enforcing the bounds of acceptable speech. Holocaust denial, certain attacks on heads of state, and hate speech, for example, are legally punishable. A French paper that “crosses the line” may have to answer to the courts. French governments in recent decades have been less willing to shut down a newspaper by decree as they did Hara-Kiri. But the law gives those that take issue with a cartoon the right to file an official complaint and take the cartoonist to trial, where a judge will rule on whether or not the drawing is legitimate speech. Though the courts generally give satirists a fair amount of leeway, this is not a guarantee. On a few occasions, Charlie Hebdo has had to pay fines for cartoons that cross the line, penalties that could prove disastrous for a small paper if too frequently incurred. Charlie Hebdo’s editors, who are ultimately responsible in such cases, are therefore constantly vigilant in adhering to the standard set by the law in order to keep the paper afloat. Though Charlie Hebdo’s roots lie in a soixante-huitard iconoclasm, it has had to set aside any utopian ideals of free speech in order to conform to France’s juridical reality.

In my recent conversations with Charlie Hebdo cartoonist and the paper’s current editor Riss, I was at first surprised to discover that the paper not only accepts but actually embraces the standards imposed by French law. Riss criticized the American approach to free speech, which extends even to neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan, as a symptom of the laissez-faire neoliberal attitudes Charlie Hebdo frequently condemns. The paper has never had a problem with censoring racism and other abuses of free speech. In 1995, for example, Charlie Hebdo led a movement to officially ban the xenophobic and anti-Semitic Front National, then headed by Marine Le Pen’s father Jean-Marie Le Pen. As a satirist, Riss is well aware of the difference between the critical provocation to which cartoonists aspire and cheap racist attacks. In their satire of figures like the Le Pens, Charlie Hebdo’s cartoonists remain very much within the spirit of France’s laws, adhering rigorously to these legal standards even while mimicking racist rhetoric. Riss does not particularly like that he should sometimes have to defend his cartoons in court, as he has done on many occasions, but he recognizes that this is part of his country’s way of holding him accountable to the standards of responsible satire.

Despite their occasionally anarchistic flair, there is a peculiar kind of patriotism to Charlie Hebdo. The way they think of freedom of speech is deeply tied to the laws of the Republic. Charlie Hebdo’s satire often attempts to test how far the freedoms granted by these laws extend, but also to resist vigorously against attempts by private groups to restrict these freedoms further. In the 1990s, the paper went through an important series of legal battles with one such group known as the Alliance Générale Contre le Racisme et pour le respect de l’Identité Française et Chrétienne (AGRIF). A far-right Catholic group hostile to France’s Republican tradition, AGRIF claims that secularism and multiculturalism are a form of racism perpetrated against the Catholic religion, the French “ethnicity,” and the white race. Exploiting laws against hate speech and discrimination has been one of their favorite tactics; since 1994, AGRIF filed numerous complaints against Charlie Hebdo claiming that the paper’s satire of Christian figures — including an article calling John Paul II the “Shitty Pope” and a depiction of Michael Jackson having his way with the Baby Jesus — constituted hate speech against Catholics.

In French law, hate speech is defined as “public injury” based on “a person or group’s origin in or belonging to a particular ethnicity, nation, race, or religion.” This distinction between a religion and its adherents is exemplary of the concept of laïcité in French law. As the historian Patrick Weil has written, France’s 1905 law separating church and state both affirms the right to religious freedom and establishes the supremacy of the state over religious institutions. The law aims above all to protect the rights of individuals — including the right to nonbelief or blasphemy — against religious coercion. To have found Charlie Hebdo guilty of hate speech, the courts would have had to determine that their cartoons attacked not Catholic symbols and doctrine, but persons of Catholic faith. Instead, the courts rightly and overwhelmingly ruled that Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons and editorials, though sacrilegious, were legitimate satire. Crucially, the courts rejected the AGRIF’s founder Bernard Antony’s argument that blasphemy itself is an attack on individual believers. By siding with Charlie Hebdo, the courts both defended France’s free-speech tradition and protected anti-racism laws from abuse by fundamentalist groups.


Charlie Hebdo first gained international attention when it published cartoons of Muhammad in 2006, an editorial decision that emerged out of a similar situation. After the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published 12 drawings of the Prophet in late 2005, newspapers across Europe faced the difficult decision of whether or not to reprint them in solidarity. It was clear that anyone who did so would be taking a risk. The newspaper France-Soir reproduced the cartoons, and the paper’s Egyptian owner promptly fired the editor. Protests erupted throughout the Islamic world — each with its own local reasons that Westerners were slow to understand — and in France pressure was mounting against further caricatures. Among those calling for restraint were Islamist groups including the Union of Islamic Organizations in France (UOIF), an influential French offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood. From the satirists’ point of view, the situation was precisely what France’s traditions of free speech and laïcité were supposed to combat: attempts by private groups to pressure nonbelieving citizens into complying with religious prescriptions, despite the law’s protection of blasphemy.

In the editorial meeting in early February when Charlie Hebdo discussed the Muhammad affair, then-editor Philippe Val was convinced that the paper had a responsibility to reprint the caricatures, but to do so with extreme caution. Whenever a controversy over free speech occurs, Val asserted, “all the other papers ask, ‘What is Charlie [Hebdo] going to do?’” Charlie Hebdo could not fail to live up to its reputation of printing what others wouldn’t. Religious fundamentalists “don’t get to tell us what we can or can’t print,” he continued, “our responsibility is to the law.” Charlie Hebdo’s team knew that in this case, even more so than before, they would be under intense scrutiny, both legal and moral. As they put together the February 8, 2006, special issue, which reprinted the Danish cartoons alongside their own caricatures, they took great pains to make explicit the distinction between a critique of Islam and fundamentalist ideology, and attacks on the Muslim community. The cover of the special issue devoted to Muhammad was a drawing by Cabu that made this distinction crystal clear. Under the title “Mohammed Overwhelmed by Fundamentalists,” it showed the Prophet with his head in his hands, lamenting, “It’s hard being loved by jerks,” that is, the “fundamentalists.”

The Muhammad cartoons resulted in another important court case for Charlie Hebdo. The complaint came from a somewhat strange alliance: the Great Mosque of Paris, the official representative of French Muslims, with assistance from the UOIF and Muslim World League, a Wahhabist organization funded by the Saudi Arabian government. The motivations of the complaint were most likely a mixture of a sincere concern for the ability of French Muslims to practice their religion in peace and, like AGRIF, a hope to see blasphemy punished by the courts. The hate speech complaint singled out only three cartoons, Cabu’s cover and two reprinted from Jyllands-Posten, the most offensive representing Muhammad with a bomb for a turban. In a case that the jurist Olivier Beaud described as exemplary of French legal interpretation, the courts once again sided with Charlie Hebdo, ruling that blasphemy does not constitute hate speech and that satire of Islam is protected under the law. From the standpoint of French legal institutions, caricaturing Muhammad was no different from depicting priests as pedophiles.

Of course, there is a difference between caricatures that offend the religion of the majority versus that of a minority. Satire of Catholicism has a different meaning in a country whose modern political traditions arose largely out of a struggle with and against the Church than satire of the religion of that country’s former colonial subjects. Charlie Hebdo’s cartoonists attempted to address the complexity of the situation. Many of the drawings pointed to the difficulties in interpreting religious restrictions, in Islam as in all faiths, that fundamentalists seemingly ignore. Cartoonist Riad Sattouf, who was raised in Syria, depicted a childhood attempt to draw the Prophet that illustrated the ambiguities of the way the ban is interpreted in the Muslim world. Charlie Hebdo saw a concrete threat to its country’s tradition of free speech — under attack in France by Islamists no less than by far-right Catholics — and attempted to respond firmly but responsibly. Yet this did not prevent many Muslims in France from seeing Charlie Hebdo, not altogether wrongly, as a symbol of the majority’s indifference to them. Despite the vital importance of Charlie Hebdo’s skewering of Islamic fundamentalism as a defense of free speech, the paper’s contents have done little to heal the divides between French Muslims and their non-Muslim compatriots.

In fact, the controversies that followed Charlie Hebdo’s caricatures of Muhammad have helped reveal how deep these divides have become. Though Charlie Hebdo’s cartoonists attempted to highlight common ground with their Muslim countrymen through a critique of fundamentalism, they have been far from perfect. It is tempting to wish that the satirists had simply backed away from the subject of Islam after taking their stand for free speech in the 2006 affair. In hindsight, their later cartoons on Islamic subjects can seem like needless provocation. But for Charlie Hebdo at the time, still under pressure despite having been vindicated by the courts, the decision to persist was an obvious one. The Muhammad controversies only seemed to show how far the struggle to defend freedom of speech had to go, a struggle that escalated after a Molotov cocktail attack on their offices in 2011. Charlie Hebdo’s decisions may not have always been the wisest, but they undoubtedly helped start an indispensible conversation about Islam’s place in French traditions of free speech and laïcité. That this important process led to the violence of January 2015 is the most tragic dimension of Charlie Hebdo’s story.


After the 2015 attacks, Charlie Hebdo became a worldwide symbol, and has struggled to maintain its identity and integrity as a result. The rise of xenophobia and nationalism in Europe, and the failure of France’s government to uphold its Republican values, has given the paper a chance to reaffirm its political stance. Charlie Hebdo journalists have been diligent and prolific in documenting the rise of far-right parties in Europe, using illustrated interview portraits to highlight oppositional voices in places like Hungary and Poland. In France too, they have remained relentless opponents of the Front National. At the same time, their satirical commentary has been no less biting in its criticism of the Hollande government’s misguided responses to terrorism and religious extremism, from the “burkini” affair to the ongoing state of emergency. The paper has not shied away from Islam, but has focused its attacks mainly on French officials’ failures to uphold laïcité in its authentic sense. For example, a recent cover by Riss caused a scandal by showing a Muslim couple running naked on the beach. In reality, the cartoon was not a depiction of Muslims at all, but rather the image of Muslims held by the half-baked government commission set up to “reform” Islam. As the far right has attacked Republican ideals and the Socialist government has failed to respond, Charlie Hebdo has provided a constant reminder of what these ideals ought to mean.

Charlie Hebdo has remained remarkably consistent in a time when freedom of speech is under more serious threat in the Western world than many could have imagined. Dictators like Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan have boldly clamped down on journalists, and even the President-elect of the United States of America has openly expressed his hatred for the free press. At the same time, the far right claims that its “tough talk” on Islam, as opposed to the left’s “political correctness,” makes it the true heir of Enlightenment values. Charlie Hebdo is a stark rejection of this political vision. Though no friend of “political correctness,” it refuses the far right’s sleight of hand, which associates the ideals of a country like France with particular ethnic or religious groups. The paper represents a left unafraid to claim Republican ideals as its own.

As I have struggled to make sense of today’s political climate, Charlie Hebdo has been a refreshing reminder of what an honest commitment to free speech can look like. Neither the 2015 attacks nor the renewed threats against them today have weakened their resolve to uphold what is best about their country’s Republican tradition. Part of the strategy of demagogues like Donald Trump has been a media blitzkrieg intended to disorient his liberal opponents. In the face of such a threat, Charlie Hebdo’s moral constancy and political militancy are a rare source of encouragement. Charlie Hebdo’s style of satire may not be what we need in the United States, and may be incompatible with our sense of political humor. But their use of satire for intelligent and forceful critique can serve as a model for liberals and leftists struggling to find their footing. The tendency to condemn Charlie Hebdo outright for some of their shortcomings not only does a disservice to the memory of those who died for their ideals but also, perhaps more importantly, casts aside vital allies in what is sure to be a long struggle ahead.


Jacob Hamburger is a graduate student and writer living in Paris.

LARB Contributor

Jacob Hamburger is a graduate student at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris, whose work has focused on Cold War liberalism and neoconservatism in France and the United States. His journalistic writings have appeared in numerous publications in both English and French; and he has translated the authors Michel Foucault and Marcel Gauchet. Jacob covers American politics for the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, with which he recently co-created a special report on the left under Trump entitled Feeling the Burn. He is also the editor of Tocqueville 21, a blog devoted to democratic politics and ideas in the 21st century.


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