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Published on January 10th, 2015 | by François Nicoullaud


Charlie Hebdo: A Testimony From Paris

by François Nicoullaud

To understand the unanimous emotion which has swept and is still sweeping the French population after the massacre that took place on the premises of Charlie Hebdo, one has to keep in mind that the journalists and caricaturists of Charlie Hebdo were immensely popular among the French: not as stars of the media, nor as towering intellectuals, but as good pals living next door, the kind of friends you were always happy to come across at the café downstairs for a good laugh, for an unbridled exchange of jokes on the latest events in French and world politics: the bigger the better, good or bad taste did not matter.

Bad taste was indeed part of the game, it had started with de Gaulle’s death in 1970: “Tragic Prom Night in Colombey: one dead” was the magazine’s headline at the time—and it hadn’t stopped since. But the jokes were never heinous or hateful, even their worst enemies—Le Pen, long-time head of the French extreme-right party, “le Front National” and his daughter, Marine, presently head of the same party, all the extremists, Nazis and neo-Nazis, and all the bigots around the world—however turned into ridicule, were never denied a personality or the quality of human beings. One almost had the impression that, with a last laugh and a good slap on the back, everything would work out.

And this has been going on for more than forty years. At least two generations have been immersed in this kind of humor, not only through Charlie Hebdo itself, whose headlines and front-page cartoons were visible to all each week in the ubiquitous newsstands of France, but also through the drawings and chronicles that the same journalists were producing (in a more sedate way) for other newspapers and magazines: you could meet them in Le Monde, in l’Observateur, in Paris-Match and many others. Wolinski, Cabu were, in particular, extraordinarily prolific; their style was familiar to every French household.

The staff of Charlie Hebdo knew, of course, that joking about Islam and its extremists could provoke very bad jokes in return. After a serious arson attack on the magazine’s offices in 2011, they chose to continue on the same path.S téphane Charbonnier, known as Charb, the last editor, used to say: “Better to die on your feet than live on your knees.” This is what happened January 7.

Peace to their pure and brave souls… Many hearty laughs up there! And thanks on their behalf for all the support which has so immediately and spontaneously emerged around the world!

Credit: Photo by Valentina Calà, used via Creative Commons.

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8 Responses to Charlie Hebdo: A Testimony From Paris

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  1. avatar Don Bacon says:

    So they died on their feet, and that’s supposed to be humorous? I don’t get it. Why is insulting people funny? And dying for it, as they seemed to sense that they would do?

    Peace to their pure and brave souls? How about wicked and stupid.
    Why can’t we all just get along?

  2. avatar Morteza Jalalvand says:

    If some magazine here created a Nazi caricature of Jesus Christ and tried to brand it as freedom of expression, I would’ve not supported. And I surely would’ve not glorified it as bravery.

  3. avatar Mike Kearney says:

    Sadly, Charlie Hebdo was one of those magazines that was more talked about than bought. So it seems that there is a certain hypocrisy in the viral “Je suis Charlie” phenomenon. My guess is that it will do little to change entrenched prejudices and I doubt that more than a few would be prepared to stand up and be shot for freedom of speech.
    The real problem is the Worldwide gulf between rich and poor and societies that are happy to ignore the plight of the underclasses, so long as they don’t make any trouble.
    Slogans are easy. Creating a fairer society, where everyone feels valued, isn’t such an easy fix.

  4. avatar Mike Kearney says:

    But I hope you would not feel that being offended by a drawing, or an expression of opinion, is a justification for murder………

  5. avatar Virgile says:

    I wonder if the next Charlie Hebdo release will be consistent with their usual cynicism by publishing cartoons ridiculing the massive demonstrations “I am Charlie” with leaders and people who never read the magazine.

About the Author


François Nicoullaud's diplomatic career (1964 to 2005) brought him to New York, Chile, Berlin, Bombay, and finally to Budapest and Tehran as French ambassador. In the French Foreign Ministry he was in charge of cultural development as well as non-proliferation issues. He has also served in the Ministry of Interior as a diplomatic advisor and in the Ministry of Defense as First Assistant to the Minister. Since 2005, he has been active as a political analyst in international affairs, concentrating on Iran and the Middle East. He has also authored a book based on his experience entitled, “The Turban and the Rose” (Ramsey, Paris, 2006).

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