By Guillaume de Syon, published in Bernhard Debatin (Hg.), Der Karikaturenstreit und die Pressefreiheit. Wert- und Normenkonflikte in der globalen Medienkultur/The Cartoon Debate and the Freedom of the Press. Conflicting Norms and Values in the Global Media Culture, Lit Verlag Berlin 2007, p. 49-55.
Picture the following: Yahweh tells a Yiddish joke to a cigar-smoking Muhammad, who doesn't get it. This isn't a thirteenth “forgotten” cartoon from the series reprinted in France in early 2006, but one of several drawings from God's Club, a French comic strip published in 1972. Its author, Marcel Gotlib, one of the dons of modern French cartooning, recently told le Monde that he would likely be unable to draw such strips nowadays; he bemoaned a loss of humor in France, which he blamed on religious extremists (1). Some of Gotlib's colleagues, while echoing his concerns about limiting freedom of expression in cartooning, felt moderates and “political correctness” (a notoriously fluid term in the French language, too) were to blame. Beyond his lament about the lack of French laughter, Gotlib's comments reflected three elements central to French reactions to the Muhammad cartoon controversy: Disbelief that something as anodine as cartoons could cause an uproar, especially considering that the history of cartooning revealed a tradition of attacks on organized religion; bewilderment at the perceived attack on secular culture as a whole; and a split between extending a hand to the Muslim community and demanding it side with France's official assimilationist ideology. All three elements appeared in the reactions to the reprinting of the Muhammad cartoons by France Soir in February 2006. In the end, the cartoon controversy was framed as an attack on secularism, obscuring issues of French Muslim alienation.
Satirizing religion through cartoons
The tradition of offending through caricature has a long history in France, and may arguably be seen as a hallmark of French modernity. Honoré Daumier’s notorious “la Poire” portraying a fruity King Louis-Philippe is but one of several cornerstones of the cartooning arts, especially of their (failed) censorship. More central to the Muhammad caricature debate, however, is the history of caricature’s attacks on religion. Interestingly, the initial publication in Denmark in 2005 and its subsequent reprinting in France-Soir the following year bridged the centennial commemorations of two events central to modern French history: the separation of Church and State, and the pardon of Captain Alfred Dreyfus.
While the 1905 separation of Church and State enshrined the sacred principle of secularism in French society, the Dreyfus case revealed the risks of religious prejudice. In each of these cases, the secular media tested the limits of the Law of 1881 guaranteeing freedom of the press. This law was unclear regarding caricature, and even less so regarding defamation. This did not stop important popular magazines like Le rire and l’Assiette au Beurre (akin to and sometimes sharper than the German Simplicissimus) from pastiching the Catholic Church on many occasions during the separation episode. Priests selling their trades on street corners, consorting with nuns, or even the devil became common motifs in French comics. Most importantly, the secular Republic was portrayed as the true harbinger of democratic values while the church was depicted as an authoritarian dinosaur (2).
Several publications on the right did self-censor to maintain peace with a traditional readership, but the gloves came off when the second trial of Alfred Dreyfus was ordered in 1906. Dreyfus, unjustly accused of spying for Germany, had been condemned to life imprisonment, and contrary evidence was suppressed by monarchist and anti-Semitic members of the French army. By then, as several studies have made clear, the matter was as much about a dying monarchist movement against a struggling Republic as it was about the officer’s innocence. Popular culture on both sides of the affair had appropriated the image of the Jewish captain and, depending on their sympathy or antipathy towards his case, recast the matter into a German conspiracy or a Jewish one.
Consequently, postcards, editorial cartoons, comic strips and even board games made liberal use of Jewish stereotypes to attack Dreyfus while his defenders clung to the imagery of the common man made into a scapegoat (3). The stridency of the anti-Semitic moment in the first nation to offer Jews emancipation made clear that anti-Jewish prejudice had hardly disappeared. While the eventual pardon of Captain Dreyfus signaled a clear Republican victory, the events of World War II showed that sentiments expressed in the drawings continued to course through French society. Later portrayals of Jews and occasionally of Muslims in editorial cartoons and comic strips would continue to rely on physical and clothing stereotypes, but the practice generally died down by the 1950s. Criticisms of Catholic leaders were also less common by then. What is clear, however, is that there existed a distinct tradition of portraying the “religious other” in unflattering terms, and that the other included Christians and Jews.
God’s Club and the “relaxed” 1980s
The late 1960s and 1970s ushered in a historic era of cultural change and revolt. Not surprisingly, this was reflected in cartooning as well. In God’s Club, published in 1972, Gotlib placed himself squarely in the tradition of the Enlightenment philosophers, combining Sade’s use of sex and Voltaire’s wit to portray Allah, Buddha, Christ, Jehovah, and other deities as quarrelling drunks looking at porn: Gods in the image of men. The strip was serialized in L’Echo des Savannes, a daring comics publication by the standards of any period. Yet by Gotlib’s own recollection, there was little to no reaction to the strip other than the development of a cultish sub-culture quoting the strip’s bad puns (4). In fact, in the 1970s, when religious blasphemy did occasion censorship, it was usually a weekly, Charlie Hebdo, that was banned from sale. Most commonly, however, the authorities claimed pornographic content rather than the regular insults to religion as grounds for censorship.
Things began to change notably under the Socialist government in the 1980s, which some observers consider to be the maturation of a toleration process begun with the 1968 student rebellion, and including the decensoring of French TV news, authorization of private radio channels, and relaxation of print censorship. The French public, though enjoying the fruits of a certain liberalization in the media, was also presented with what France-Soir’s editor later called “the need to accept things shocking to one’s convictions (5).” As practiced in the 1980s, this resulted in a call for flexibility, tolerance, and a reexamination of French identity. In particular, that decade in France included the first attempts at dealing with the French Muslim community’s troubles, especially among the political left. France’s difficulties with Middle Eastern terrorism accentuated the need for dialogue, but to this day such discussion remains difficult, even among sympathetic parties. In 2006, for example, Socialist columnist Caroline Fouret argued in la tentation obscurantiste that, by calling for tolerance for the sake of greater inclusiveness, the French left and especially its intellectual elite had sacrificed secularism. Overall, then, the landscape that greeted the publications of the Muhammad cartoons was one with a long tradition of religious challenge, and a less-well established tradition of discourse on integration. As we shall see, the issue of secularism in the context of assimilation would become the focus of the caricature debate.
The French Media and the Muhammad caricatures
The tabloid France-Soir’s editor, Serge Faubert, had argued “Yes, one can caricature God,” to justify his decision to reprint the Muhammad cartoons. He, along with the newspaper’s director Jacques Lefranc, were fired by the paper’s owner, the Franco-Egyptian businessman Raymond Lakah (6). This followed President Chirac’s call for responsible use of the freedom the press. At the same time, Chirac had issued a joint communiqué with former President Clinton and UN Secretary-General Annan criticizing the decision to publish the cartoons as “abusive.” This somewhat schizophrenic reaction prompted some soul searching among major French publications. In their and others’ reactions, the French attempt to categorize this controversy primarily as an attack on secular principles began to take shape (7). As a result, the specific grievances of Muslims in France were obscured.
Le Monde, left-of-center, is the publication for the French intellectual elite. It first skirted the scandal by choosing to reprint a series of cartoons pertaining to Christianity, especially the Pope. It eventually reprinted two of the Muhammad cartoons, and added a new one from its main cartoonist, Plantu, depicting a cartoonist writing “I shall not represent the Prophet” a hundred times, as a Mullah looked on suspiciously; the scripted writing assembled into an image of Muhammad (8). While clearly siding with freedom of expression, le Monde nonetheless reflected the discomfort felt in intellectual circles over how to deal with a need for dialogue while maintaining the right to free expression.
The left-wing Libération showed a similar attitude, but claimed that the cartoons were of such poor quality that they weren’t worth reprinting (9). It subsequently relented and published two of the pictures in an attempt “to understand.” Many newspapers (including the conservative Le Figaro, the widely-circulating Ouest-France, but also several weekly magazines) chose this solution, which pleased few readers as evidenced by the online blogs later archived (10). French Muslims felt cheated while secular readers questioned the need for self-censorship. At issue was an identity associated with France, and several readers noted that caricaturing had a long tradition of pastiche and offense (11). One magazine would go all the way to remind French readers of this.
Charlie Hebdo, which is nowadays mainstream (though it still seeks to call back to its anarchist orgins though shock pictures), reprinted all the cartoons with a comment from Cabu, its main cartoonist. Cabu stated his atheism publicly, attacked all faiths as stupid, and then took on Muslim moderates, accusing them of remaining silent in the face of terrorist acts committed in the name of Islam (12). He also noted (as have several cartoonists in the Western world with a similar experience) that he had once drawn Muhammad in an offensive manner, in this case as a drinking, smoking beauty contest judge. Cabu’s magazine was threatened for this, but he chose not to apologize for any past drawings and felt no cartoonist should do so for any work (13). Though obviously more of a provocateur than a facilitator of dialogue, Charlie Hebdo raised the “so what” question few had dared to utter (14). Unfortunately, it provided neither an answer nor a direction towards one.
Far more analytical and biting at once, the satirical weekly le Canard enchaîné changed its February 8 edition title to “Satanic weekly.” While refraining from publishing the Muhammad cartoons, le Canard took on the matter of freedom of expression and reminded its readership that an imam was like a priest, therefore a religious enemy of the secular paper born in World War I. le Canard also noted with irony how several Muslim nations with limited freedom of expression had orchestrated successfully massive protests against the Danish government (15). This element of skepticism and impatience became central to French mainstream reactions across political lines when the courts became involved.
French Media and the Muslim Minority
What is interesting in each of the cases cited above is the limited coverage of the reactions of the French Muslim minority’s, which is estimated to account for 10% of the French population. While a few commentators did note that printing an image of Muhammad on disposable newspaper lay at the crux of the cultural misunderstanding, French Muslim voices were largely absent from the analysis (16). Interviewees were often youth busy rioting, and the few rational discussions journalists reported having with French Muslims often ended up buried on inside pages, as violence for violence’s sake became the center of news coverage (17). Muslim leaders were themselves unclear about how they should react to such lightning strikes that were combined with both sclerotic and schizophrenic declarations from the French government (several ministers were vying for popular support in anticipation of the 2007 presidential election).
When several French Muslim and anti-racist organizations, led by the French Muslim Faith Council (CFCM), sought to have Charlie Hebdo banned for publishing more cartoons (this time drawn by French artists) the second week of February 2006, massive protests ensued (18). The legal challenge failed on a technicality under the 1881 law on freedom of the press, but it was enough to prompt angry reactions from Frenchmen and women of all religious and political persuasions. One did not challenge the secular state, for to do so under the circumstances amounted to either seeking favored treatment or giving in to outside pressure. Ironically, left- and right-wingers had found common ground to argue against censorship (19). Drowned out in the general brouhaha were several comments suggesting that jokes about Jews would have warranted investigation, and though a few commentators sought to respond to such interventions, little came of the discussion (20). The attitude of the majority of debaters, online and in radio shows, suggested the need for adhering to the French tradition of integration that implied secularization to the same degree throughout France (21). Cartooning was part of this tradition and thus needed to be applied equally: some bloggers seemingly rediscovered their Christian background to suggest that, since caricaturing Jesus was accepted practice, Muhammad drawings should also be common fare. Absent from this discourse, however, was the fact that integration was not succeeding and that the cartoon debate was, in many ways, another symptom of a larger underlying French malaise on prominent display in the riots of 2005 and 2006.
Though clearly divided on how it should respond, by mid-February 2006 the Muslim community generally sided with French Muslim religious leaders favoring freedom of expression. In particular, Soheib Bencheikh, a former Grand Mufti of Marseilles, attacked an anti-racist organization (the MRAP) that had filed a complaint against the media, arguing that freedom of expression allowed Islam to defend itself far better than any interdiction. To be a French Muslim meant accepting this aspect of integration, namely satire. Dialogue was better than interdiction, no matter how unpleasant it appeared to be.
The year 2006 also marked the twentieth anniversary of the death of a French comedian named Coluche. A beloved figure, Coluche was admired for respecting little if anything in his comic routine. Reflecting on the time passed since his death, several commentators noted that, with the passage of laws to protect racial and religious minorities (in 1990 and 2001 especially), Coluche would today likely end up in court. They bemoaned that fact, noting that it was through corrosive comedy that the man had raised popular consciousness about such things as homelessness and hunger in France. Could the caricatures have the same effect?
The cartoon debate in France increased uncertainty about how to deal with the integration problem, and it prompted little discussion of the matter as such. Without a doubt, it did make editorial cartoonists nervous, but the debate was stifled by the attempt and failure to ban Charlie Hebdo from publishing more cartoons. What was left was a sense of bitterness on all sides, and few laughs. Coluche would not have approved.
With other headlines displacing the Muslim caricature debate in France, the issue may soon appear to have been a proverbial storm in a teacup. The fragmentation of media outlets contributes to that effect. The cartoon controversy may have concluded in a victory for freedom of expression, but it also buried some of the issues associated with the protests, specifically the grievances of French Muslim youth. Caricatures, like editorials and comedians, can encourage reflection. In this case, that reflection has yet to take place.
(1) Le Monde, February 2, 2006
(2) See Guillaume Doizy and Jean-Bernard Lalaux, A bas la calotte (Paris: Alternatives, 2005), introduction.
(3) See Jean-Max Guieu, "Les caricatures antidreyfusardes de H. Lebourgeois," Mimesis et Semiosis: Littérature et représentation, (Paris: Nathan, 1992): 435-446.
(4) <http://www.actuabd.com/article.php3?id_article=3274#forum4024> (accessed June 6, 2006)
(5) France-Soir, February 1, 2006
(6) Le Monde, February 3, 2006
(7) For a snapshot of other French media not discussed here, see the summary included at <http://atheisme.free.fr/Revue_presse/Caricatures_mahomet_2.htm> (accessed June 6, 2006)
(8) Le Monde, February 2, 2006
(9) Libération, January 31, 2006
(10) Le Figaro, February 10, 2006
(11) See, for example, <http://embruns.net/actus-et-opinions/caricatures_manipulations.html> (accessed June 6 and August 6, 2006)
(12) Charlie Hebdo, Febriary 1 and 8, 2006
(13) L’Express, February 9, 2006; See also Arte News, February 2, 2006, at <http://www.arte.tv/fr/histoire-societe/ARTE-info/Sujets_20d_27actualit_C3_A9/740476,CmC=1114170.html> (accessed June 6, 2006)
(14) Libération, March 2, 2006
(15) Le Canard enchaîné, February 8 and 15, 2006.
(16) Le Nouvel observateur, February 2, 2006.
(17) L’Express, January 26, 2006
(18) See blog commentaries <http://www.0plus0.com/index.php> (accessed February 8, 2006); <http://forums.france3.fr/france3/france3jt/Caricatures-Mahomet-sujet-864-1.htm> (accessed June 6, 2006); and <http://www.france-echos.com/index.php> (accessed February 5, 2006)
(19) L’Express, February 9, 2006
(20) Le Monde, February 14, 2006; Libération, February 15, 2006
(21) Le Figaro, February 6, 2006; Le Monde, February 9, 2006; Libération February 15 and 16, 2006