- Vomiting on New Friends:Charlie Hebdo and the Legacy of Anarchic Black Humor in French Comics
"Nous vomissons sur tous ces gens qui, subitement, disent être nos amis," ["We vomit on all those people who suddenly declare themselves our friends"],1 Willem, one of the surviving cartoonists from Charlie Hebdo (CH) told the press shortly after the 2015 attack on the magazine's offices that left twelve dead, including six of its star cartoonists (qtd. in "Willem"). Willem was speaking at the peak of demonstrations that were taking place across France in support of the paper, which became known as Republican marches. Thrust suddenly into international prominence, CH editors made a show of their irreverence towards their new supporters, mocking the way their cause was being taken up by their erstwhile political nemeses. They poked fun at conservative politicians who sang the Marseillaise while holding "Je suis Charlie" signs; religious leaders who came to the defense of their secular project; the fact that Arnold Schwarzenegger had reportedly taken out a subscription to the magazine; and the ringing of the bells of Notre Dame Cathedral for the atheist victims (Le Point; Biard). The tone of these jokes displays a continuation of the anarchic spirit that CH has developed since it was founded in 1969 as an outlet for far left, countercultural bande dessinée [comics] and critique. The jokers assume a role of provocative ingratitude as they gleefully risk alienating their new readership. But the jokes are also a way of coming to terms with the strange position the magazine now found itself in. As figures such as former French President Nicolas Sarkozy and National Front leader Marine Le Pen lined up to offer their support, the magazine that prided itself on its rebellious outsider status was faced with the awkward position of being lauded not only by the mainstream but by the very politicians it considered to be the vilest in French society.2 In such a situation, deploying a form of anarchic humor became an important tactic for saving face politically.
A decade ago, the idea that such controversy would come from a publication like CH may have been inconceivable. Founded in 1970 on the libertarian principles of an energetic countercultural left in the restrictive [End Page 71] atmosphere of postwar Gaullist France, CH had already folded once and disappeared from newsstands for a decade, between 1981 and 1992. By that time, its once-marginal cartoonists had already become integrated into the central ranks of the French magazine industry, landing gigs with Le Figaro, Le Nouvel Observateur, Paris Match, and L'Humanité.3 Relaunched under new editorship in 1992, with tighter control over its political line, the magazine would re-emerge in the 2000s as a voice for an angry ultrasecularist section of the French left. For its critics, this editorial position has meant that the politics of anti-oppression and integration have come second to the pleasures of taunting communities who find themselves disfavored in French society and who identify less than enthusiastically with the secular values of the Republic, most notably French Muslims. While such priorities have led to accusations of racism—in print and in court—the magazine's editors have continually emphasized their own anti-racist credentials, insisting that their targeting of Islam is only an attack on theology in the tradition of radical French laïcité [secularism]. In their defense, they mobilize their own critique of the racism of French society and its treatment of immigrants.4 Deciding which side to believe is complicated by the ambiguity of the genre of humor the magazine trades in: jokes are made using black humor, a genre that is notoriously grim, indeterminate, ironic, and polysemic.
In the wake of the controversies stirred by its obsession with mocking Islam, the magazine has weathered violent opposition but it has also discovered a new lease on intellectual life that has allowed it, for the first time since the 1970s, to develop a discursive relationship about politics with broader French society, propelling it into the global spotlight. But even as the editors and staff continue to speak as if they were the enfants terribles of French cartooning, the...