Bertrand Pecquerie and Marianne Bouchart
A year after the massacre at Charlie Hebdo‘s offices in Paris, the satirical newspaper has a message: It is very much alive — but «the killer is still out there».
This week’s cover of Charlie Hebdo does not shy away from controversy and one million copies of the publication will go on sale to mark the first anniversary of the attack of 7 January 2015.
Gérard Biard, Charlie Hebdo‘s editor-in-chief, was away from the office when the attack happened as he wasn’t part of the editorial meeting that day. In the following interview, he talks to Bertrand Pecquerie, CEO of the Global Editors Network, about his experience of the attack and life in the newsroom since then.
Biard will also be speaking at the GEN Summit on Friday 17 June 2016 about the work of Charlie Hebdo since the massacre and how cartoonists can remain creative in an environment of fear.
A year after the Paris attacks at the Charlie Hebdo newsroom, what is the one thing you don’t want to hear on 7 January 2016?
I’m afraid I might still hear it. In response to acts of terrorism, people always come up with explanations and justifications which actually sound like excuses. It is not acceptable. To me, rejection is the only possible reaction to a totalitarian ideology based on religious dogma.
Not all explanations are excuses though…
You’re right, but Daesh has thousands of reasons to hate us. So looking for explanations is like an endless quest, which comes, again, with the risk of looking for «good reasons». These do not exist since their only goal is to force a radical religious ideology onto our democratic society.
Are you talking about Islamic fascism?
I have an Italian background, so I refuse to use the word «fascism» as it relates too much to a specific historical context. «Totalitarianism» seems more suitable and encompasses much more than the Stalinism and fascism of the twentieth century. Unfortunately, we are now facing new forms of totalitarianism in the twenty-first century.
Where were you on 13 November 2015? Did the Paris attacks feel like a second coming of what happened at Charlie Hebdo on 7 January 2015?
I was in the newsroom at Libération to celebrate their move, very close to the Bataclan and the cafés in the eleventh arrondissement of Paris. I was with 300 journalists and we were all dazed. We couldn’t believe what the news channels were showing.
This time at Charlie Hebdo we really wanted to speak of the killings without being sinister. Our message was very simple: “Screw you”. This message is from us, the whole Charlie Hebdonewsroom, and also all the French people having drinks in bars and going to concerts. And the “you” is of course for those fanatics who want to impose a new religious totalitarianism in France and in the rest of the world. France acts as a symbol, but it is not the only country under threat.
You received numerous international awards since January 2015, but also some tough criticism. What do you say to those who are not Charlie?
You’re referring to the PEN Awards in the US where a few members of the jury didn’t want to endorse the Charlie spirit. It is a controversy specific to Anglo-Saxon culture, but their argument is reasonable and a prerequisite since Charlie reaches an international audience. We have a duty to explain what French cartooning is and in what context it developed during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: the laïcité, the freedom of expression, the anticlerical violence…
How do you explain the concept of laïcité (often translated as “secularism”) to a non-French audience?
I start by saying that there is no perfect translation of the word in any other language. In English, “secularism” isn’t a sufficient translation of “laïcité”. Then you have to keep in mind that there are two ways to look at the divide between Church and State. In France, religion cannot interfere with political affairs whereas in countries like the US, it is the State that cannot interfere with religious affairs. These are two opposite points of view and that is why it is so hard to discuss laïcité in an Anglo-Saxon country.
Other front pages of Charlie Hebdo ignited controversy such as the one representing 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi lifeless on a beach in Turkey…
Yes, because we were accused of blaspheming again! We voluntarily distorted this picture that to us had become “pious”. We are proud to help this tradition of political cartooning live on.
Has Charlie Hebdo’s editorial policy changed since January 2015?
We don’t want to change in substance. But we take into account that 70% of our audience didn’t know us before 7 January 2015. Many are French, but also Europeans to whom we ought to explain what a satirical paper is as there isn’t a real equivalent elsewhere on the old continent. In this way we strive to be more educational, but we’ll never prevent ourselves from doing what we’ve always done.
You re-opened the website charliehebdo.fr. What was the public’s reaction?
Some people agree, others disapprove — often violently — of what we are. The Internet enables people to speak freely, there is no doubt about it. Luckily, Twitter wasn’t around in the 1940s: imagine the millions of anonymous accusations that we avoided!
There was meant to be a Charlie Hebdo Foundation. Where are you with this project?
The project is delayed until further notice. Throughout 2015, we focused on the weekly publication of Charlie. We didn’t have the time to create this foundation.
Will Charlie Hebdo remain viable?
We’ll find out in February-March 2016, when annual subscription renewals are due. Of course some people won’t renew, but we hope new readers will also give us a chance.
Gérard Biard will be one of the speakers at the GEN Summit this year, taking place in Vienna on 15-17 June 2016.