As a student at the Sorbonne in my early twenties, back in the mid 1990s, every Wednesday before hitting the subway I would buy Charlie Hebdo. I was young, I was studying French literature in the course of becoming a teacher, and Charlie Hebdo was a weekly break from the classics. I didn’t pay much attention to the politics, which were far left. My friends and I would discuss the drawings, our favorite part of the magazine: “This one is perfect!” “Right on!” “And this one! Poor [insert name of politician]! They really got him!” “But Charb exaggerates in this oneit’s just mean.”
Charb was one of the cartoonists, and his drawings were often those in the worst taste. He later became the editor in chief. To my surprise, I learned today, he was but a few years older than me. I had assumed that one had to be older to be so bitter and smart at the same time. Today I saw his face for the first time, and thought that he must have young children, as I do.
Back in the ’90s, Charlie Hebdo took on every faith and all traditions. Muslims were no more a target than were other religious and ethnic communities. Charlie Hebdo showed no respect for any group. It was universally irreverent, and for the traditional girl and good student that I was, the day’s reading was like an interlude with the court jester. I would finish it by the end of my return trip home, and would then give it to my mother to readit appealed to this French aristocrat, too.
In 2006 the newspaper republished a series of cartoons depicting the prophet. Previously published in Denmark, the cartoons had caused much unrest, and there was a debate among French magazines on whether to publish them. Others found reasons not to. I had grown out of reading Charlie, but I cheered when they dared. After that, the newspaper and its writers, and in particular its editor, Charb, endured regular threats. For the past two years Charb had received police protection, and the newspaper remained under police surveillance. But Charb was said to have been less worried in the past few months. When first threatened, he declared: “I would rather die standing that live kneeling down.” And so he did, a hero, along with his colleagues who included the famous French journalist Wolinski and cartoonist Cabus.
I never liked Wolinski much, whose humor relied too much on bathroom jokes. But Cabus was a part of my childhood: He was a member of the crew that animated a TV show for children on Wednesday afternoons, a day when French children traditionally have school only in the morning. He created sweet and funny drawings. Obviously, by the time of his death, he had moved on to more serious matters.
Two weeks ago, Charlie Hebdo published cartoons portraying the Muslim prophet’s life. It is strange that something that appears to a secular Christian like me as simply hilarious is also an act of great courage. This week, the newspaper gave special coverage to Michel Houellebecq’s latest novel, Submission, which imagines France turned Muslim in 2022.
In the wake of the killings, the French people and French politicians are showing a united front. There have been calls to demonstrate in solidarity with the deceased tomorrow. Already tonight, all over France, people are gathering in one place in their cities (in Paris, the Place de la République) to pay tribute to the victims. Journalists present are holding up their journalist ID and others, pens, symbols of the freedom of speech.
I wish I could say tonight that we are all Charlie Hedbo readers. I’m proud that for a year or two, I was.
Eve-Alice Roustang, a native of Paris, is an independent scholar who earned her doctorate from Columbia University.