In one of his last published cartoons, the artist known by the nickname “Charb” drew attention to the fact that there hadn’t been a radical Islamist attack in France. The radical Islamist in the cartoon tells the reader to wait, however: “We have until the end of January to make our New Year’s wishes.”
The cartoon was published in the satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo on Wednesday, just hours before two gunmen murdered five newspaper cartoonists, two police officers, “Charb’s” bodyguard and four others at Charlie Hebdo’s offices. It was the deadliest terror attack in modern French history.
Charb, whose full name was Stéphane Charbonnier, 47, wasn’t only a household name in France for his cartoons, he was also the editor of the newspaper. Charbonnier once noted that “without freedom of the press, we are dead.”
Still, he was no more well-known or beloved than the other cartoonists who died with him in the attack. Jean Cabut, 76, and known simply as Cabu, had been producing popular cartoons and comic books in France since the early 1970s. Perhaps France’s most famous cartoonist, he often appeared on political television talk shows, where he produced cartoons to illustrate the issues being discussed.
Georges Wolinski, 80, was known for his humor and received the French Legion of Honor, the nation’s highest decoration, in 2005. The cartoons of Bernard Verlhac, 58, better known as Tignous, had been a staple of French political magazines since the 1980s. And Philippe Honoré, 73, produced the last tweet by the staff of the magazine, an image of Islamic State leader and self-proclaimed caliph Abu Bakr al Baghdadi offering New Year’s wishes: “And above all, good health.”
On the streets, in tributes and in the press, the French agree that collectively the five cartoonists are deserving of what here is the highest praise: “They were very French.”
The phrase is repeated, again and again, and it is a testament to the prominent place the cartoon holds in French culture.
French children begin reading with illustrated tales, and after leaving the books of the elephant Babar they move on to Asterix and Obelix and the adventures of Tintin, and then as adults on perhaps to the world’s liveliest culture of graphic novels. In this culture, the political cartoon holds a sacred place.
It’s a tradition that reaches back centuries: Marie Antoinette was portrayed as an ostrich (and a harpy) in the years leading up to the French Revolution. After the revolution, Napoleon Bonaparte feared the power of the cartoon so deeply that he created an elaborate system to censor them.
More recently, the cartoons in Charlie Hebdo carried on that long tradition. It began as a plan to create a French version of the American publication Mad magazine. Cabu was one of the earliest artists. Wolinski soon followed. Their work was often controversial.
Cabu in 2006 produced a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad crying, under the heading “Muhammad overwhelmed by fundamentalists.” In the cartoon, the prophet is saying, “It is hard to be loved by the stupid ones.”
Regis van Winzen, 44, a Paris bookstore employee, recalled that the works of the murdered cartoonists were seemingly everywhere – in their newspaper, in other publications, in books, on television shows.
“Everybody knew them,” he said. “Everybody knew their work. We respected their courage, for living their convictions, well aware of the possible costs.”
He noted the years-long discussion the artists ignited when they republished 12 Muhammad cartoons that had originally appeared in the Danish newspaper Jylland-Posten, against which in 2010 police foiled a similar sounding planned armed attack aimed at killing a cartoonist. Charlie Hebdo followed up those cartoons with many more.
The French newspaper Liberation in an editorial Thursday described the cartoonists as the symbols of the 1968 generation, the generation of civil protest in Europe. “They never stopped fighting for more freedom,” the editorial said.
“This was intelligent laughter, without pity,” it added. “It refused the tragic world. Their irony was full of hope. Charlie was Voltaire in vignettes. It was a kick in the ass to fanatics. . . . For half a century, with every edition, they illustrated the raison d’etre of the free press. . . . They turned taboos upside down, ridiculed dogma. They put the heads of donkeys on statues of command.”
Jeff Lepoul, 50, knew the cartoonists, though he points out that he didn’t know them well. They worked together on some political issues and attended a few gatherings together. But he said that he knew their work well, as did all French. Their cartoons, perhaps more than any other medium, were known for pinning down the political debate that has shaped this era: The role of religion in modern France.
“Their cartoons were not anti-Islam, they were anti-extremist Islam, just as they were anti-extremist Christianity,” he said. “They lampooned extremism wherever it appeared.”
As such, they had been targeted before. Radical Islamists were believed to have burned their offices in 2011, but even the extreme left had damaged their doors at one point. They have lampooned politicians and popes and popular authors.
“There is a world of debate on these issues here, but their cartoons clearly identified and articulated a point,” he said. “And they made us laugh, and took some of the tension out of the debate, in doing so.”
A column Wednesday in the newspaper Le Monde called the attack on Charlie Hebdo “an act of war.”
“Except that the journalists who were murdered were not warriors,” it said. “They were without hatred, without prejudice. They were poets, scornful of maniacs. They were geniuses whose weapons were crayons, intelligence, fantasy and light. So this is a war against the freedom to write, draw and create.”