Foreword: Following the publication of my most recent article, there were accusations that I was being an apologist for the so-called “racist rag” that is Charlie Hebdo, and absolving them of their ‘racism.’ It’s funny to see reactions from both sides. If you try to take a nuanced position, you’re either writing an apology for terrorism, or an apology for racism. Saying that I don’t believe Charlie Hebdo is a “racist rag” per sé, doesn’t mean I agree with everything that they have ever published – unlike what some believe. As I said in my previous article, I think their depictions of the prophet of Islam were senselessly hurtful, adding to an already toxic environment. It also doesn’t mean I absolve them of their responsibility, when it comes to publishing such cartoons in an era of mounting Islamophobia. On the other, this also doesn’t mean I’m oblivious to the racist environment prevalent in French society. In fact, quite to the contrary… The attack against Charlie Hebdo was merely the latest manifestation of France’s underlying problem with bigotry, xenophobia, and racism. A manifestation of how France like most Western societies – and Canada is no different – creates the so-called ‘other,’  the ‘non-French.”

The January 7 Massacre was the manifestation of that, but CH was the wrong target!

This article is about the systemic racist violence that is perpetrated on a regular basis against French citizens of Muslim heritage or faith, and how the mainstream discourse in the aftermath of January 7 continues to perpetuate the estrangement of the ‘other.’  Here is another article, which in my view should be read by all.  This article is the perfect answer to those that say that CH is a “racist rag.” 

marine le pen
Marine Le Pen

 

The name of the game in France now is “National Unity.” Politicians from all walks of life have called the French people to unite, in a joint effort to defend the principles and the values of the French Republic: Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité. This being said, one has to ask: Unity against what? Unity in the name of what?

In the wake of the attacks against CH, the mainstream media, the French Left, right, and extreme-right put the emphasis on the fact that the Cherif brothers were Muslim. The French mainstream, just as most of the media in the world, portrayed the assailants as violent Muslims, thereby paving the way for the French political elite to jump, right away, onto the bandwagon of France’s ‘Muslim problem.’ France’s problem of ‘Islamic fundamentalism,’ which subliminally suggests that the French nation has to defend itself against the ‘Muslims’ among them, perpetuates the same racist and xenophobic discourse that suggests that if you’re a Muslim, you can’t truly be ‘French’. The same racist and xenophobic discourse, which alienates French youth from the banlieues on a daily basis, and produced the revolt of 2005 is at the origin of all of this affair now.

By overemphasizing the fact that the four assailants were Muslim, the mainstream French media and the French political caste are attempting to absolve France and the French society of all of the racist and xenophobic crimes it has committed against Arab, Muslim, North African populations in the past and even today.

There isn’t a ‘Muslim problem,’ there’s a French problem; a crisis of French integration, which underlines the hypocrisy and voidness of the French national slogan: Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité. There’s a French problem which is manifest in the way the mainstream media depicts the assailants. The Cherif brothers are French citizens; they grew-up in France, lived all of their lives in France, were discriminated against in France, and were alienated by the French society in France. Their ‘radicalism’ was not a product of Islam, but of the shortcomings of French society, of the systemic and institutionalized racist, and symbolic violence omnipresent in French society that treats French muslims citizens or French arabs citizens, as ‘non-French,’ and as second degree citizens.

But this is nothing new. In 1950s and 1960s, during the French occupation of Algeria, white French colonizers were considered as fully-fledged French citizens, with the right to vote, the right to hold public office etc… The majority of Arab, Berber and Kabyle Algerians were also de facto French citizens, yet didn’t have any of the rights held by the colonizers. Still, they had to pledge their allegiances to the motto of the tricolour: Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité.

islamophobia cartoon

The French problem stems from the fact that the French society has never recognized the crimes it has committed during the Algerian War – the millions of “French citizens” of Arab, Berber or Kabyle descent, who were brutally murdered, tortured and mutilated by French forces. Up until recently in French schools, the war of Algeria didn’t even exist. It was called ‘the Events of Algeria.’ France also never recognized the massacres committed in France during that time against French citizens of Muslim descent. Consider the infamous affair of Le Pont de Neuilly, where more than forty Muslim French citizens were kettled by French law enforcement and pushed into the frigid waters of Seine River and drowned to death. The doubled edged economical oppression of French Muslims in France during the War of Algeria is depicted amazingly in the movie Ici on noie les Algeriens.  And thus French society has in many ways perpetuated this état de guerre against its Muslim population – everyone is equal in France, but some more than others.

The rhetoric of national unity is used as a weapon against “Freedom of Expression,” which it ironically is supposed to defend. French comedian Dieudonné, along with more than fifty others have already been charged for making the ‘apology of terrorism,’ or, in other words, for daring to make comments critical of CH. Although I don’t necessarily agree with Dieudonné, in the same way that I don’t agree with everything CH said or depicted, I have to say: If you defend “Freedom of Speech,” you must defend Dieudonné’s right to speak.
National unity is the French take on the Bushian concept of, “You’re either with us or against us.” And while all of France is focusing on national unity, mosques are being torched throughout France. Marine LePen and Sarkozy are on every airwave, making Islamophobic and anti-Muslim comments under the cover of national unity. Thus ‘National Unity’ is just a magical wand of rhetoric, which allows racists to become the sole defenders of free speech, and on the other hand enables any deviant speech to be banned and silenced.

FRONT POPS

It’s interesting to study the usage of the concept of national unity in French history. First, during the War of Algeria, the French government called for national unity as a tool to unite the French nation in its colonial oppression of Algeria. Second, it was used in the 1930s, a time during which anti-Judaism – not anti-Semitism, since not all Semites are Jewish – was rampant. The extreme-right staged several coup attempts, all of which culminated in a march on the National Assembly that almost overthrew the French government. In 1930, like today, the political caste called for national unity – a union of the right and the Left forces to fight the threat of fascism. The Left refused to make alliances with the centrists and the right-wing, complacent, in many ways accommodated the rise of fascism. Instead, the Left decided to form a Popular Front, made up of Social Democrats, Socialists and Communists and won a majority, bringing along with them the first Jewish head of government in French history: Léon Blum. The Front Populaire is a period that is occupies a significant place in the imaginary of the French Left. Today, instead of a Union Nationale, France needs a Front Populaire to fend off the xenophobic, and racist Islamophobic onslaught that is under way.

Unless French civil society can look its demons in the mirror, and stop projecting its problems onto its minorities; unless France comes to terms with its colonialist past, the massacres it perpetrated in its colonies; unless France stops its neo-colonialist interventionist foreign policy; unless France can strike a balance that truly respects its Muslim and Arab citizens as French citizens first and foremost, equal in every way to their non-Arab counterparts; unless all of this happens, tragedies such as CH Massacre will happen on a regular basis. Until then “Liberté, Egalité et Fraternité” will remain a hollow slogan.

A luta continua.

Did you hear the one about the Muslims who went to Paris? No, and I don’t want to. The surviving staff of Charlie Hebdo, however, is banking that seven million people do, and unfortunately they may be right.

They’re printing up more copies of their last issue, the first since the terrorist attack at their office which left twelve people dead. Last week, the first run of the issue, three million copies, sold out.

While I get that people want to mourn the dead, maybe feeding a machine which profits off the mockery of disenfranchised and oppressed minorities isn’t the best way to do it. Murder is wrong. What happened at the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris and subsequently at a Kosher Bakery was a tragedy. Full stop. While nothing can justify these killings, these killings don’t justify supporting racist imagery.

Yes, Charlie Hebdo is racist. Some may argue that it is satire and technically they’re right. You can punch up or down and it’s still satire, but punching up is gutsy while punching down is pretty much bullying. While Charlie may have started off as a champion of the oppressed, they aren’t that anymore. They stopped punching up years ago and now their pen-holding fists clearly punch down.

islamophobia cartoon

Some may argue that the humour of Charlie Hebdo is uniquely French. Well, the minstrel show is uniquely American and you don’t see people in blackface these days, unless, of course, you go to Théâtre du Rideau Vert in Montreal, but at least it is understood by most progressive or moderately aware people to be wrong.

Some, like my colleague Niall Ricardo, argue that what Charlie Hebdo does is use racist imagery to transcend and ridicule racism and those perpetrating it. The example most often cited to prove this point is the depiction of French justice minister Christiane Taubira, who is black, as a monkey. Charlie’s defenders will say that there is enough in the image to prove it is clearly intended to criticize the racism of the Front National and their leader Marie Le Pen for their positioning of an image of Taubira next to that of a monkey.

That very well may have been their intent and Taubira herself seems to agree with them. But beyond those in Paris political circles or with strong knowledge of them, who will instantly see the reference? Instead, many, including most people in North America, will just see a black woman depicted as a monkey, because that’s what the image is.

Call it a lack of understanding of French politics and culture, if you will, but then remember that if you have to explain a joke, it’s probably not a good joke to begin with. In this case it is extremely offensive to many. If you want to offend with comedy, it has to at least be funny and you’d better make sure people aren’t laughing for the wrong reasons.

Beyond that, it is not the Charlie illustrators’ culture to mock, unless that cartoonist happens to be a person from the group being mocked, which, in this case, he wasn’t. Intention doesn’t matter. A much better approach, instead of appropriating the racist imagery itself, would have been to draw a Front Nationale meeting with Le Pen suggesting juxtaposing a monkey with Taubira and the rest of her followers depicted as very white sheep.

Now that would be funny. It would also be punching up instead of down. It would have made it clear to everyone who saw it just who their targets were. It wouldn’t be appropriation and denigration of another race by the cartoonist. The problem is it probably would have sold fewer copies.

Controversy sells. So does making fun of the proverbial other. For all the claims that they are against the capitalist system by attacking austerity and against the French elite, they sure know how to play ball on that field. It’s easy to understand how the likes of Sarkozy, Le Pen and a collection of world leaders with dubious-at-best free speech records can “co-opt” a “movement” and a hashtag that wasn’t all that different from them already.

No, I don’t want to hear the one about the Muslims who went to Paris. I don’t care if it may make me laugh; it’s not my culture, heritage or history to laugh at. Try to put yourself in the shoes of the ridiculed and see how it feels.

I won’t be among the supposed seven million people heading out to buy the latest Charlie Hebdo and I hope you’ll join me. I won’t use a hashtag just because it’s trending. I won’t promote hate and racism.

True, #jenesuispascharlie but I think it’s also important to note that I am also hashtag pour equality, respect and comedy that is truly funny, not at the expense of someone who has been beaten down already.

It has been a little bit more than a week since the horrific shooting took place Charlie Hebdo’s offices, at 10 Rue Nicolas-Appert in Paris. It’s also been a little bit more than week since I wrote my last article – and boy has it felt like an eternity. On that day, it seemed as though the sky was falling on our heads, and the whole world had lost any sense of gravity. Ferocious debates broke out throughout the world, igniting fires at every corner. But the one that was lit in the aftermath of the January 7 attacks that still blazes today – an abyss of fire, straight outta hell – is the one divides us comrades of the Left.

Almost immediately after the attacks, the hashtag “#jenesuispascharlie” made its appearance, the manifestation of a section of left-wing people –mostly Anglophone here in Canada – who had trouble coming to terms with Charlie Hebdo’s lapidary sense of humour and razor-thin usage of satire. Within the past week many cried “racism” and “xenophobia.” They were appalled, even scandalized by the “racist rag” that was Charlie Hebdo, and how it perpetuated French imperialism and French neo-colonialism.

The violence perpetrated against Charlie Hedbo didn’t appear out of nowhere. Nothing exists in a social vacuum and surely, Charlie Hebdo reinforced (either willingly or unconsciously) the violence, the racism, and the xenophobia in French society. That was their argument – although they condemned the attacks, they couldn’t come around to defending the satirical publication for these reasons.

 

je suis charlie
Photo by Thierry Ehrmann, Flickr CC.

 

On the other hand, hundreds of thousands, if not millions of disciples of the ‘Word of the Market’ – capitalistic fundamentalists – which Charb and all the others at Charlie Hebdo had fought with the blatant, in-your-face passion which was their trademark, joined the ranks of the newly sanctified #jesuischarlie crusade, along with xenophobes, racist brutes, and fascist skinheads, who had finally found their call to holy war.

The link between both the “anti-racist” leftists (or as Zizek calls them, ‘liberals‘) and the right-wing opportunists and their facistoid crusaders, is that they were all wrong!

First of all, even though this point has been reiterated time and time again – here’s an excellent Ricochet article – Charlie Hebdo was anything but a racist publication. I will not reiterate here all the facts that prove that CH wasn’t a racist publication, or go into details about the particular nuances of their satire, but let me be clear: Charlie Hedbo isn’t a “racist rag.” There are those on the left that didn’t even know what Charlie Hedbo was prior to the attacks. Two minutes after seeing one of their covers, they decreed with their almighty “super radical” powers that CH was a “racist rag.” Charlie Hebdo and the CH team worked with SOS Racism in France and campaigned actively for the rights of the sans-papiers, fought against anti-Roma discrimination in France and was vocal against the Israeli perpetual oppression of the Palestinian people, it was known generally to the French public was CH was a left-wing, anti-racist, publication. This being said this doesn’t absolve Charlie Hebdo and the CH team of their overemphasis on Islam, in the context of the war of terror, which as has been said before, played in many ways into the Islamophobic and xenophobic rhetoric that has been and is dominant in French society and that must be condemned. The fact that in the wake of the 9/11 attacks many journalists of CH quit the publication because of Philippe Val’s editorial line that promoted depictions of the Prophet Mohammed and Charlie Hebdo descent into Islamophobic straits, is a manifestation of the tensions that existed. Unfortunately the best example of the over emphasis on Islam and Muslims is that CH decided once again to depicted the Prophet on the front cover of their latest issue, which is mistaken and wrong in my view.

This is a complex issue and there is, in my view no clear cut answer. Sometimes it is easier to condemn and to excommunicate, as it is easier to give a clear-cut simple answer to a very complex question: a simple answer that can create a unifying discourse that criticizes Islamic fundamentalism and every religious fundamentalism, while at the same time denounces Islamophobia, xenophobia and racism; a discourse that protects minorities, religious or not, that also denounces religious fundamentalism and its intolerance, its worst misogynistic, homophobic, and transphobic aspects.

Pas charlie

Charlie Hedbo used, at least in my view, an interesting tactic: they analyzed various discourses – public, religious fundamentalist, fascist, the most dominant ones – used them against themselves. Charlie Hebdo twisted, turned, and transformed racist stereotypes and rhetoric to transcend them. Charlie Hebdo is filled with hundreds, if not thousands, of cartoons and caricatures, that shredded to pieces the racist, neoliberal and austerity discourses that were and still are prevalent in French society.

Many on the left decided to overlook such aspects in their criticisms, perhaps out of ignorance or maybe out of malice, or to advance some sort of agenda.

One thing is clear though, the attack against Charlie Hebdo’s offices reopened a blistering wound, a schism that has plagued the left for the past few decades: the inability for left-wing forces to reconcile “identity politics,” which can be broadly defined as anti-racist, anti-xenophobic, struggles for recognition, as Axel Honneth defined them, and the struggle against fanaticism of all stripes, against the economical fundamentalism of capitalism. What these tragic events do offer for the left is an opportunity to unite. One positive aspect of the #jenesuispascharlie hashtag is that it opens up a period of reflection for all of us on the left, and it begs the question: How can we fight fanaticism without becoming fanatics ourselves? How can we fight sectarianism, without becoming sectarian ourselves? The answer is to be found in a reformulation of traditional leftist internationalism which has been on the back-burner for too long!

On the other hand #jesuischarlie, has become the antithesis of everything Charlie Hebdo once stood for and maybe – let’s hope – still stands for. In the name of Charlie Hebdo a new religious fanaticism, a sort of McCarthyist witch hunt against all of those that dare to say that they aren’t Charlie has emerged. Charlie Hebdo’s crew anyways found refuge in the idea that not everybody was Charlie; that their humour, their worldview wasn’t “mainstream,” but marginal. That was their saving grace, the essence of their publication, and of their journalistic project. Thus, making #jesuischarlie into some sort of religious dogma is completely missing the point, and beyond that it’s an insult to the memories of those that #jesuischarlie is supposed honour. The core value of #jesuischarlie must be tolerance – the fact that we agree to disagree. We agree that people aren’t Charlie, will never be Charlie and, don’t have to be Charlie – and that’s just fine.

je-reste-charlie

This being said, it isn’t surprising that #jesuischarlie has become such a twisted and void slogan given the amount of tyrannical superstars, who have endorsed the so-called ‘movement.’ Some had high hopes in the aftermath of the tragic events that occurred on January 7, but by January 11, anyone that still hoped that #jesuischarlie would translate into a movement that would defy the institutional structures that continue to propagate discrimination and inequality were and remain delusional.

The fact that right-wing politician Nicolas Sarkozy used Charlie Hebdo’s tragic fate to boast his own political agenda; the fact that dictators, oppressors of free speech such as Netanyahu used #jesuischarlie to advance his call for French Jews to return to Israel; the fact that Marine LePen is using #jesuischarlie to advance her Islamophobic poison and justify the hate crimes that are rampant across France; and the fact socialist prime minister Valls is using #jesuischarlie as a trojan horse to pass the French version of the Patriot Act, in order to jail all those that have been thorns in his side for the past few years – Dieudonné – is tragic. It’s senseless, it’s disgusting. It’s so bad, that I don’t even know if Charlie Hebdo’s satires could render it justice.

So as things stand, we have a raging right-wing pole, disguised in the drapes of ‘Free Speech’, which in the name of an extreme-leftist publication has called for a Holy War under the banner of #jesuischarlie. We have leftists – only in name – who have decided to follow in their steps under the fake banner of National Unity. We also have leftists that have decided to embrace the #jenesuispascharlie rhetoric, and finally, we have those that will try as best as they can to stay true to the essence of Charlie, #jerestecharlie: those who understand the true essence of what Charb, Cabu Wolinski and Tignous stood for, understand what strain of leftism they came from.

There is one important lesson for the left to take from the tragic events that occurred last: there are many “lefts,” but nevertheless we must live with that, and work together. But most importantly out of the ruins of the Charlie Hebdo massacre comes the possibility for the left to build a Popular Front – instead of a National Union – that will reinvigorate the strain of radicalism born out of the French Revolution and build a movement that will simultaneously fight fanaticism and xenophobia.

Last Wednesday in a spontaneous moment of solidarity, I joined hundreds that had gathered in front of the French Consulate in downtown Montreal. At the end of the gathering, the crowd roared a resilient “la Marseillaise,” But what we need now isn’t La Marseillaise, what we need now is L’Internationale!

 

On Sunday, January 11, thousands of people marched the streets of Montreal, to protest and remember the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris, France.

More than 3,000 people walked the streets of Montreal in silence that afternoon. I’ve been to a few Police and Firefighter funerals and it was the same atmosphere minus the pipes and drums. It was an eerie feeling, and it got to me. Even the police officers covering this event seemed overwhelmed by the loud silence that overtook the crowd. This is the hardest event I have ever had to cover, and I’m surprised that any of my shots came out. I was sure I had nothing, I was so out of it.

Charlie Hebdo SundayCharlie Hebdo Sunday

Click on the photo above to open the gallery. All photography by Gerry Lauzon.

Je suis Charlie… And have been for a while.

Not too many people know this, but I used to be a cartoonist. The work never amounted to anything and I moved on to photography. I started when I was 12, inspired by Asterix and Tintin like everybody else. But later in my teens I started to read more of the big names: French and Belgian artists like Moebus, Goetlib in publications like Fluide Glaciale, rubrique à brac and the likes. Then came Hara Kiri, a spin-off of Charlie Hebdo with Reiser, Cabu and Wollinski. The most vulgar and vile humor I had ever seen. Nothing was taboo for these guys and it was mind blowing. They put to paper what people did not dare to speak of and then some! Now you have to realize that back in the late 70’s controversy was not available one simple click away. You got ahold of that stuff from an older cousin or something. All these guys were an inspiration and at some level heroes to me for being that bold.

Today I felt strange going through my day, didn’t know if I was mad or sad. I went to take some shots at the vigil downtown. I showed up to see a thousand people braving the cold and the atmosphere was jovial in general. I hurried to get some shots and when my camera froze I decided to call it an evening. Before I left, I went to the small improvised memorial to leave my pencil amongst the other pencils and the candles. Then the whole thing came crashing down on me. The bastards took away my heroes. People who had the balls to stand for what they believed in where stolen from us in the most horrible way and it just overwhelmed me with sadness. It was 9/11 for me all over again.

I got back home and post-edited my images and balled my eyes out again while editing the memorial shot. Will this bring me down? Hell no! If anything it gives me even more courage to stick to my convictions and hopefully it will inspire others to do the same. Charlie Hebdo is not dead, if anything it has spawned even more creative and daring spirits. If you ever get intimidated for making any kind of art, remember these words from Charb, “I’d rather die standing than live on my knees”.

Charlie HebdoCharlie Hebdo

Click on the photo above to open the gallery. All photography by Gerry Lauzon.