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Je Suis Charlie, But…

Jane Weston Vauclair, September 2016

This chapter will discuss two cases from 2015 of academic debate about the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo being cancelled due to safety concerns. Debates at Queens UniversityWhy Academic Freedom Matters Belfast and the University of London in Paris were prevented from going ahead although, in the case of Belfast, the planned event was reinstated after media intervention. These moves to block academic discussion, I will argue, reflect specific ethical and global-local tensions within more widespread responses to the January 2015 assassinations of Charlie Hebdo journalists in Paris and their perceived implications for free speech.

January 2015 saw a tidal wave of solidarity for the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo after two French Islamic gunmen carried out a massacre at its offices. Such global support was notably expressed through the widespread use of the Twitter hashtag #jesuischarlie. What had been a marginal satirical publication with a very limited readership – one indeed on the cusp of bankruptcy – was catapulted into a global arena where its specifically French satire was far from transparent or readily graspable, not least by non-Francophones. Its practices of caricaturing Islamic extremism in defence of secular Republican values swiftly became muddied by charges of racism – something the newspaper had in fact always campaigned against – or at the very least, of crass cultural insensitivity. Richard Seymour of Jacobin magazine notably penned a piece on the day of the attacks calling the publication ‘frankly racist’.

Two sets of tensions around Charlie Hebdo’s satire swiftly emerged in the wake of the massacre. Both, I will argue, contributed to the publication lurching from being seen as a totem of free speech on the one hand, to a form of academic taboo on the other. This polarised perception of the magazine played out in the context of two UK French Studies events, one at Queen’s University in Belfast and the other at the University of London Institute in Paris (ULIP). I was involved in these as a researcher on Charlie Hebdo and the French satirical press more generally. Both had worrying implications for academic freedom.

The first set of tensions were between the profoundly local nature of Charlie Hebdo’s satire and the specific references needed to decode it, and the global scope of the attention it received in the wake of the killings. Commentators worldwide were being called upon to get to grips with a newspaper they often, at best, only had a passing familiarity with. Charlie Hebdo’s cartoonist ‘Luz’ (Renald Luzier) evoked the crushing weight of such a burden for a newspaper which had been used to dismantling symbols through humour and which, he believed, would ill withstand becoming a symbol – or indeed a totem of freedom of expression – itself. Such a contrast of scale was only amplified by the mammoth demonstrations in support of the victims across France on 11 January, and by the eight million copies of the ‘Survivor’s Edition’ sold. Against its will, Charlie Hebdo risked being transformed into an extremely ill-fitting metonym for French identity in the world. Such a burden was utterly inappropriate, but the scale of the global coverage of its plight militated for such an amalgamation. What risked going missing in such global takes on the newspaper was any attempt to get to grips with the nuances of the newspaper and the polyphonic diversity of its content.

The second set of tensions to emerge concerned how freedom of expression as a value could be ethically evaluated given the harm caused to the journalists and the offence Charlie Hebdo’s satire had courted. This defiantly self-declared ‘irresponsible newspaper’ was firmly on the side of the ethics of conviction within Max Weber’s antagonistic ethical categories for taking into reasonable account the likely outcome of one’s actions (the ethics of responsibility), as opposed to following the imperative to voice fully one’s convictions within an open arena of debate. Charlie Hebdo had always defended its satire as an act of freedom of conscience and had argued that those in disagreement with its material had only not to buy the newspaper. The ethics of responsibility, by contrast, militates against speech liable to create friction, with concern for safety as its corollary. It is easy to see how the satire and provocative humour of the type favoured by Charlie Hebdo could fall foul of such an imperative. It is from the ethics of responsibility that the credo ‘Je suis Charlie, but…’ would easily emerge.

Charlie Hebdo’s anticlerical verve was in fact inscribed in a tradition dating back to the French revolution and the drive to remove Catholicism from the sphere of influence of the French state. Notably, since September 11 2001, it had extended its anticlericalism to Islamic extremism as an ideology to critique on an equal footing with Judaism or Christianity, in what it argued was the opposite of racism. A key part of Charlie Hebdo’s aesthetic and thematic heritage was its highly provocative, Juvenalian satire that broadsided all manners of ‘sacred’ or sensitive topics on principle. Its founder, François Cavanna, had indeed described such ‘stupid and vile’ humour as a defence mechanism against absurdity, and a healthy impulse in the face of the violence and stupidity to be witnessed throughout the history of humanity.

One early sign of the newspaper turning, in the UK context, from a totem of freedom of expression into a taboo, was when the French journalist and essayist Caroline Fourest, a former contributor to Charlie Hebdo, was cut off live on Sky News on January 15 2015. She had tried to show viewers the green front cover of the ‘Survivor’s Edition’ of January 14 with its depiction of Muhammad holding a ‘Je suis Charlie’ sign beneath the caption ‘All is forgiven’. The scramble by Sky News to apologise for any offence caused epitomised the Anglophone media’s anxieties over showing visual depictions of Muhammad that had begun with the violent protests in various Islamic countries in the context of the Danish caricature affair in early 2006. The BBC, notably, in line with the ethics of responsibility, had established a policy of not showing the Jyllands-Posten’s specially commissioned caricatures of Muhammad but only discussing their content, out of concern for cultural sensitivity. In accordance with the ethics of conviction, Charlie Hebdo had condemned such reticence, arguing that without access to the images, citizens would not be able to make an informed opinion or enter into frank debate on the matter, slamming such moves to self-censor as profoundly anti-democratic.

For UK French Studies too, Charlie Hebdo had become increasingly associated with flouting the ethics of responsibility for persisting in caricaturing Muhammad and Islam. Notably, one of Charlie Hebdo’s most virulent critics – and a former contributor to the newspaper – Olivier Cyran, was invited to the University of Manchester on January 30 2015 where he critiqued the paper’s editorial line on Islam as contributing to victimising France’s North African immigrant populations.  While his take on Charlie Hebdo fitted well with the self-censorship imperatives of the ethics of responsibility that now tend to dominate the humanities in the UK, Cyran had in fact received some fierce pushback for his claims of racism in Charlie Hebdo in France. A Moroccan contributor to Charlie Hebdo, sociologist of religion Zineb El Rhazaoui, had notably chastised Cyran:

Charlie Hebdo is truly on the side of anti-racism by opening up its columns to people like me, who can only express themselves in their countries at the risk of imprisonment or violence, as opposed to you, who would have the whole ‘Muslim race’ at the mercy of its self-proclaimed clergy.

In a safety-first climate, in which tensions were further heightened by a gunman attack at a freedom of speech event in Copenhagen on February 14th 2015, the move to block academic discussion of Charlie Hebdo was an extension of the unease over the ethics of responsibility with regards to the magazine’s material. It was probably also fuelled by a rush to establish professional critical distance from the emotiveness of the #jesuischarlie phenomenon. The first academic event to run into trouble was a symposium to be held on June 4th – 5th at Queen’s University, Belfast: ‘Understanding Charlie: New perspectives on contemporary citizenship after Charlie Hebdo’. The call for papers evoked the ‘powerful divisions in global opinion’ that had arisen from the ‘survivor’s edition’ of Charlie Hebdo, inviting participants to assess critically freedom of speech in a global context, the role of self-censorship, and the place of satire in a multicultural setting. It is ironic that discussion topics so attuned to the ethics of responsibility were judged too toxic – and dangerous – by the university’s Vice Chancellor to host due to ‘the security risk for delegates and the reputation of the university’, as participants were informed in May by email.

The symposium’s keynote speaker, Professor Brian Klug, publicly condemned the cancellation, as did Index on Censorship Chief Executive Jodie Ginsberg, who argued:

If all public discussion on important issues is shut down because of security fears then the terrorists have won. Free speech – including the free exchange of ideas – is vital for democracy and universities in particular should be the torch bearers for free expression.

The cancellation would have held had it not been for one of the symposium participants, journalist and PhD candidate Jason Walsh, widely alerting the media. Walsh aptly commented:

The only conceivable reason this conference would be cancelled is that someone – someone like me, for instance – might say something that might upset someone else. That is what passes for reputational damage today? Back when I was knee-high to a parking meter we called that debate, and isn’t that what the university is all about?

Walsh’s sense that Charlie Hebdo and freedom of speech as topics had been deemed too much of a risk owing to the offence they might cause again evokes the influence of an overweening fear of flouting the ethics of responsibility.

While the symposium ultimately went ahead following a media backlash, it felt a pyrrhic victory for any future academic events on Charlie Hebdo. Three types of security guard patrolled the venue and a guard was present in the symposium lecture theatre at all times. Such intense security measures served to brand Charlie Hebdo as inherently toxic, financially costly and physically dangerous to engage with as an academic topic.

Prior to the Belfast symposium, I was informed that a second set of academic papers on Charlie Hebdo had been cancelled on security grounds. On January 16, the organiser of the ‘Voyages 2015 Graphic Novel and Bande Dessinée Conference’, to be held at the University of London in Paris (ULIP), had invited additional papers on Charlie Hebdo in an extended call for papers ‘due to the recent events in Paris and their relevance to the study of comic art/bande dessinée’ (French language graphic novels). On May 20th 2015, the conference organiser, Catriona Macleod, contacted the event’s Charlie Hebdo panellists to inform them that owing to concerns over the use of the building, which was shared with the British Council, the management of ULIP and the British Council were cancelling the panels in order to safeguard the young learners who also used the ULIP premises. As such, she asked if speakers would be willing to contribute on a different topic.

As a specialist on Charlie Hebdo, I was entirely unwilling to do so. The two Charlie Hebdo panels, which included a diverse range of perspectives, already had a discrete place in the programme (panel 30: Charlie Hebdo 1: The Ethics of Representation and panel 35: Charlie Hebdo 2: Charlie Hebdo and the French Republic). Panel 30 had included my paper, ‘Political cartooning in Charlie Hebdo: joyful resistance versus the ethics of responsibility’, a paper by Kenon Kokac entitled ‘What is wrong with caricaturing the Prophet Muhammad for Muslims?’ and Zanne Lyttle: ‘Presenting the ‘Unrepresentable’: drawings of God in comics long before Charlie Hebdo’. Panel 35 was to have had a presentation by Olivier Morel: ‘Drawing conclusions? The attack on Charlie Hebdo in France’s long history’ and Guillaume de Syon: ‘Volez sur Air Con: Charlie Hebdo as social critique of supersonic transport in the 1970s’. Some of these papers could easily have been included on panels with a different name.

I was all the more surprised at the cancellations given that the Belfast symposium had recently been reinstated, Queen’s University having been effectively shamed into backing down. I decided to try to challenge such de facto censorship and trampling of academic freedom, replying that I found the move utterly disproportionate and that I would count on voicing the matter as widely as possible within the academic community and beyond.

I was to discover that cohabiting with the British Council had made ULIP subject to safety concerns extending far beyond the normal limitations of what one would expect for a university. This type of hybrid institution fits the increasing ‘specialisation’ of universities into diverse institutional formats with the ‘marketisation’ of the UK higher education sector.

In my attempt to appeal against the cancellation I contacted Paul Docherty and the Vice Chancellor of the University of London, Sir Adrian Smith. I tried to advocate for academic freedom by evoking the ideal of universities since the Middle Ages as places of safety where regardless of outside politics, debates could be held and ideas exchanged. My central point to Paul Docherty, which was posted on Francofil, a moderated electronic discussion forum for academics working in the discipline of French Studies and hosted by Liverpool University, on 30th May 2015, was as follows:

There seems to have been a profound value judgment made, per se, on the basis of the two panels of the conference having ‘Charlie Hebdo’ in their titles. If the panels had been called ‘Freedom of Expression’, would the same danger have been deemed to exist? […] Are the parents aware that their children are the justification for your spirit of precaution, and hitherto unspecified risks assessed in a hitherto unspecified fashion? […] I can moreover only reiterate my profound concern as to how disproportionate this move appears, based solely on the criteria of location. ULIP and the British Council are at Invalides. Close to the Ecole Militaire, next to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Assemblée Nationale, in the very heart of Paris. The premises are known not primarily as a creche or a primary school but as the home of the British Council as a cultural ambassador of the UK in France. I would also stress that if you truly are aware of a specific threat it needs to be made known in concrete terms.

The conference organisers at ULIP suggested moving the panels to an unspecified outside location, an offer which was acceptable for one speaker, ignored by two panellists and rejected by two further speakers, including myself, on the grounds that such a move would seal the marginalisation of the topic from the rest of the conference. By now, news of the cancellation of the conference sessions had spread beyond academia. Along with the French literary news website, Actualitté, Charlie Hebdo itself covered the story, its editor in chief Gérard Biard commenting on June 3rd 2015:

This isn’t the first time a university has looked to cancel debate on Charlie and on freedom of expression. Just this April, Queen’s University Belfast also set out to bury a university conference on the topic, before changing its mind after an academic outcry.

But, true to form, the Englishman won’t budge. The British Council has proved inflexible, in the name of security, particularly of the young students taking classes next to the site. Magnanimous, and because the British Council is of course attached to freedom of expression, it nevertheless suggests to the participants of these two high-risk round tables to go off and do their silly things further away, elsewhere, in the cellar, in the attic or on the moon, whatever they feel like.

The British Council is of course responsible for the safety of the children on its premises. But this honourable cultural institution is also responsible for ensuring these students can grow up and live in a world of rich and varied cultures and worthwhile debate. And anticipating the desires of obscurantist fanatics who only use violence and terror as arguments is not necessarily the best way to achieve it.

Actualitté, a French literary news website, meanwhile referred to the event as having been covered in a ‘strange, chaste veil’, and asked who had really been behind the decision to cancel the panels.

On 30th May 2015 I asked French Studies academics on Francofil for their perspectives on the cancellation, stressing:

Despite what Mr Docherty is claiming, cancelling the panels is not the only option, in my opinion. Hosting any event carries risks – that doesn’t mean that we simply stop hosting events. Rather, we take steps to mitigate risks, for example, we increase the security presence/procedures at the event.  In this case, there is a choice between mitigating risks in a way that tramples on our values of free expression, or mitigating risks in a way that does not trample on those values.

One respondent to my question, Professor Andrew Knapp of Reading University, defended Paul Docherty’s position on 31st May 2015, evoking the risks of terrorist attacks and the imperative to take responsible measures, but not the possibility of mitigating such risks through other channels than blocking the panels:

Mr Docherty [has] a choice. It involves balancing the mission of ULIP and of the British Council, to which free speech is essential, and his responsibility to ensure that armed men do not walk into the building, which as you know gives directly onto the rue de Constantine, and start shooting, whether on the day of the conference or at any later date. I am not certain how free he is to make this choice alone.

However, Dr Gillian Ni Cheallaigh of King’s College London countered:

We can do nothing, in reality, to prevent someone who is determined to carry out a violent attack based on extremist ideology. Does that mean that we start to adjust our behaviour, a little more and more with each attack, to concede to the extremist position they feel justifies their attack and that makes our lifestyle subject to attack? […] Do we start to muzzle healthy open free debate and discussion – for which we have fought for centuries – ‘in case’ we might upset those who disagree with us?  If so, the battle is lost. Hate, intolerance, violence, prejudice and theocratic extremism have won. ULIP is a university. A university is a site and institution devoted and dedicated to the dissemination and encouragement of knowledge, openness, learning and understanding. To cancel, remove or displace this panel is to send the young people in this educational establishment the worst possible signal. It would be to signal that intolerance and violence, or the threat of violence, are powerful and victorious. How awful. We can do nothing to deter determined radical extremists. Except persevere with upholding and practising our values of tolerance, openness, debate and understanding. Are these values not those which drove us towards the humanities in the first place?

Keith Reader, Emeritus Professor at ULIP, equally voiced his support on the matter on 2nd June 2015:

Qua visiting emeritus at ULIP I should like to make plain my anger at what seems to me to be the quite exaggerated reaction of the British Council to the inclusion of papers on CH [Charlie Hebdo] at the upcoming Voyages conference. The possible presence of children on the premises – though presumably not at the conference – appears an extremely weak alibi for a frankly pusillanimous attitude. If these papers are removed from the programme, those seeking to silence debate will effectively have won.

Many members of the public also wrote in to both Paul Docherty and the Chief Executive Officer of ULIP, Tim Gore, who looked to minimise the impact of the cancellations in his replies to these messages. His response has been published on an internet blog:

Despite the cancellation of a small number of presentations on security grounds, these conferences will allow participants to debate on a wide range of themes related to bande dessinée, from the Middle Ages to the present day, including the Charlie Hebdo affair and the unprecedented events that took place last January in Paris.

The fact that Gore reassured people that Charlie Hebdo could be discussed freely at the event tended again to reinforce the sense that what was substantially left was a simple taboo: the words ‘Charlie Hebdo’ in the title of the conference papers. For the conference itself, two measures were ultimately decided upon in mitigation of the cancellations, which were not revoked. Firstly, the affected panellists co-authored a statement, which was expected to appear in the conference programme, but in fact only featured in the book of abstracts. It stated:

While the organizers and the panellists recognize that matters of security for all members of the public (not just conference participants) is of utmost importance, they regret this decision. They should like to note that, ironically, the very ostracization of the Charlie Hebdo panels may prompt participants to talk about this periodical, its impact and meaning far more than originally intended. The panels’ absence and unspeakability echo the absence of the cartoonists and journalists lost through the original killings in January.

Secondly, an ‘online panel’ was organised as a Facebook discussion group. This group was sparsely attended (thirteen participants, half of whom were not conference delegates). It was entirely unsatisfactory as a replacement for a conference panel, encouraging participants to merge their personal and professional identities and to leave a far more permanent trace of their reasoning by working through social media. The move did however show the degree of acrobatics the organisers were prepared to go to in order to try and mitigate the initial cancellation.

Moves to cancel academic debate on Charlie Hebdo show how malignant levels of concern for the ethics of responsibility can result in difficult but important topics being turned into taboos. The Belfast conference was rendered financially exorbitant by the security costs incurred through the decision to demonstrate the extreme risk the topic represented. At the Paris conference, the organisers thanked the British Council for hosting the event for free – but at what cost to academic freedom? Charlie Hebdo has no business being turned into a taboo as a topic. The newspaper has a rich and complex history and should not remain victim to global reductionism of its identity via the shattering force of the #jesuischarlie media event and its afterlives.

About the Author

Jane Weston Vauclair is a Paris-based researcher, university teacher and translator. Her work has notably examined the satirical output of the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and its forerunner Hara-Kiri in its theory, practice and subsequent mythologisation. Her work in the area has been published in French and English.



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