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Offended by Charlie Hebdo? It’s impertinent French humour, say academics

One year after the attack on Charlie Hebdo, academics met to deconstruct the magazine’s vulgar, coarse — but staunchly leftist agenda at Dalhousie University

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caption Students examine a recent issue of Charlie Hebdo.
Rachael Kelly
Students examine a recent issue of Charlie Hebdo.
caption Students examine a recent issue of Charlie Hebdo.
Rachael Kelly

A year after the office of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo was attacked in Paris, the French department at Dalhousie University met to contextualize the killings that rocked the world, spotlighting issues of freedom of speech, racism, censorship, and secularism – and Charlie Hebdo’s consistently controversial content.

When it comes to understanding the motivations behind the publication’s indelicate cartoons, argued the panel to 35 attendees, readers are getting it wrong.

“Many Americans don’t understand exactly what it meant to attack Charlie Hebdo,” said Vincent Masse, an associate professor of French at Dalhousie on Friday. “It’s a spectacular example of cultural miscommunication how some people criticize Charlie Hebdo for its racist cartoons and depictions. In France, Charlie Hebdo for decades — has been one of the most vocal anti-racist platforms.”

Charlie Hebdo

On Jan. 7, 2015, the now-infamous Kouachi brothers stormed the Parisian offices of Charlie Hebdo and killed 12 people. According to Charlie Hebdo, the murders were an attempt to avenge the Prophet Mohammed, who was visually depicted in a number of satirical cartoons published by the magazine.

Charlie Hebdo produces what it refers to as “humour, food for thought, and satire” on “religions which inspire swarms of fools.” Its other targets? The police, the army and the extreme political right.

Vittorio Frigerio, an undergraduate advisor and professor of French at Dalhousie, says the cartoons “can be misunderstood very easily.”

From left to right: Amal Ghazal, associate professor of history; Vincent Masse, assistant professor of French; Christopher Elson, associate professor of French and canadian studies; Vittorio Frigerio, chair of the French department at Dalhousie University. Background photo: recently published cartoon by Charlie Hebdo.
caption From left to right: Amal Ghazal, associate professor of history;
Vincent Masse, associate professor of French; Christopher Elson,
chair of the French department; Vittorio Frigerio,
undergraduate advisor and professor of French at Dalhousie University. Background photo: recently published Charlie Hebdo cartoon.
Rachael Kelly

Charlie Hebdo “saw their fight as a fight for tolerance and against the intolerance religion poses on society,” he said. “They wanted deliberately to be as aggressive and as offensive as possible towards a religion that shows acts of hate on society.”

It’s not uncommon for the magazine to present left, anti-racist perspectives with a Holocaust or dead baby joke. But if you look at the cartoons through an anti-war, anti-violence, anti-army, anti-religion, anti-anti-semitism lens, said Masse, you start to see a leftist agenda that many people in North America fundamentally agree with.

“One of the main characteristics of French caricature is virulency — impertinence,” said Frigerio. “It can often be quite coarse and the humour can be deliberately vulgar. Vulgarity as a stylistic exercise appears to be a French specialty,” he added dryly.

On Wednesday, Charlie Hebdo found itself once again under fire for publishing a series of cartoons that suggested Alan Kurdi, the three-year old Syrian boy who drowned off the coast of Turkey in September, would have grown up to sexually assault German women.

“I’ve read a dozen different reactions in the international press,” said Frigerio. “Knowing the frame of mind of these artists is that this particular drawing goes beyond the singular case. The image of the drowned child has become a symbol. We’re not talking about one person anymore. [Charlie Hebdo is] putting the reader in front of his own instinctual reactions to two very different events.”

When the image of the Syrian refugee crisis was a drowned toddler, people’s immediate emotional response was to jumpstart the immigration process. When the events in Germany happened, however, the reaction was the exact opposite.

Frigerio suggests the magazine might have been trying to show readers they were dealing with the same people. The cartoon was an illustration of incongruousness.

Frigerio added quickly afterward: “But make up your own mind!”


Jan. 28, 2016: An earlier version of this story misstated the titles of the panelists involved in the Charlie Hebdo discussion. Vincent Masse is an associate professor, not an assistant professor, and Christopher Elson is the chair of the French department, not Vittorio Frigerio. Vittorio Frigerio is an undergraduate advisor and professor of French.

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    Rachael Kelly

    I just received this email from Vittorio Frigerio. More food for thought: "I have read with interest your article on our Round Table on Charlie Hebdo. Many thanks for taking the time to attend and to write about it. As I was reading it, I noticed a peculiar thing. You illustrated your article by reproducing a tweet by Emran Feroz, an Austrian journalist of Afghan extraction. In it, he commented on the latest controversy surrounding CH, the cartoon depicting what the drowned Syrian child Aylan could have become had he grown up. The translation offered is : “an ape molesting German women”. This is a typical example of either deliberate bad faith or simple ignorance of the French language. Quite possibly both. The original text says “tripoteur de fesses en Allemagne”. The Oxford dictionary translates “tripoteur” as “groper”. The sentence should read something like “bum groper in Germany”. The use of familiar expressions from popular language, like “tripoteur” and “fesses”, gives the text a light-hearted, humorous ring. The faulty translation, however, is obviously designed to imply a racist attitude on the part of the author and transforms in an entirely unintended way the message of the drawing. Much criticism of Charlie Hebdo’s satire in the international press has been marked by similar malevolence, often quite intentional."
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