Charlie Hebdo and its place in French journalism

Charlie Hebdo's publisher, Charb, talks to journalists in Paris, in front of the magazine's offices, after they were destroyed by a petrol bomb attack overnight, 2 Nov 2011 Charlie Hebdo's staff say there is nothing unusually provocative about the Charia Hebdo issue

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Charlie Hebdo is part of a venerable tradition in French journalism going back to the scandal sheets that denounced Marie-Antoinette in the run-up to the French Revolution.

The tradition combines left-wing radicalism with a provocative scurrility that often borders on the obscene.

Back in the 18th Century, the target was the royal family, and the rumour-mongers wrought havoc with tales - often illustrated - of sexual antics and corruption at the court at Versailles.

Nowadays there are new dragons to slay: politicians, the police, bankers and religion. Satire, rather than outright fabrication, is the weapon of choice.

But that same spirit of insolence that once took on the ancien regime - part ribaldry, part political self-promotion - is still very much on the scene.

Charlie Hebdo is a prime exponent.

Its decision to mock the Prophet Muhammad may be called courageously principled or dangerously irresponsible. What is undeniable is that it is entirely consistent with its historic raison d'etre.

French police stand in front of the damaged offices of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris 2 November 2011. French police have been among the many targets of Charlie Hebdo
Urge to challenge

As a newspaper, Charlie Hebdo suffers from constant comparison with its better-known and more successful rival, Le Canard Enchaine.

Both are animated by the same urge to challenge the powers-that-be.

But if Le Canard is all about scoops and unreported secrets, Charlie is both cruder and crueller - deploying a melange of cartoons and an often vicious polemical wit.

True to its position on the far left of French politics, Charlie Hebdo's past is full of splits and ideological betrayals.

One long-standing editor resigned a couple of years ago after a row about anti-semitism.

Another odd feature typical of the French far left is that most of the staff - cartoonists and writers alike - go by single-name noms de plume. Heading the current team, for example, are two men referred to universally as Charb and Riss, even though everyone knows their real names.

The paper's origins lie in another satirical publication called Hara-Kiri which made a name for itself in the 1960s.

In 1970 came the famous moment of Charlie's creation. Two dramatic events were dominating the news: a terrible fire at a discotheque which killed more than 100 people; and the death of former President Gen Charles de Gaulle.

Hara-Kiri led its edition with a headline mocking the General's death: "Bal tragique a Colombey - un mort", meaning "Tragic dance at Colombey [de Gaulle's home] - one dead."

The subsequent scandal led to Hara-Kiri being banned. To which its journalists promptly responded by setting up a new weekly - Charlie Hebdo.

The Charlie was not an irreverent reference to Charles de Gaulle, but to the fact that originally it also re-printed the Charlie Brown cartoon from the United States.

'Nothing unusually provocative'

The paper has never sold in enormous numbers - and for 10 years from 1981, it ceased publication for lack of resources.

But with its garish front-page cartoons and incendiary headlines, it is an unmissable staple of newspaper kiosks and railway station booksellers.

Drawing on France's strong tradition of bandes dessinees [comic strips], cartoons and caricatures are Charlie-Hebdo's defining feature. Over the years, it has printed examples which make today's representations of Muhammad look like illustrations from a children's book.

Police would be shown holding the dripping heads of immigrants; there would be masturbating nuns; popes wearing condoms - anything to make a point.

So today when the paper's staff say there is nothing unusually provocative about the Charia Hebdo issue - with its front-page cartoon of 'guest-editor' Muhammad -- they are being perfectly truthful.

The only difference is their choice of target.

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