In 2012, when Charlie Hebdo editors defied the government’s advice and published crude caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad naked and in sexual poses, the French authorities shut down embassies, cultural centers and schools in about 20 countries.
“Is it really sensible or intelligent to pour oil on the fire?” asked Laurent Fabius, the foreign minister at the time.
But Charlie Hebdo’s editor, Stéphane Charbonnier, who was slain in the attack at the paper’s offices Wednesday, was not deterred.
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Week after week, the small, struggling weekly newspaper amused and horrified, taking pride in offending one and all and carrying on a venerable European tradition dating to the days of the French Revolution, when satire was used to pillory Marie Antoinette and later to challenge politicians and the police, bankers and religions of all kinds.
This week’s issue was no exception. It featured a mock debate about whether Jesus exists and a black-and-white New Year’s greeting card from the leader of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, with the caption, “To your health.”
No subject was off-limits. The left-wing paper offered pages of colorful cartoons depicting France’s top politicians and intellectuals as wine-swilling slackers indulging in sexual acts or suggesting the pope was stepping aside to be with his girlfriend.
It is a brand of humor that the French and other Europeans are attached to but that has prompted fury among Muslim extremists and less radical Muslims who see the denigration of their religion as provocation, not food for thought.
“The French like their satire,” said Jean-Marie Charon, a sociologist who studies the news media. “The idea is to be irreverent, that irony and criticism are good things. But it is true that this is perhaps not part of everybody’s culture.”
In recent years, the editors and cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo had weathered a firebombing, computer hacking and death threats. Charbonnier was included on a list published by al-Qaida’s magazine, Inspire, of those “most wanted” for crimes against Islam. But its staff members continued to take on Islam with the same irreverence as they did other religions, a stand that gave them stature among French journalists.
In 2006, for instance, the paper republished the controversial cartoon caricatures of a weeping Prophet Muhammad that had appeared first in a Danish newspaper.
“Charlie Hebdo has always kept its insolence, and since the caricatures crisis, it has become a symbol of press independence,” said Bruno Patino, director of the journalism school at the Institut d’Études Politiques de Paris, known as Sciences Po. “The debate about caricatures overlapped others in France about freedom of speech and religion. It became the most visible.”
In the 2012 case, Charbonnier defended his magazine’s right — under France’s laws safeguarding the freedom of expression — to print crude, lewd caricatures of Islam’s founder.
If some people didn’t like it, he said, that was too bad. “Muhammad isn’t sacred to me,” he said. “I don’t blame Muslims for not laughing at our drawings. I live under French law. I don’t live under Quranic law.”
At that time, though, the French government and the Obama administration openly questioned not the magazine’s right to print, but its good judgment. At least 30 people had already been killed in violent protests over an amateur video made in the U.S. that portrayed the religion’s founder as a fraud, womanizer and child molester.
After Wednesday’s bloodbath, calls for editorial restraint vanished. French President François Hollande, speaking outside Charlie Hebdo’s office, said the gunmen had targeted journalists striving to “defend their ideas, and to defend precisely the freedom that the (French) Republic protects.”
“We are threatened because we are a country of liberty,” Hollande said, asking for national unity.
Writer Salman Rushdie spent years in hiding in fear of Islamic death squads after Ayatollah Khomeini, Iran’s supreme leader, issued a 1989 fatwa calling for his assassination because his novel “The Satanic Verses” was viewed by some Muslims as blasphemy.
Rushdie said Wednesday that the conflict in the case of Charlie Hebdo was an irreconcilable one between the art of satire as a “force for liberty” on the one hand, and “tyranny, dishonesty and stupidity” on the other.
Controversial since birth
The newspaper was born in controversy in 1970, after a publication called Hara-Kiri was banned for mocking the death of former President Charles de Gaulle. That prompted its journalists to set up a new weekly, Charlie Hebdo, a reference to its reprint of Charlie Brown cartoons from the United States. “Hebdo” is a diminutive of “hebdomadaire,” or weekly.
According to some reports in the French news media, the attackers knew the names of their victims. Among the dead were Charbonnier, editor since 2009, and veteran artists Jean Cabut, 76, and Georges Wolinski, 80, who had been involved with the publication since its inception.
While the paper first drew the anger of Muslims by reprinting the Danish cartoons from the newspaper Jyllands-Posten, it went further in 2011, when it temporarily renamed its weekly, “Charia Hebdo,” and appointed the Prophet Muhammad as its “editor-in-chief.”
In 2012, the French authorities increased the police presence outside the Charlie Hebdo office out of concern about another attack. At the time, one of its journalists, Laurent Léger, said: “In France, we always have the right to write and draw.”
He continued: “And if some people are not happy with this, they can sue us, and we can defend ourselves. That’s democracy. You don’t throw bombs, you discuss, you debate. But you don’t act violently. We have to stand and resist pressure from extremism.”
Charon said the paper was often sued, including 14 times in recent years by the Roman Catholic Church.
Charbonnier, like the other Charlie Hebdo journalists, published under a pen name; in his case, Charb. His last published cartoon appeared in Wednesday’s issue, a haunting image of an armed and cross-eyed militant with the words: “Still no attacks in France,” and the retort: “Wait! We have until the end of January to offer our wishes.”
Aware of the risks
Since 2012, Charbonnier had a police bodyguard, who also died in the attack. “The threats were constant,” the publication’s lawyer, Richard Malka, said. “It’s frightening.”
Charbonnier was aware of the risks he faced personally. “It just so happens I’m more likely to get run over by a bicycle in Paris than get assassinated,” he said in a 2013 interview.
Asked whether he was worried about being targeted, he replied: “Yeah, that’s rather bothersome.” He said it would be harder to do the job, which he took in 2009, if he had a family to worry about.
But Charlie Hebdo thrived on breaking taboos. In the past, Charbonnier vowed that his cartoonists would keep poking fun “until Islam is just as banal as Catholicism,” but in the process it struggled not only with death threats, but with its own financial survival.
Its weekly circulation hovers about 30,000, and like other frail journals in the French newspaper industry, it has turned to its own form of crowdfunding, publishing a coupon Wednesday for readers to fill out and mail in with checks.
Its chief rival is Le Canard Enchaîné, founded in 1915, which specializes in scoops and leaked secrets, whereas Charlie Hebdo is known for its cruder and more vicious wit. On Wednesday, an editor at Le Canard Enchaîné declined to speak about the shooting. Journalists there were instructed not to discuss the shooting during an emotional afternoon meeting.
“It’s too early and too difficult to talk about this right now,” said a journalist there who knew some of the victims at Charlie Hebdo.
Radio France, Le Monde and France Télévisions issued statements late in the day saying they intended to offer staffing and other support to help the Charlie Hebdo “live on.”
Material from The Associated Press and the Los Angeles Times is included in this report.