Charlie Hebdo: A History of Satire, Controversy, and Resilience

A French satirical weekly magazine

Charlie Hebdo Magazine

Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical weekly magazine, is a publication that has gained international recognition for its sharp wit, political commentary, and uncompromising stance on freedom of expression. Founded in 1970, Charlie Hebdo has a long and complex history marked by periods of publication, censorship, controversy, and resilience. It has consistently taken a left-wing, libertarian, and secular stance, pushing the boundaries of satire and challenging societal norms. Throughout its history, Charlie Hebdo has found itself at the center of numerous controversies, particularly for its depictions of religious figures, especially the Prophet Muhammad. This article delves into the origins, key moments, controversies, and enduring legacy of Charlie Hebdo.

Charlie Hebdo

Type: Satirical weekly news magazine
Format: Berliner
Owner(s): Laurent “Riss” Sourisseau (70%), Éric Portheault (30%)
Editor: Gérard Biard
Founded: 1970
Political alignment: Left-wing
Ceased publication: 1981
Relaunched: 1992
Headquarters: Paris, France
Circulation: ~55,000 (as 2020)
ISSN: 1240-0068

Charlie Hebdo (French pronunciation: [ʃaʁli ɛbdo]; meaning Charlie Weekly) is a French satirical weekly magazine, featuring cartoons, reports, polemics, and jokes. The publication has been described as anti-racist, sceptical, secular, libertarian, and within the tradition of left-wing radicalism, publishing articles about the far-right, religion, politics, and culture.

Origins in Hara-Kiri

Charlie Hebdo’s story begins with the predecessor magazine, Hara-Kiri, launched in 1960 by Georges “Professeur Choron” Bernier and François Cavanna. The magazine quickly gained notoriety for its irreverent humor and sharp social commentary. Hara-Kiri became known for its motto, “bête et méchant” (“dumb and nasty”), a phrase that would define its satirical style.

François Cavanna (1923–2014), one of the founders of the first Charlie Hebdo
François Cavanna (1923–2014), one of the founders of the first Charlie Hebdo

Hara-Kiri faced multiple bans and suspensions, primarily for its provocative content. 1961, the magazine was briefly banned, followed by another six-month suspension in 1966. Despite these challenges, Hara-Kiri persisted and developed a devoted following.

In 1969, the Hara-Kiri team expanded by creating a weekly publication, Hara-Kiri Hebdo, which later became L’Hebdo Hara-Kiri. This move allowed them to focus more on current events, cementing their place in satirical journalism.

The Birth of Charlie Hebdo

The turning point for the magazine came in November 1970 when former French president Charles de Gaulle passed away. In response to the widespread media coverage of de Gaulle’s death, Hara-Kiri released a cover that read, “Tragic Ball at Colombey, one dead,” mocking both the death and the sensationalized media coverage surrounding it. Unsurprisingly, this led to the immediate banning of Hara-Kiri.

To circumvent the ban, the editorial team decided to change the magazine’s name, leading to the birth of Charlie Hebdo. The name was derived from a monthly comics magazine called Charlie, later renamed Charlie Mensuel. The new title referenced Charlie Brown from Peanuts and a playful jab at Charles de Gaulle.

The early issues of Charlie Hebdo included a Peanuts comic strip as a nod to its inspiration. The magazine’s rebirth in 1970 marked the beginning of its iconic and unapologetic satire.

Cessation and Rebirth

In December 1981, the publication of Charlie Hebdo ceased, marking a significant pause in the magazine’s history. However, the satirical spirit of the magazine did not fade away. In 1991, some original team members, including Cabu and Gébé, collaborated on a similar publication called La Grosse Bertha. This venture was created in response to the First Gulf War and was edited by singer and comedian Philippe Val.

When Val and the publisher clashed over the direction of the publication in 1992, he was fired. In response, Gébé, Cabu, and others left with him, eventually deciding to relaunch their paper. After considering various names, they agreed to resurrect Charlie Hebdo.

The first issue under the new publication, with Philippe Val as the editor, was released in July 1992. This revival marked a significant moment in the magazine’s history, which continued to uphold its tradition of satirical commentary.

The Controversies

Throughout its existence, Charlie Hebdo has been no stranger to controversy. Some of the most significant controversies are as follows:

2006 Muhammad Cartoons: 

In 2006, Charlie Hebdo published cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad, sparking worldwide outrage and protests among Muslims. The cover featured a weeping Muhammad, with the caption, “C’est dur d’être aimé par des cons” (“It’s hard being loved by jerks”). The magazine’s decision to republish the controversial Muhammad cartoons from the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten fueled the fire.

2011 Firebombing: 

In November 2011, the magazine’s offices were firebombed, and its website was hacked. This attack was presumed to be in response to the magazine’s decision to rename its edition “Charia Hebdo” and publish a cartoon of Muhammad.

Stephane Charbonnier, right, editor-in-chief of the French publication Charlie Hebdo, was interviewed in 2012 by VOA's Arzu Çakır
Stephane Charbonnier, right, editor-in-chief of the French publication Charlie Hebdo, was interviewed in 2012 by VOA’s Arzu Çakır

2015 Attack: 

On January 7, 2015, two Islamist gunmen stormed the Charlie Hebdo offices, killing 12 people, including staff cartoonists and editors. The attackers shouted religious slogans during the attack, which was widely condemned as an act of terrorism.

The “Survivors’ Issue”: 

Following the 2015 attack, Charlie Hebdo released a “survivors’ issue” with a record print run featuring cartoons and commentary that addressed the tragedy and affirmed the magazine’s commitment to freedom of expression. The issue’s revenue went to the victims’ families.

Continued Controversies: 

Charlie Hebdo faced controversies over its depictions of refugees, victims of tragedies, religious figures, and more. The magazine’s uncompromising satirical approach drew both support and condemnation.

Resilience and the “Je Suis Charlie” Movement

The Je suis Charlie ("I am Charlie") slogan became an endorsement of freedom of speech and press.
The Je suis Charlie (“I am Charlie”) slogan became an endorsement of freedom of speech and press.

In the wake of the 2015 attack, the phrase “Je suis Charlie” (“I am Charlie”) became a global symbol of solidarity with the magazine and a broader statement in defense of freedom of expression. Journalists, politicians, and people worldwide embraced this expression as a rallying cry for freedom of the press.

Charlie Hebdo’s commitment to its irreverent and unapologetic satire was evident when it published a caricature of Muhammad on its cover in September 2020, just before the trial of the 2015 attack suspects. The decision led to Instagram temporarily suspending two of its employees’ accounts due to a reporting campaign against the caricatures.

2020 Attack and International Reactions

In September 2020, an assailant carried out a stabbing attack outside the former headquarters of Charlie Hebdo. This attack came after the magazine’s republication of caricatures depicting Muhammad. The assailant cited his actions as vengeance for the caricatures, highlighting the ongoing tension and controversy surrounding Charlie Hebdo.

The magazine also became embroiled in an international dispute in 2020 when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan condemned Charlie Hebdo for publishing a caricature of him. This criticism occurred in the context of heightened tensions between France and some Muslim-majority countries over issues related to freedom of expression and the role of religion in society.


Charlie Hebdo’s history is marked by a relentless commitment to satire, freedom of expression, and a willingness to confront societal norms and authority figures. Despite facing censorship, bans, and even violent attacks, the magazine has consistently reemerged, reaffirming its belief in the power of satire to challenge ideas and provoke thought.

Charlie Hebdo’s legacy extends beyond publication; it embodies the broader principles of freedom of expression and the right to dissent. The controversies it has faced are a stark reminder of the complex interplay between free speech and respecting cultural and religious sensitivities. While opinions on the magazine may differ, its history and resilience are undeniably intertwined with the ongoing global debate on the boundaries of satire and freedom of expression.

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FAQs about Charlie Hebdo

1. What is Charlie Hebdo?

Charlie Hebdo is a French satirical weekly magazine that features cartoons, reports, polemics, and jokes. It is known for its left-wing political alignment and tradition of left-wing radicalism.

2. When was Charlie Hebdo founded?

The magazine was first founded in 1970 as a response to the banning of the monthly magazine Hara-Kiri, which had mocked the death of former French president Charles de Gaulle.

3. Who are the owners and editors of Charlie Hebdo?

Laurent “Riss” Sourisseau owns 70% of the magazine, while Éric Portheault owns 30%. The current editor-in-chief is Gérard Biard.

4. What is the publication history of Charlie Hebdo?

Charlie Hebdo was first published in 1970, ceased publication in 1981, and was relaunched in 1992. It is published every Wednesday, with special editions issued unscheduled.

5. What is the political alignment of Charlie Hebdo?

Charlie Hebdo is known for its left-wing political alignment.

6. What kind of content does Charlie Hebdo feature?

The magazine publishes articles about various topics, including the far-right, religion (Catholicism, Islam, and Judaism), politics, and culture, and features cartoons, reports, polemics, and jokes.

7. How has Charlie Hebdo been targeted in the past?

Charlie Hebdo has been the target of three terrorist attacks in 2011, 2015, and 2020. These attacks were presumed to be in response to controversial cartoons depicting Muhammad published by the magazine.

8. Who are some prominent figures associated with Charlie Hebdo?

Notable figures associated with Charlie Hebdo include François Cavanna, Philippe Val, and Gérard Biard, who have served as editors.

9. What are some of the significant controversies involving Charlie Hebdo?

The magazine has been involved in several controversies, including the publication of cartoons depicting Muhammad, which led to debates about freedom of expression and other controversial content related to various events and figures.

10. What is the significance of the “Je suis Charlie” slogan?

“Je suis Charlie” (French for “I am Charlie”) became a slogan in support of freedom of speech and press after the 2015 terrorist attack on the magazine. It was used as a rallying cry for freedom of expression and freedom of the press.


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Written by Arifur Rahman

Cartoonist, Animator, Illustrator, and Publisher of Toons Mag.

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