The history of Charlie Hebdo, bastion of French satire: The legendary French magazine, target of an attack that killed 12 people, has long tested the boundaries of satire and controversy
They never shied away from the most controversial of topics. From the death of Charles de Gaulle to the birth of Islamic extremism, the journalists of France’s foremost satirical magazine have endured a turbulent history.
Founded in 1969 as Hara-Kiri Hebdo, the weekly publication quickly attracted – and eventually adopted as its official slogan – accusations of being “dumb and nasty”.
The founding editors, humorist Georges Bernier and François Cavanna, enjoyed their first fracas with the establishment in November 1970, joking about the death of a former French president.
Charles de Gaulle died at home in the village of Colombey-les-Deux-Églises aged 79, a week after a nightclub fire in south-eastern France killed 146 people.
“Tragic Ball at Colombey, one dead” was the magazine’s headline. The country’s interior minister swiftly banned Hara-Kiri Hebdo, forcing the group to change their name.
In the decade that followed, the founding group stumbled on while struggling to find an audience. Until, in 1981, reportedly due to a lack of readers, the magazine was closed.
It reemerged in 1991 under the control of Philippe Val, a French comedian and journalist who would edit the publication for 17 years.
During that time the magazine would become famous for another controversy; its full-throated opposition to religious fundamentalism and restrictions on freedom of speech.
It started in February 2006, in the midst of a global row about the publication of images of the Prophet Mohammed sketched by a Danish cartoonist.
Under the title “Mohammed overwhelmed by fundamentalists”, Charlie Hebdo printed a front-page cartoon of the Islamic figure weeping and saying, “it’s hard being loved by jerks”.
Inside, they reproduced 12 of the controversial Danish cartoons and added more of their own design.
The magazine tripled its usual sales and the politicians whose predecessors had once forced Hebdo to close came rushing to its defence.
(With the exception of the French President Jacques Chirac, who said: “Anything that can hurt the convictions of someone else, in particular, religious convictions, should be avoided.”)
Six months later, in February 2007, several Muslim groups took Charlie Hebdo to court for publicly “insulting” Islam.
Philippe Val described the trial as a “witch hunt” and Francois Hollande, the Socialist party secretary and current President of France, testified in favour of freedom of expression.
The magazine was ultimately cleared of “racial insults” for publishing the cartoons and a court ruling upheld Mr Val’s right to satire Islamic extremism.
Four years later, after little further incitement from Hebdo, its offices were burned in an apparent arson attack on the day after it published an issue with the Prophet Mohammed as its “editor-in-chief”.
He was depicted on the front page saying: “100 lashes if you don’t die of laughter”.
The magazine was forced to move the office from 20th arrondissement to Rue Serpollet, where on Wednesday 10 Hebdo journalists – including Charb, Val’s successor – were killed.
But Islam was not alone in attracting Hebdo’s derision. Past covers include retired Pope Benedict XVI in an amorous embrace with a Vatican guard; former French President Nicolas Sarkozy looking like a sick vampire, and an Orthodox Jew kissing a Nazi soldier.
Yet the attack has inspired unanimous backing for the magazine’s right to free expression from the very people it lampooned.
Vatican officials said the assault had targeted not just the magazine’s journalists but the liberty of the press in general.
Mr Hollande said: “This is an act of exceptional barbarity […] against freedom of expression, against journalists who always wanted to show that they could act in France to defend their ideas and specifically to have this freedom that the French republic protects.”
David Cameron, the Prime Minister, said: “We stand squarely for free speech and democracy.”
This is an intolerable act, an act of barbarism which challenges us all as humans and Europeans,” European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said.
“It is an attack on freedom of expression and the press – a key component of our free democratic culture – which cannot be justified,” said Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor.