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Free Speech v. Sexual Deviance: French Cartoonist Accused Of Promoting Pedophilia And Incest

The prestigious Angoulême International Comics Festival has cancelled the participation of Bastien Vivès, a leading French cartoonist, after a petition accused both drawings and comments that seem to justify pedophilia and incest. The festival cited risks of violence after threats were made online against Vivès.

Photo of comic artist Bastien Vivès

Bastien Vivès at the international comics festival in 2017

Emma Albright

This story has been updated Dec. 14, 8 p.m. local time

From Charlie Hebdo to Xavier Gorce to R. Crumb, cartoonists in France have a history of provocation and courting controversy—and generally receive French public support in return. But the latest provocateur, Bastien Vivès, may have crossed the line on the limits of free speech and artistic expression.

The 38-year-old comic book artist from Paris is facing a sudden backlash to work from four years ago that has resurfaced, as well as more recent comments, that critics charge excuse, or even promote, incest and pedophilia.

A petition gained 100,000 signatures calling on the prestigious Angoulême International Comics Festival to revoke Vivès’s invitation to participate in next month’s gathering. The festival announced Wednesday that it was forced to cancel his appearance, citing "physical threats" online against Vivès that could put both the cartoonist and festival goers at risk, Le Figaro reports.

A need for transgression?

Having authored mainstream comic books, including several that have been made into films (his 2011 Polina was adapted for the screen by Angelin Preljocaj, starring French actress Juliette Binoche). Yet one work is now the target of critics: Petit Paul, published in 2018, portrays a small child with disproportionate private parts, prompting critics to demand its withdrawal from bookstores and even its outright banning under a provision in the French legal code that prohibits the pornographic representation of minors.

Ultimately no legal action was taken. Defending himself, Vivès said, “How can anyone take Petit Paul seriously?,” calling his critics “regressive” and “stupid.”

“Our era needs transgression,” he said, “but it’s become complicated to do it.”

Still Vivès’ may go well beyond transgression, as French daily Libération cites one of the many recent critics, “He continues to be treated in the media as a virulent but talented teenager. When in reality, he’s a (nearly) 40-year-old reactionary whose work actively contributes to the normalization of pedophilia and rape culture.”

Yet Vivès’ allies continue to stand by him. “Bastien’s work, in its originality and complexity, cannot be reduced or destroyed by puritanist minds,” fellow comic artist Catel posted on Instagram.

The festival's organizers were initially adamant that Vivès’s invitation would not be withdrawn, and cited public safety rather than the concerns of critics for the decision to ultimately cancel his appearance.

The controversy has been revealing about the changing nature of France’s historic view on art, free speech, and the edges of acceptable sexual conduct.

Photo of the cover of Bastien Viv\u00e8s' book Polina

Cover of Bastien Vivès' book Polina

Circling back to #metoo 

In the past, the country has seemingly shrugged off high-profile scandals involving artists—for example, welcoming Roman Polanski, a fugitive from charges of child rape filed in the U.S. But in the last several years, a more critical light has been shined on sexual misconduct in the French artistic and literary worlds. In 2020 Vanessa Springora (who signed the petition calling for Vivès to be removed from the festival), published Consent, a memoir describing sexual abuse she experienced while she was 14, from writer Gabriel Matzneff, 49 at the time, who had done little to hide his attraction to and pursuit of underage boys and girls.

The #metoo movement, which took off in France under the hashtag #balancetonporc, led to the downfall of Eric Brion, a media consultant and former executive at the public broadcaster France Télévisions.

Still, it’s worth noting that there was a significant counter-movement at the time in France, which questioned whether the movement was an example of puritanism. Actress Catherine Deneuve famously co-signed an open letter in the French daily Le Monde criticizing #metoo as serving “the interests of the enemies of sexual freedom, the religious extremists, the reactionaries and those who believe — in their righteousness and the Victorian moral outlook that goes with it — that women are a species "apart," children with adult faces who demand to be protected.”

I cannot do incest in real life, and I have no older sister to be able to do that to, so I do it in my books.

Five years later, the French art world is once again facing uncomfortable questions prompted by Vivès’s drawings. How far can artists go in treating controversial themes in their work? To what extent should art, or pornography, be a place of expression for sexual fantasies that can’t be lived out in real life?

In a since-deleted interview with French media Mademoizelle, Vivès declared that “incest turn[ed] him on.” “Given that I cannot do incest in real life, and that I have no older sister to be able to do that to, I do it in my books,” Vivès said.

Some of Vivès’s contemporaries, like Penelope Bagieu and Joanna Lorho, have denounced their profession’s "resistance" to change and indifference "to the image of women in comics." The illustrator Emma, known for her comic strip on the “mental load” that affects women, said on Monday that the world of art must "clearly, publicly and visibly denounce this person and his illegal productions."

If that happens, it’s unlikely to stop Vivès. As he told French daily Le Point in 2020, "I give myself the right to draw everything. The more people tell me I don't have the right to draw something, the more I want to draw it."

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