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Terror in Europe

Charlie Hebdo Attacks Haven't Quieted French Comedians

Since the Jan. 7, 2015 killings, many humorists have been struggling to tackle the question of Islamic terrorism, security and freedom of speech. Most are undeterred.

French comedian Fabrice Eboue on stage in Paris
French comedian Fabrice Eboue on stage in Paris
Sandrine Blanchard

PARIS — "If you can die for a drawing, then you can die for a stand-up sketch."

Such is the reasoning of French humorist Stéphane Guillon, who readily admits that there's a "before and after" to last year's Charlie Hebdo attacks in terms of the way he constructs his jokes. "When I wrote a sketch this summer on the Prophet Muhammad for my new show, I wondered for the first time how far I could go," he says.

Guillon chose to "avoid falling into the trap of frontal attacks," and to talk about all religions. "ISIS has nothing to do with religion. My targets are those lunatics."

Since the Jan. 7, 2015 attacks, many comedians have been asking themselves how they should approach these tragic events while remaining faithful to these words by Cabu, the best-known of the murdered Charlie Hebdo cartoonists: "There's no limit to humor, which serves freedom of expression, because when humor stops, the gap gets filled by censorship and self-censorship."

So how do we keep on mocking, caricaturing? How do we still laugh after such a tragedy? "Even among humorists, everyone wasn't Charlie," says Frédérick Sigrist, a popular young comedian. "There are those who will fight for the somewhat Gallic secularism, anticlericalism, and those who will keep on joking about smartphones, public transport or how short Nicolas Sarkozy is." For this humorist with a Guadeloupean background, who "revisits the news" every week at the Parisian Point-Virgule theater and performs on the radio network France Inter, last January's events reminded humorists that it's pointless to try to keep the whole audience happy.

"Charlie"s first quality is to ask more questions," Sigrist says. "We need to be provocative, because in France we're dying from what we're not saying. I grew up in a housing project in Nancy in eastern France, my mother still lives there. I saw the neighborhood change, the convenience stores disappear, more and more women wearing veils. If we talk about this, we're accused of playing into the hands of the far-rightNational Front party, but that's forgetting that the largest party in France is abstention, which is caused by disgust with politics." No longer will he "take precautions' with the taboo of religion, but neither with the Western faith in capitalism.

Some French humorists, such as Jérémy Ferrari or Yassine Belattar, didn't wait for the attacks to talk about radical Islam, with sometimes chilling premonitions. In November 2014, Elie Semoun played a brainless young man contacting Jihad.com after killing "three people on Call of Duty" and claiming to be ready to set off for Syria, "only if there are no mosquitoes."

In late 2014, Régis Mailhot talked on the television network Paris Première about "working as a junior jihadist for ISIS," which involved "recruitment via Skype, a job, a passion, you'll have a blast." The French comedian, who works for the radio network RTL and at the Nouvelle Seine theater, hasn't changed his act.

"Religious evasion, whatever it is, is a topic I've been taking on for a long time," he says. I don't do more of it today, but I keep on doing it, because we need to talk about it urgently." He doesn't give into fear or doesn't consider himself courageous. "Thinking you're a target would be giving yourself far too much importance."

Stéphane Guillon admits that "the more the prohibitions, the more interesting and exhilarating it is to provoke, flirt with the mark."

Audiences, notes comedien, writer and director Fabrice Eboué, have never been larger. "There's a fundamental desire to laugh, a need to evacuate the fears and the anxiety," he says. "The audience wants audacious artists."

The comedienne known as Océanerosemarie vigorously defends "living in harmony," and rewrote entire sections of her show after last January's attacks. "These events "radicalized" me and pushed me to reassert my positions further" to fight racism and stigmatization. There is "a tension that didn't exist before, a need to laugh, but also to think, to see things in a different way."

Has the role played by the "clowns" of society become more important than it used to be? After having met with success these past few years with his show Hallelujah bordel! (Hallelujah goddammit!), which denounced the excesses of monotheistic religions, Jérémy Ferrari started touring this week with his new one-man show called Vends 2 pièces à Beyrouth (Two-room apartment for sale in Beirut). The main theme? War.

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