What Now For Charlie Hebdo?
PARIS — The odd collection of people visiting the building today includes cartoonists and anti-bomb experts. Also in attendance is the new director of Charlie Hebdo, Riss, whose right arm has been in a sling since one of the bullets fired by the Kouachi brothers shattered his shoulder blade before coming out behind his shoulder.
"Two months ago, we would all have laughed at the idea of talking about bulletproof alloys and security cameras like in a James Bond film," says Riss bitterly. Nobody feels like laughing today.
Since that fateful morning of Jan. 7, the Charlie Hebdo team has been missing its eight beloved colleagues. For obvious reasons, they're also concerned about safety. There's a fatwa against Riss and the whole group admits they'll now have to "live barricaded."
No one is entirely convinced the satirical newspaper can survive life in a bunker. They have other concerns as well: The worldwide wave of solidarity and the 200,000 new subscribers have placed a crushing responsibility on their shoulders.
"We used to make a fanzine, a little Mickey Mouse magazine," cartoonist Luz said in the aftermath of the attack. "How can we keep drawing for this now larger-than-life Charlie that overwhelms us?" Luz went on sketching the Prophet who claimed "All is forgiven" on the front page of the publication's "Survivors' Issue."
But most importantly, how can it survive the constant threat, the inevitable disagreements, the doubts that have started, quietly, to arise? Riss and his bear-like manners have, for now, dissipated those fears by putting his employees to work on the next issue, out today, Feb. 25. Still, there are plenty of difficulities ahead.
"It's not our obsession, it's theirs"
When he welcomed the Charlie Hebdo team at the Elysée Palace on Jan. 25, President François Hollande told them to "recruit a new generation." Easier said than done. The press crisis has dried up the pool of political cartoonists.
Twenty years ago, caricaturists would come to media offices with a little pile of sketches and wait until the issue was out to see whether their creations had been published. That's how Charb, Riss and Luz started. Today, most talented cartoonists choose the more profitable and less restrictive world of comics and graphic novels. The few people Charlie Hebdo recently tried to recruit declined the offer. "They ask us if they'd have to attend editorial meetings, if they’d have to sign with their real names," Riss says.
At the back of a cafe where we agreed to meet, two policemen from the anti-terrorist unit are sitting at a table, discreetly keeping a close eye on all entrances. Riss, a former railroader with grey eyes, says he understands why cartoonists are reluctant to come work for the paper. "For days, I was in hospital thinking that killers would come to finish me off," Riss openly admits. "And I still wake up at night with the same nightmare."
But he is dissapointed by the lack of solidarity he's seen from fellow publications such as Jyllands-Posten, the Danish newspaper that had published 12 caricatures of the Prophet on Sept. 30, 2005. Charlie Hebdo stood by Jyllands-Posten"s side at the time by immediately reproducing the images. A decade later, when Charlie published its Survivors' Issue, the Danish paper didn't return the favor.
The Feb. 14 shootings in Copenhagen, in which one of the targets was Swedish cartoonist Lars Vilks — one of the authors of the controversial caricatures 10 years ago — are obviously adding fuel to the fire. The team at Charlie Hebdo hoped they wouldn't have to write about Islamist terrorism in the next issue: "We were telling ourselves, cool, we can talk about Sarkozy," says editor in chief Gérard Biard. "But no. Once again, we'll have to talk about that. And people will again say that it's an obsession. It's not our obsession, it's theirs!"
Up until now, the team had been getting by, living from hand-to-mouth in a mixture of militancy and insouciance. The sale of more than 7 million copies of the Survivors' Issue, bringing in at least 10 million euros ($11.3 million), changed everything. Via the website jaidecharlie.fr ("I help Charlie"), 24,500 people pledged 1.75 million euros ($2 million) and Google made a donation of 250,000 euros. What will they do with this honey pot?
Riss announced that the donations would be paid to the victims' families and part of it be used for a foundation that will help cartoonists threatened in their countries. But talks about the newspaper's capital have started to reveal disagreements. "These millions are a nightmare, it could be the end of us," says Patrick Pelloux, one of the newspapers columnists. Pelloux is worried about disagreements over the newspaper's future structure, with some in favor of Charlie becoming a sort of shareholders' cooperative.
François Hollande and Patrick Pelloux on Jan.11 — Photo: caro_24waddup via Instagram
"The terrorists killed with no distinction of hierarchy. Working for Charlie Hebdo is now a matter of life and death," says Laurent Léger, one of the weekly newspaper’s investigators.
Everyday, they call in on the three team members who were seriously injured in the attack and who are still in hospital. The wounded include Simon Fieschi, the young webmaster whose lung was punctured by a bullet that luckily didn't hit his spinal cord; journalist Philippe Lançon, who has already undergone half-a-dozen operations to reconstruct his jaw; and reporter Fabrice Nicolino, who had already survived a terrorist attack during a Jewish film festival in Paris in 1985 and still has shards in his legs.
The survivors' trauma was like a sudden, brutal reality check. "I saw Charb, my brother, his skull cracked open," says Pelloux who, as he is a specialist of emergency medical services, intervened with the emergency services on Jan. 7. "I need some truth now."
The tragedy that brought them together also brought back past conflicts. Nobody wants to relive the 2008 crisis when the cartoonists tore each other apart because of money. That crisis was sparked by an article in Le Monde revealing that two years earlier, the newspaper made nearly 1 million euros in profit, partly due to one issue that sold 500,000 copies with an afflicted Muhammad on its front page saying "It's hard being loved by jerks." By then, 85% of that revenues had been redistributed, with a notable 300,000 paid to the then editor, Philippe Val, and another 300,000 to the late Cabu, the author of said caricature. At the time, most journalists at Charlie Hebdo were having trouble making ends meet. In 2009, Val abandoned ship after he was named, thanks to Nicolas Sarkozy's mediation, as head of the public radio channel France Inter.
Finding the will to laugh
The brave ones who remain today, and who are forced to work under police protection, don't want Charlie"s newfound wealth to threaten the team's cohesion. "Of course, with media might and that much money and subscribers, it's bound to attract greed," Pelloux says.
The new edition — Photo: wavesndcurls via Instagram
These past years, the ranks of Charlie Hebdo’s friends dispersed. Young people were not reading it. Others didn't find it funny. Charb tried to bring in some young blood. Cabu, Wolinski, Honoré and the economist Bernard Maris, who were all among those killed on Jan. 7, were from the anarchist, anti-cop and anti-Catholic generation.
They were joined by cartoonist Catherine Meurisse, investigative journalist Laurent Léger and Zineb El Rhazoui, a young Franco-Moroccan woman who graduated in sociology of religion and campaigned against King Mohammed VI and fundamentalists. The rise of Islamism in several parts of the world obviously had to be at the heart of their concerns. Charlie was uncompromising when it came to secularity.
Their fight, however, was not always well understood. "Maybe we're more pessimistic or more realistic than the rest," Riss sighs. Some of his old companions, often from the radical left, ended up accusing them of islamophobia. In 2011, after an attack that had already destroyed the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a manifesto signed by the radical left proclaimed their refusal to support the newspaper.
A year later, after a new issue provoked incidents in front of French embassies in several Muslim countries, Delfeil de Ton, a former columnist, asked Charb, "Under the headline "Muhammad, a star is born," you show a naked Muhammad seen from the back, praying, his balls hanging, in black in white but with a yellow star on his anus. Look at it any way possible. Is it funny, spiritual?”
What, then? Should they retreat, give up? "Those who say we can't make caricatures have chosen their side," says Patrick Pelloux. "We are faced with an uncompromising ideology and we must not yield. We're at war and we must reconquer secularity!"
They're all prepared for it. A couple of days ago, Riss watched a documentary about beluga whales grappling with ice floes. The whales were taking turns to agitate the water on the surface and prevent the ice from settling and enclosing them. He felt as if he was looking at a metaphor of their own fate.
"We're here trying to protect freedom of speech for others. But the hardest part will be to find in ourselves a new flippancy, this will to laugh that was in our DNA." By killing the members of Charlie, the terrorists also killed its nonchalance.