Democracy Dies in Darkness

Europe

Is America ready for Charlie Hebdo? French weekly launches a U.S. project.

By James McAuley

October 4, 2017 at 3:00 AM

French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo released a lengthy report Wednesday in English on the so-called American resistance, with a particular eye to what remains of the U.S. left. ABOVE: A woman looks at a commemorative edition of Charlie Hebdo at a newsstand in Paris marking the anniversary of the attack that claimed the lives of 12 people, including three of its best-known cartoonists. (JACQUES DEMARTHON/AFP/Getty Images)

PARIS — For Laurent "Riss" Sourisseau, a cartoonist for Charlie Hebdo, the morning of Jan. 7, 2015, was just another Wednesday at the office until, all of a sudden, it wasn't.

In a brutal attack that shocked France and the world, two brothers, Islamist terrorists, burst into the offices of perhaps the world's most famous satirical newspaper and opened fire on the journalists working inside, killing 12. Sourisseau, now majority shareholder and publishing director, was shot in the shoulder. In the years since, he has rarely been without bodyguards, even to walk in the street.

By all accounts, "Charlie" — as the newspaper is known here — is still resoundingly Charlie: ­either a sacred bastion of free speech or a vehicle of gratuitous and even cruel offense, depending on whom you ask.

As part of its journey away from the horrors of that Jan. 7, Charlie Hebdo has taken on a new subject: the United States — specifically, the United States of President Trump.

On Wednesday, the newspaper released a lengthy report in English on the so-called American resistance, with a particular eye to what remains of the U.S. left. The project, titled "Feeling the Burn: The Left Under Trump," will appear online in weekly installments in the form of a graphic nonfiction novel, which will permit the newspaper to continue with its visual trademark: caricatures and cartoons.

Laurent ‘Riss’ Sourisseau, a cartoonist wounded in the 2015 terrorist attack that killed 12, is   now publishing director. (MARTIN BUREAU/AFP/Getty Images)

If the attack made Charlie something of a martyr, it has not changed the newspaper's daring, caustic tone. Its storied past of insulting the death of Charles de Gaulle and publishing images of the prophet Muhammad continues today: Recent covers, for instance, have presented the Barcelona attack with the words "Islam, religion of peace" and the victims of Hurricane Harvey as underwater Nazis. In France, this is business as usual. Plus ça change.

The illustrations for the U.S. project may look like the typical Charlie Hebdo cartoons, but Sourisseau is quick to point out that this is something different. The point, he says, is not to mock but to explore — and maybe, if possible, to explain.

"This is not about laughing or making jokes," Sourisseau said in an interview. He was sitting in the Paris offices of his publicist, as he is loath to let journalists publicize images of Charlie Hebdo's new offices or its whereabouts. His security detail waited outside the conference room, having secured the premises before the interview could begin.

"This is about intellectual curiosity, about trying to figure out what happened, about giving comprehensive elements to the reader," he said.

The logic behind the project rests on the notion that societies are sometimes best understood by outsiders, not insiders. Since the age of Alexis de Tocqueville, the United States has been an object of fascination, envy and scorn for a host of French writers and commentators. Charlie Hebdo, then, is merely the most recent interlocutor to explore France's "sister republic," now in the midst of a political moment few in France ever thought they would see.

The difference with this interpretation, however, is Sourisseau teamed up with an American — Jacob Hamburger, 25, who lives in Paris and writes regularly for Charlie on U.S. politics. In July, the two of them flew from France to New York and embarked on a road trip throughout the "Acela Corridor," arguably the most important artery of blue America. Their path took them not just to the provinces of liberal elites such as New York and Washington but also to places like Lancaster, Pa.

"We saw the best and the worst," Sourisseau said. "When you do a reportage like this, it's a bit pretentious to think you can understand a country so large with just one trip like ours. It's too large. We tried to meet the maximum number of people, to drum up more music, to be closer to the truth."

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French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo published an illustration implying those killed by Hurricane Harvey in Texas were neo-Nazis. (Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post)

Hamburger said he began to see his native country through the eyes of a foreigner.

"I did think while we were there how much of a presence religion has in America — it's everywhere," he said. "There are advantages and disadvantages to the French and American approaches to religion. There's obviously an issue with religious pluralism in France, but then again you don't have the problem of religious fundamentalism that you have in the U.S."

Among Sourisseau's principal conclusions: "Americans are far more politicized than we French are," he said. "No matter who we met, they had so many things to say. Even the homeless, they
had clearly defined and well-articulated ideologies — living in the street in misery but extremely attached to a particular notion of liberty, for example."

"We didn't find one apolitical person. No one was indifferent," he said.

People in liberal America, Sourisseau said, also turned out to have convictions about Charlie Hebdo, which has a complicated image on the other side of the ocean. If millions of French citizens marched through the streets of Paris after the January 2015 attack to express solidarity with the newspaper and its right to equal-opportunity offense, many Americans were reluctant to likewise proclaim themselves "Je suis Charlie" — most because they felt the newspaper takes a particular pleasure in stigmatizing France's most vulnerable minorities, especially Muslims.

In spring 2015, for instance, 35 prominent writers — including Francine Prose and Joyce Carol Oates — protested the PEN American Center's decision to award the newspaper its annual Freedom of Expression Courage Award. In a strongly worded letter, they phrased their objection this way: "In an unequal society, equal opportunity offense does not have an equal effect."

For Sourisseau, these critiques entirely miss the point of his newspaper, which he said embodies the universalism of the French social model. "We don't criticize the 'Muslim community,' " he said, wary of the notion that such a community can even be said to exist. "We don't distinguish Muslims, in fact. We criticize Islam and the dogma of Islam."

Americans, he said, most of whom were raised in a society that accepts multiculturalism as a necessary end goal, struggle to understand the French perspective. "In the U.S., there isn't a problem with Islam or Islamism. There isn't the phenomenon you see here in Europe, when you go to neighborhoods like Molenbeek in Brussels." Molenbeek, a district of the Belgian capital, was a principal hub of activity for the Islamic State operatives who attacked Paris in November 2015 and Brussels in March 2016.

In France, he said, "there is a tension, a return of identity politics with regards to religion that is fragmenting society."

For their part, French Muslim leaders say they see little difference in the Charlie Hebdo of 2017 and the rhetoric of France's far right, especially the sharply anti-immigrant stances taken by the National Front.

That party, under the leadership of Marine Le Pen, soared to unprecedented levels of popularity this year during its ultimately unsuccessful bid for the French presidency.

"For me, the important point about Charlie Hebdo's evolution is that it became reactionary," Marwan Muhammad, director of the Collective Against Islamophobia in France (CCIF), said in an interview. "The production of Charlie Hebdo hides behind freedom of expression, but in reality they use the same tropes as the National Front."

From Sourisseau's vantage point, however, a new reality is undeniable, and the bodyguards are still waiting outside the door.

"It poses a true problem," he said.

Related: Charlie Hebdo’s latest cartoon depicts Italian earthquake victims as pasta dishes

Related: France’s Charlie Hebdo blames ordinary Muslims for terrorism

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James McAuley is Paris correspondent for the Washington Post. He holds a Ph.D. in French history from the University of Oxford, where he was a Marshall Scholar.

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