At the editorial meeting that morning, cartoonist Jean Cabu grumbled that Houellebecq was a reactionary whose pronouncements tended too far right. Philippe Lançon, a contributing writer, defended the novel as worth reading, a book that captured at least something about a moment in time.
Cabu would be among those killed minutes later by men proclaiming allegiance to al-Qaeda. Lançon survived, but it was he who lost his teeth. In a memoir published this month, “Le Lambeau,” he writes that his face was disfigured in the attack as if “by the hand of a childish painter.” He first saw it reflected in the screen of his cellphone as he drifted in and out of consciousness.
A little more than three years later, the chants of “Je suis Charlie” have faded. But reverence for Charlie Hebdo — as the target of such a horrific attack and as an avatar for the freedom of expression valued so highly by the French republic — has endured. And that, Lançon said, has put the satirical magazine in an awkward position.
As the heir to a long tradition of French anticlerical irreverence — the likes of which Voltaire would have been proud — the magazine was always meant to scandalize and offend, Lançon said. But because of the attack, Charlie has been transformed into the kind of venerable cultural institution it never wanted to be.
That’s clear on its English-language homepage, which features a “cartoon satire for dummies” explainer addressed in part to “the millions of ‘new readers’ who discovered ‘Charlie’ and our humor after the January attacks. We never ever imagined that you might take an interest in our work, you who live thousands miles away from our office, far far away from French satirical traditions. . . .”
“We’re demanded to have good taste, because we became a symbol,” Lançon said, ensconced in a red velvet banquette in a Paris cafe. “But what can you expect of this symbol for the liberty of expression directed by a band of guys with bad taste, who laugh at anything and everything? The journal can’t be anything but that, or it won’t be the paper. You see the contradiction that we’ve found ourselves in?”
In “Le Lambeau,” Lançon writes in part to access what remains of the world that was taken from him on Jan. 7, 2015. (In French, “lambeau” typically means “shred” or “scrap,” but it can also have a medical connotation: a piece of flesh, sometimes preserved during an amputation to create a flexible scar.) Charlie was part of that world, and in a sense the magazine has found itself confronted with the same struggle, of trying to stay the same in a universe that has drastically changed.
“It’s very difficult to live with that,” he said, “and to remain the insolent, provocative place that it always was.”
Lambasting either Islam in general or Islamist extremism in particular, depending on whom you ask, has been a recurring feature of the magazine since before the attack, as evidenced by earlier depictions of the prophet Muhammad in the nude. But the killing of so many Charlie journalists has changed the tenor of subsequent interventions, as well as the magazine’s position to make them.
For example, in early April 2016, Charlie Hebdo framed the Brussels bombings and November 2015 Paris attacks as “merely the visible part of a very large iceberg” that included not only terrorists and their sympathizers, but also imaginary characters such as a “veiled woman” and a Muslim baker who refused to sell croque monsieurs with the traditional slice of pork. (Recently, the defense of pork as a pillar of national identity has become a right-wing and far-right rallying cry, notably among provincial National Front mayors.)
The magazine’s cover images have likewise equated ordinary Muslims and terrorists. In the wake of the August 2017 Barcelona attack, for instance, after a band of young extremists who claimed affiliation with the Islamic State plowed a truck down a pedestrian boulevard, Charlie’s cover depicted a cartoon version of the scene under a headline that read “Islam, religion of peace . . . eternal.”
The current edition portrays 19-year-old Maryam Pougetoux, a student union leader who appeared on television earlier this month wearing a veil, as a monkey in a hijab.
For Muslim readers and others angered by the magazine’s portrayals, however, the problem is that the national reverence for Charlie Hebdo undermines any counterarguments.
“I don’t even know how you recover from this kind of trauma,” said Marwan Muhammad, a Muslim community organizer and a self-professed fan of Lançon’s book, referring to the attack on the magazine’s offices. “And the whole work of Lançon is to say that maybe you can’t. But, at the same time, I need to judge their production on face value, and to me their production is trudging up anti-Muslim sentiment.”
“Since they were attacked, and the murders that happened at Charlie Hebdo, they have had a Republican shield,” Muhammad said. “Every time you want to criticize them, you’re told, ‘They’ve paid the price of blood. Let them do as they please.’ ”
In a sense, Muhammad said, such attitudes destroy the same ideal of free expression that Charlie Hebdo stands for.
Some of Lançon’s colleagues reject the suggestion that they take particular pleasure in targeting Muslims. “We don’t criticize the ‘Muslim community,’ ” Laurent “Riss” Sourisseau, another survivor of the attack and currently the newspaper’s publishing director, told The Washington Post in a recent interview. “We don’t distinguish Muslims, in fact. We criticize Islam and the dogma of Islam.”
But Lançon said he occasionally finds Charlie too keen on stigmatizing Muslims, albeit in the name of critiquing religious extremism.
“For me, it’s a bit too much,” he said. “From time to time, it would be better to focus elsewhere.”
The 2015 attack has often been framed as a dramatic plot point in an endless debate over the place of Islam in what is perhaps the most stringently secular society in the Western world. That debate remains far and away the most explosive in French public life, and President Emmanuel Macron recently cautioned against a “vengeful vision of secularism that is above all about imposing prohibitions, mostly toward a single religion.”
Charlie, of course, has refused to take heed. But Lançon departs from many of his colleagues in questioning some of the common assumptions in that debate.
“In France today, it’s an essential subject, the Muslims in France I mean. And I didn’t say ‘problem’ — I said ‘subject,’ ” he said. “The problem is not the Muslims. For me, the problem in France, since Algeria, is racism.” The Algerian war for independence, waged from 1954 to 1962, was a bloody conflict whose aftermath saw a wave of Arab immigration to metropolitan France — as well as a wave of bitter resentments.
“The problem is that people don’t like Arabs,” Lançon said.
Any resolution, he said, will require expanding opportunities for Muslims and greater cultural interaction.
“We have to have affirmative action,” he added, notably using the American term instead of its French counterpart, which is “discrimination positive.” “In the ideal world, you don’t need quotas, but when the situation is as fragmented and as blocked as our reality is, when you have next to no Arabs in universities, or very few, we have to have them.”
Such proposals are absent from Lançon’s book, as well as from the pages of Charlie Hebdo. But Lançon resists calls for the magazine to adjust its critiques, and this, in a sense, is the heart of the matter.
If Charlie were to change, he said, “the killers really would have succeeded in their mission.”