As the world remembers, in the aftermath of the attack, “Je Suis Charlie” (“I am Charlie”) became a global rallying cry. World leaders linked arms and led millions of demonstrators through the streets of Paris. The newspaper was celebrated as an indefatigable defender of French secularism and free expression, no matter the cost.
Five years later, with a trial underway, there has been much discussion in France about whether that support still holds. As some have posed the question: Is France still Charlie?
While opinion surveys suggest a majority in France still back the project of Charlie Hebdo, among younger generations there is less tolerance for claims of secularism or free expression as a cover for Islamophobia. And, in the meantime, Charlie Hebdo as an institution has undergone something of a transformation in the years after the attack.
Charlie may no longer be quite what it was, the irreverent stalwart of the newsstands. What the trial has revealed is how the attack converted a world-famous satire machine that once eschewed all ideologies into a national symbol seemingly committed to advancing a dogma of its own.
Boucq was not yet employed by Charlie Hebdo on the morning of Jan. 7, 2015, when two gunmen — brothers Chérif and Saïd Kouachi — burst into the newspaper’s Paris offices with Kalashnikovs and killed 12 people: nine journalists, a building maintenance worker, a security guard and a police officer outside. Another French-born extremist, Amédy Coulibaly, killed a police officer and then four hostages at a kosher supermarket in related attacks the next day.
Police killed all three perpetrators at the time; the trial is focused on 14 alleged accomplices, accused of obtaining weapons and providing other support. Still, the proceedings have captivated the nation and are seen as historically significant. Although not being broadcast live, the trial is the first of its kind to be filmed for archival purposes.
“I feel it very important that a filmed trial reconstitutes for History and for the next generations, how and why some journalists had been assassinated, just for their love of absolute freedom of speech,” Veronique Cabut, the wife of the slain Charlie Hebdo cartoonist Jean Cabut, wrote in an emailed statement.
Charlie Hebdo was attacked that day — and firebombed in 2010 — because it had published cartoons lampooning the prophet Muhammad, strictly prohibited by the Muslim faith. When the Kouachi brothers fled the scene, they were recorded declaring their allegiance to al-Qaeda and claiming they had "avenged the prophet."
To mark the opening of the trial — and assert once again its commitment to free speech — Charlie Hebdo republished those cartoons this month.
According to a survey commissioned by the newspaper, though conducted by respected polling agency Ifop, 59 percent of respondents in France said newspapers were “right” to publish cartoons of the prophet Muhammad “in the name of freedom of expression” — up from 38 percent in 2006.
But that conviction fell to 35 percent among those polled under age 25. And 47 percent of that age group said they understood the outrage over the cartoons among certain Muslims.
Although it bills itself as an equal opportunity offender, carrying on France’s anticlerical tradition, Charlie Hebdo has increasingly seemed to take particular pleasure in targeting not only Islam as a religion but ordinary citizens who are Muslim.
In 2018, a Charlie Hebdo cover skewered Maryam Pougetoux, then a 19-year-old Muslim college student who had appeared on French television at a student protest wearing a headscarf. Although the protest had nothing to do with Islam, and Pougetoux was not a prominent public figure, she appeared on the cover of the newspaper, her face distorted to resemble a monkey.
The incident might have triggered an investigation under France’s strict hate-speech laws, as a similar situation did last month when the right-wing magazine Valeurs Actuelles portrayed Danièle Obono, a Black parliamentary deputy, as an enslaved person. But critics say the government has given Charlie Hebdo’s editors carte blanche because of the attack.
While it champions free expression, Charlie has begun to present those with whom it disagrees — especially about Islam — as threats to the French Republic. A recent center-spread in the paper decried left-wing “cancel culture,” but those who dare to criticize its cartoons or its editorials often find themselves accused of somehow sympathizing with the assassins who stormed its offices.
A notable moment in the trial came when Richard Malka, the newspaper’s lawyer, attacked what he called “these intellectual accomplices who have blood on their hands,” by which he meant the French journalists and writers who have questioned the neutrality of French secularism and defended the Muslim community against prejudice and exclusion.
One of those figures is Edwy Plenel, editor of French investigative news outlet Mediapart, known for his 2014 book “Pour les Musulmans” (“For the Muslims”).
Plenel, along with far-left politician Jean-Luc Mélenchon and Muslim academic Tariq Ramadan, is currently featured on the cover of Charlie Hebdo, in the throes of a test for covid-19. “More ‘Charlie’ or More Kouachi?” the headline reads. “We await the results!” (Plenel declined to comment.)
“Yes, there is an intellectual complicity in Islamist totalitarianism,” wrote Laurent Sourisseau, known informally as “Riss,” Charlie’s editor and a survivor of the 2015 attack, in the current edition. “Yes, there are ideologues, thinkers and journalists who carry historic responsibility for the propagation of communitarianism and fundamentalism.”
Their hope, Sourisseau wrote, is that “no one will any longer be able to dispute their puerile and criminal vanity.”
This is hardly the Charlie Hebdo of the past, said Daniel Schniedermann, a French journalist and media analyst. “They avenge a liberty of expression, but they deny their adversaries or their critics the right to express themselves.”
The commencement of the trial has prompted a number of French Muslim leaders to emphasize their support for Charlie Hebdo and their condemnation of the attackers.
“I’m attached to the liberty of expression, even if it expresses itself by these caricatures,” said Hafiz Chems-eddine, the rector of Paris’s Grande Mosque, who 15 years ago initiated a lawsuit against Charlie Hebdo.
“Even if the caricatures offended my faith, as citizens they are important. They are part of our culture,” he said in an interview.
French Muslim rapper Abd al Malik also voiced his support for Charlie Hebdo. “Even if personally I am not a fan of this kind of press, I will always choose Charlie Hebdo (the defenders of freedom of conscience, expression and blasphemy) in the face of terrorists (corrupters of the truth and beauty of Islam),” he wrote on Twitter.
Boucq dismissed the notion that Charlie Hebdo expects fidelity and does not allow for dissent.
“You can criticize Charlie,” he said. “You can say that Charlie is just schoolboys making bad jokes. But they have the right to do it.”
Boucq added that in the aftermath of the attack, “Charlie has become a kind of lighthouse for the freedom of expression. If Charlie disappears, other publications should be afraid, because next it will be their turn.”
In the courtroom, though, he has other concerns.
He draws quickly during the trial, and he finalizes his sketches when he returns home — often by adding more black. “There’s so much black from the lawyer’s robes,” he said.
There is also the challenge of capturing the emotion of his subjects when all of them are masked, because of covid-19 public health guidelines. “There is all the rest of the body that expresses itself,” he said. “How they put their hands in their pockets, how they arrange their masks, all of that tells you about a person.”
But Boucq’s assignment is not just to convey likeness and to record what he sees. When Sourisseau, his boss, put him on the story, his marching orders were simple. “You have to make me a masterpiece,” Boucq said he was told.