PARIS — They tease terrorists. The prophet Muhammad cries. A devout Muslim woman shows some leg, and more. They take on Pope Francis, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls. There are nuns, priests, rabbis and imams. They laugh at death itself.
The latest edition of Charlie Hebdo, the satirical newspaper attacked last week by Islamist extremists for lampooning the prophet Muhammad, became a symbol of freedom of expression as soon as it hit newsstands Wednesday — selling out millions of copies before dawn. Yet, in a country that mobilized Sunday by the millions in support of the paper’s right to mock, France also found itself facing a mounting debate over the limits of free speech within its borders.
French authorities on Wednesday detained and charged a notorious comedian, Dieudonné M’bala M’bala, with “glorifying terrorism” for an ambiguous Facebook post Sunday that, to some, appeared to show support for the gunman who killed four people in a kosher market Friday.
Since last week’s attacks, at least 54 people have faced similar charges — including several underage pranksters and drunken louts who were mouthing off. Authorities have used a beefed up anti-terrorism law passed last year to expedite their cases and issue harsher jail sentences — with one offender arrested Saturday already receiving a four-year sentence. The Justice Ministry has also issued fresh orders for prosecutors to crack down on “anti-Semitic and racist acts or speech.”
Laurent Léger, an investigative journalist for Charlie Hebdo who survived the attack, said there was no comparing the newspaper to Dieudonné — a French showman of Cameroonian descent who popularized a Nazi-like salute and who jokes about the Holocaust.
“Dieudonné does not know the Charlie spirit,” Léger said. “Charlie never glorified terrorism. Dieudonné is a bit too quick when he claims that his freedom of speech is being hampered. His attitude is just making things worse by continuing the confusion that is destroying this country.”
Yet others disagreed, saying France was in danger of trouncing the very right it is aiming to protect: freedom of expression.
“We can definitely talk about hypocrisy here,” said Adrienne Charmet, campaign coordinator for La Quadrature du Net, a Paris-based Internet rights group. “In the past days, we have seen a lot of people condemned for putting out words, no matter how condemnable those words, and receiving sentences that seem quite exaggerated.”
“French opinion is split in two,” she added. “Some see it as the worst possible response to last week’s attack, because many of those who have said these things were drunk, or teenagers, who did not know the weight of their words. But there is another segment of the population that does agree, because they feel these people are making themselves accomplices to terror. Either way, this crackdown on freedom of speech is a betrayal of last Sunday’s march.”
Charlie Hebdo was undoubtedly the hottest property in town Wednesday, with lines snaking for blocks as Parisians clamored for copies that sold out within minutes. An initial print run of 3 million copies was expanded to 5 million when kiosks across the country ran out.
Surviving staff members, who worked day and night after the Jan. 7 attack to ensure the issue came out on time, produced the paper. With their offices still roped off as a crime scene, the staff worked out of a conference room at the left-wing daily Libération. The offices there are being guarded around the clock by an extraordinary number of police officers and private security guards.
There was plenty inside the paper to stir controversy. The 16-page edition brims with the sort of irreverent, off-color humor that made Charlie famous — and infamous. No one is spared ridicule.
In one cartoon, two hooded terrorists are pictured in heaven, with one asking the other, “Where are the virgins?”
“They’re with the Charlie staff, loser,” his accomplice replies.
Another pictures a harried and exhausted cartoonist hunched over his desk, with a caption that reads, “Cartooning at Charlie Hebdo, it’s 25 years of work.” The next panel shows hooded gunmen mowing people down with a Kalashnikov, accompanied by the words, “For a terrorist, it’s 25 seconds of work.”
The conclusion: “Terrorism: A job for lazy people.”
As ever with Charlie Hebdo, the goal is to provoke, to stir debate and to make people laugh — while also reminding anyone who might think otherwise that reading Charlie can be distinctly discomfiting.
The paper’s lead editorial offers a vigorous defense of secular values, saying that staffers laughed when they heard that the bells of the Cathedral of Notre Dame would ring in their honor.
“The millions of anonymous people, all the institutions, all the world leaders, all the politicians, all the intellectuals and media figures, all the religious dignitaries who proclaimed this week that ‘I am Charlie’ need to also know that that means, ‘I am secularism,’ ” the editorial says.
Delphine Ravion-Casalta, 39, spent an hour and a half visiting three newsstands Wednesday morning before she found her Charlie. She sipped coffee at a cafe, her copy proudly spread out before her, eagerly taking in every word.
“In France, we’re still fighting for our freedom,” she said. “We had revolution for our freedom. A lot of revolutions. And great men like Voltaire and Rousseau. The fight for those ideas continues.”
The rush for copies of Charlie Hebdo came as French authorities detained and charged Dieudonné, 48. After the unity march that brought 1.5 million people onto the streets of Paris on Sunday, the comedian wrote: “After this historic, no legendary, march, a magic moment equal to the Big Bang which created the Universe, or in a smaller way comparable to the crowning of the [ancient king] Vercingétorix, I am going home. Let me say that this evening, as far as I am concerned, I feel I am Charlie Coulibaly.”
Charlie Coulibaly is a reference to both Charlie Hebdo and Amedy Coulibaly, the gunman who killed four people in a Paris kosher market on Friday. The comedian, in a second Facebook post Monday, sought to clarify his remark, saying his purpose was “to make people laugh, and to laugh at death, since death makes fun of us all, as Charlie very well knows.” He concluded by saying, “They consider me to be Amedy Coulibaly when I am no different from a Charlie.”
Valls, speaking in the National Assembly, sought to draw a distinction between the creative caricatures of Charlie Hebdo and the comedian’s hate-based humor, while insisting that France was not compromising freedom of speech.
“There is a fundamental difference between the freedom to be impertinent, and anti-Semitism, racism, glorification of terrorist acts and Holocaust denial, all of which are offenses, all of which are crimes, that justice should punish with the most severity,” he said.
Virgile Demoustier contributed to this report.