Miriam T. Možgan: The joke’s over for Paris

charlie hebdo
Caricature published in Charlie Hebdo on 7 January, 2015 (photo: MTM)

It was quite shocking to look at the caricature published in Charlie Hebdo on the day of the massacre. It read: “Still no assassinations in France. We still have until the end of January for any New Year’s wishes.

Wednesday: The Kouachi brothers, Cherif and Said, clearly had no sense of humour: on Wednesday, they massacred many prominent French cartoonists and tried to kill one of the symbols of France – satire.

Friday: While the consumers in other city supermarkets were fighting for goods on sale, those in a Jewish supermarket on the outskirts of Paris were fighting for their lives. What we witnessed at the beginning of the sales in Paris was a sale on lives. In this city of varied faces and colours, the recent events had visible consequences. The atmosphere was tense and people were clearly nervous. The Metro, which is usually a quiet place with passengers reading or listening to music, became a place of loud conversation and information exchange. The police and the army could be seen everywhere. People became so nervous and irrational that they called for the police at the slightest provocation, such as noticing people they deemed “strange”. As I was returning from work, four shadows with guns briskly went past me on Avenue Kleber. They were running towards the crossroads, searching for someone. But that someone did not exist – the reported shootings at the Trocadéro were only a false alarm.

(photo: MTM)

A French acquaintance of mine who lives across the street from the Libération offices told me how scared his 12-year-old daughter was and that all she talked about was someone entering their apartment and shooting them. These days Libération – that offered its offices as temporary headquarters for colleagues from Charlie Hebdo who are already preparing a new issue – and other French media are guarded as heavily as military headquarters in an unstable country. Another colleague told me how the kids in the school opposite the kosher supermarket were shut in all day and could watch the unfolding drama. Some of them had panic attacks, but for others, the stress will have caught up with them later. The French TV-stations have been showing videos of the supermarket events all day long, which surely will not help to ease the students’ stress.

Saturday: Life goes on. All I noticed on my run to the park was an increased police presence. I saw some policemen on bikes stop a car with two bearded young men, who were quickly allowed to continue on their way. The ladies who sell their services in the Bois de Boulogne were back with their mini-buses in the usual places, the markets are open, the sales are in full swing and Jews gathered for Saturday prayers in all the small synagogues. Only the famous Grand Synagogue of Paris was closed for prayer due to the Friday events. Its doors were closed for the first time since World War II.

The front page of Le Monde said The French 9/11. Some believed this to be an exaggeration, others agreed with the sentiment.

(photo: MTM)

Both attacks targeted symbols: 9/11 targeted the WTC and 7/1 tried to destroy satire, which was programmed into the French DNA with the French Revolution. In France, there is no joking about humour. The Kouachi brothers attacked one of the foundations of French society, in which satire has a special place, especially after Honoré Daumier.

In multicultural France, the controversial Charlie Hebdo’s provocative cartoons, which were considered tasteless and problematic by some, triggered many discussions about the limits of satire and humour. Satire and humour expand the notion of freedom, which is why they are considered a slippery slope in political debates. They promote freedom for those who miss the target, as well as for those who hit the nail on the head. When discussing the importance of laughter in our society, we should again consider Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose – the story of a supposedly lost book on laughter, which was considered such a dangerous weapon by a certain monk that he murdered anyone who opened it.

Charlie Hebdo is a newspaper whose cartoons declare that nothing is sacred. I was taught this basic principle of satire during my time as a journalist on Slovene national radio by Marko Zorko, author and co-author of many satirical shows, including the “Secret Diaries” of then prime minister Janez Drnovšek, who was also Zorko’s brother-in law, in which he caricatured Drnovšek’s character and thus made him seem … more human. Nothing is sacred to satire, neither politics, nor the economy, nor religious leaders. The Charlie Hebdo cartoonists proved that with the cartoon Intouchables 2 (Untouchables 2): No poking fun!

charlie hebdo
Charlie Hebdo, September 18, 2012

With the death of Cabu, Wolinski and Tignous, France lost a group of influential cartoonists that left its mark on an entire generation now between 50 and 70 years old. Some believed that sometimes their jokes were in bad taste and pure provocation, while others held them in deep respect. They were known by everybody.

The media published Wolinski’s funeral wish. He said to his wife:“Cremate me and drop me in the toilet. This way, I will be able to see your ass every day. We must joke about serious things, and among the myriad of cartoons which flooded the internet after the Wednesday massacre, I find this one the wittiest: Oh no… Not them…

charlie hebdo
Charlie Hebdo, 7 January 2015

Someone posted on Twitter: “The world will become a very dull place if humour becomes a risky profession.” My first thought was that in Slovene one cannot spell humour (humor) without murder (umor). Luckily, there is love in Slovenia, right?

One of the graffiti in Le Marais, Paris (photo: MTM)
One of the graffiti in Le Marais, Paris (photo: MTM)

The reaction of Parisians to the Wednesday and Friday attacks was similar to the reaction of Norwegians to Breivik. Dignified. For now, Paris is in mourning, but this will be followed by a period of an anger and looking for someone to blame. Today we all feel solidarity with the pen, but we should be careful not to transfer these feelings to Le Pen, who is building her politics on being anti-immigration, anti-EU, anti-everything non-French. And an important role during this period of anger management will be played by the media, who are usually quick to generalise, make judgements and give voice to those with the juiciest quotes. No matter how poisonous they are. With freedom of speech also comes responsibility.

On that same fateful Wednesday was published the latest book by the famous Michael Houellebecq, who was featured on one of the recent front pages of Charlie Hebdo. In the book, he portrays a France which, in 2022, elects a Muslim president. The book incited polemics long before it saw the light of day – Libération gave it seven whole pages in its weekend edition. Because of the Wednesday attacks, Houellebecq has already cancelled all further presentations of the book.

The shootings at the Charlie Hebdo offices will long be felt in French society. And I believe that customers at kosher supermarkets will feel nervous buying bread for quite some time, while Muslims will be fearful about going to the mosque. One concern is also that the events will push satirists into self-censorship. It is interesting that satire and humour have recently played such a crucial role in international relations. The low-budget film The Interview started a veritable battle of words between the USA and North Korea, who supposedly used hackers to attack the film’s producer, Sony Studios. And now Charlie Hebdo. It seems like the joke’s over.

Today, all of Paris will be Valter, Charlie and Ahmed. At a time in Paris of the highest terrorist threatlevel. Because humour is no joking matter.


Miriam T. Možgan
Miriam T. Možgan

Author: Miriam T. Možgan has always had a big mouth, but as she works in diplomacy, she often has to keep it shut. She embarked upon her career as a mouthy journalist at the Val 202 radio station where, together with Marko Zorko and Marko Radmilovič, she created the satirical show Stergo Ergo. Then she joined the state administration, where she advised defence and foreign ministers and the president on cohabitation with the media so that their relationship would not turn into a failed marriage. Recently, she has been helping to build the foundations for digital diplomacy and trying to promote friendship between nations, especially Slovenia and France, where she currently lives. Follow her on Twitter at @MtM68.


Translated by: Taja Gorjan.

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