Echoes & Tweets in Paris

What do the murders at a French satire sheet tell us about modern France & new media?

Undeterred by jihadist bullets Charlie Hebdo was back in the kiosks and newsagents of France today, with another front page cartoon as sure to energise, amuse and alienate as ever. The front page depicting a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad carrying the sign “All is forgiven” in an image likely to be shared by many who have taken to the streets and the internet to voice their solidarity, with this irreverent publication and its slain satirists. This time Charlie Hebdo was bigger than ever, with 3 million copies due for print the majority of them likely to be sold.

The symbolism here is not only republican solidarity with a free press, but also a valued tradition of mocking satire.  A little more than two centuries years ago the French rallied and marched in the very same streets, hyped-up on the revolutionary republican propaganda, which often in the form of insulting caricatures. In 1789 the cartoons were designed to mock the French royal family and those they propped-up, the explosion in the use of the printing press fed the Parisian masses in their clamouring for an end to old order by satirising the royal house of Bourbon in often crude and highly seditious ways. Anyone of these caught by the Royal censor ended-up the La Bastille – and we all know how that ended-up. This tradition continued through the years and in 1970 the satirical treatment of the death of France’s wartime leader Charles de Gaulle was enough to see the satirical magazine Hara-Kiri banned, however it was to re-emerge shortly afterwards under a new name: Charlie Hebdo.  

In twenty-first century France the censor comes not from above but from above but from below, not from Royal palaces but from the Banlieues, the densely populated, peripheral areas where many of France’s Muslim population live, often cut-off from the glory and prosperity of Paris and France’s other major cities. It’s these areas which become synonymous with poverty leading to riots and later police brutality in 1981 and worse in 2005, where Nicholas Sarkozy came to look-upon what he called the “racaille” (scum). France’s Muslims have been on the wrong side of censorship themselves, with official organs of state continuing to deny many of the atrocities of the brutal seven-year conflict in Algeria, (the country of origin of many of France’s 4 million Muslims) and even the massacre of separatist Algerians in Paris in 1961 remained covered-up by the French state until recent decades.

While Charlie Hebdo is likely to publish a symbolically powerful million copies of this week’s edition (complete with offending image) it will not guarantee it’s or the satirical magazine’s place in France’s future. While the printing press fed the revolution in late eighteenth century, the weapon of choice for Jacobins like Momoro, this week’s protests to support that press were boosted by its would-be usurpers: Twitter and social media.  What has been beamed around the world is not anything at all from the magazine itself, but something completely new: #JeSuisCharlie.  To support Charlie Hedbo today you don’t have to read it; you just have to tweet it, and for a magazine struggling to survive financially this is the harsh reality . The circulation of France’s print media has taken the same battering as much of the rest of Europe’s media due to the explosion in the more accessible forms of online-content. Neither France’s populace nor its intelligentsia love their radical rags as much as one may think, Charlie Hebdo’s weekly circulation is normally around 45,000 while the Catholic Church aligned Le Croix continues to far out-sell not only Charlie, but leftist favourites like Liberation, L’Humanite and LeMonde.

Few forms of media could be more democratic than Twitter, and so useful for spreading dangerous ideas, by-passing the censors, and few know this better than radical Jihadi militants. Far-away from the 11th arrondissment where last Wedneday’s attacks took place, the group known as ISIS, one probably admired by the attckers, has used social media to devastating effect to gloat about its successes and grim methods of punishment to thousands who never go near a news stand. While an attack on printed media with weapons designed in the 1940s may have suggested that last week’s attack was not new in type, its aftermath may be different.