The police protection provided for journalists proves that a physical threat is taken seriously. In this story, offended Muslims are thought to pose a potential danger to French satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo.
It prizes freedom of expression to an extent many consider extreme. In its turn, Charlie attacks what it considers extreme, and always has.
No subject is untouchable, certainly not religion, not even the Prophet Mohammed. Those at the paper don’t see it as inciting hatred, but as pushing thinking beyond conformism.
The publishing director Charb (Stephane Charbonnier) said: “What? We can’t lampoon Mohammed in France? Yes we can. We can caricature everyone in France. I don’t hold it against a Muslim for not laughing at our drawings, but he’s not going to tell us what law we have to follow. I live under French law. I don’t live under the law of the Koran.”
The team at Charlie Hebdo has a history of not backing down, with a mantra that says no one’s going to do their thinking for them.
Charb said: “It’s plain to see that the sole subject that poses a problem is radical Islam. When we attack the Catholic extreme right, very strongly, no one talks about it in the papers. But we’re not allowed to laugh about Muslim fundamentalists. Well, there’s a new rule that will have to be written up, but we won’t respect it.”
Charlie won’t be bullied. Last year someone burned the offices with a Molotov cocktail and its website was hacked as it was preparing an issue commenting on the Islamist electoral victory in Tunisia, an issue headed ‘Sharia Hebdo’.
Even veterans of left politics in Europe have said the satirists are masochists, pushing as hard as they do.
The paper started out called ‘Hara-Kiri’.
It was shut down by the Interior Minister in 1970, a few days after a fire in a disco had claimed more than 140 lives.
Then the father of the Fourth Republic, General de Gaulle passed away in his home, and it ran the headline:
‘Tragic dance in Colombey – one dead.’
It came back from the ban, borrowing the leader’s first name in its new masthead – or was that just a coincidence?
As British parallels to this approach to the sacred we can perhaps cite Monty Python or Private Eye. Only lack of readers put Charlie Hebdo out of business for a decade.
Resurrected in 1992, it put the boot into all faiths, the Jews as well, and the editors faced lawsuit after lawsuit. They weren’t gentle with politicians either. An early reader slammed them as ‘dumb and nasty’ (‘bête et méchant’).
They made the label their motto.
They say what many people might say behind closed doors, only they put it in print, and say damn the risk.