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Child porn controversy clouds awards at France's most prestigious comic book festival

French comics writer Riad Sattouf poses on stage after receiving the 'Grand Prix' for his all work during the 50th Angouleme International Comics Festival
French comics writer Riad Sattouf poses on stage after receiving the 'Grand Prix' for his all work during the 50th Angouleme International Comics Festival Copyright YOHAN BONNET/AFP
Copyright YOHAN BONNET/AFP
By Heloise Urvoy
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Riad Sattouf has won the main prize at the International Comic Books Festival in France. But this year's event has been overshadowed by protests over artistic freedom of expression and graphic images some consider to be child pornography.

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The International Comics Festival in Angouleme has awarded French author Riad Sattouf this year's ‘grand prix’, the most prestigious prize of Europe’s second largest festival dedicated to graphic novels.

Sattouf, whose mother is French and father Syrian, made a name for himself in the industry with The Arab of the Future, an autobiographical series that began in 2015. Readers get to experience Syria, Libya and France through the eyes of a child at first, then a teenager.

Many praised his work for making the two Arab countries known via another prism than the war, which was raging in the 2010’s.

Sattouf was acclaimed when awarded the prize, and reportedly declared ‘be passionate, read books from the elders, express yourself how you wish to, beware of every ideology, be outraged by all forms of intimidation and censorship, refuse them. Enjoy freedom of expression, which is unique in France, be free, write books, again and again!’

His passionate speech can, of course, refer to oppressive regimes. But many have also picked on his words for being a message of support to cancelled writer Bastien Vivès.

Child pornography controversy clouds over festival

In his 2005 autobiographic graphic novel Back to School, Sattouf tells of a time when he visited a secondary school (for 11 to 14 year olds in France) as a 27 year old, in order to write a book.

He talks about the young Salome, described as an attractive teenager who only has eyes for him. On several occasions, he draws her thong coming out of her trousers, and recalls having seen her in her bra at least 50 times.

France's Culture Minister Riad Abdul Malak talks with Riad Sattouf

Riad Sattouf’s work is in no way comparable to the extremely graphic work of Vivès. However, some social media users have also said that Sattouf has published some problematic art in the part.

Vivès’ work was meant to be honoured at the festival, but he and his publishers are currently under investigation for promoting child pornography. Several of his novels indeed picture the rapes of underage children, often in incestuous situations.

The clash has pitted child rights and anti-sexual violence defenders against the defenders of limitless freedom of expression for artists has weighed heavily on this year’s event.

Many authors have chosen to support Vivès, most remaining anonymous for fear of backlash, arguing freedom of expression must encompass forbidden fantasies too. 

Regardless, publishing images representing a minor in a pornographic way is illegal in France, including in art.

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