As France’s President Emmanuel Macron vows France will not give up its religious cartoons and promises to continue to fight in defence of freedom of expression, the world struggles to understand what it is about caricatures the French like so much.
Sometimes crude and even distasteful, advocates of freedom of speech believe cartoons have the right to be - or depict - whatever they want.
Satirical cartoons have a long and colourful tradition in France that dates back to the Middle Ages, but in recent years they have inspired controversy – and horrific acts of violence such as the attacks against Charlie Hebdo in 2015.
“Never have the Danish cartoonists, or the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists intended to humiliate one billion Muslim people - but that’s how it’s understood. Because manipulation worked really well,” says Jean Plantu, a legend in the world of French caricatures.
Born in 1951, Plantu was first published in French newspaper Le Monde in October 1972 with a cartoon on the Vietnam War and has been prolific in his output ever since.
He has been documenting France’s - and the world’s - highs and lows in his own inimitable style for nearly 50 years. Plantu is a staunch defender of caricatures as tools of storytelling that should continue to be used to feed political debate.
“Cartoons are often a way to say things and to free the spoken word. There are cartoons we show that inspire people to say things they would not have said had they not seen it. But I don’t ask anyone to agree with me or to like my work.”
Since some of his colleagues and friends died in the attacks against the offices of Charlie Hebdo, Plantu has been placed under police protection.
“We’ve hit rock bottom,” he said. “It’s weird to go out with a police escort. It’s like that all the time. In Molenbeek (a neighbourhood in the Belgian capital, Brussels, where Plantu held an exhibit after the 2015 attacks), there were sixteen of them. And once, in Geneva, there were police even on the roof. So yes, there’s something wrong. When I tell you we’ve hit rock bottom - we really did.”
Plantu says the current debate about whether France’s cartoons should be toned down for the sake of tolerance and in the name of security, saddens him.
“I am ashamed - we speak a lot about humiliation. I am humiliated. For the idea that I have about my democracy. I love my country. I do. But I am humiliated because a handful of jerks who believe they represent a religion but who represent nothing at all can do this,” he said.
Plantu believes it is time is to defend the country’s values: “I don’t want to apologise. I want to fight. I want this combat,” the cartoonist said.
He added this debate will define what kind of France will emerge in the future: “We can’t forbid anything - we need to talk about all subjects, calmly, making sure we explain we are not here to humiliate anyone.”
“I am convinced that in the end, culture will win, democracy will win, debate will win.”
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