A crowd of supporters hold up “Je Suis Charlie” signs. Photo: Franck Pennant/AFP/Getty Images
Show Hide image

If you don’t speak French, how can you judge if Charlie Hebdo is racist?

Prominent writers have chosen to boycott a PEN gala in honour of Charlie Hebdo. But are they in any position to pass judgement?

I’m the Irish guy who writes for Charlie Hebdo. I’m conscious that this sounds like the beginning of a joke. Frankly, it’s beginning to feel a little like that too. As the only English-speaking columnist, I feel uncomfortably exotic. And you should see the things they write about me on the toilet walls.

I have no remit. I can write about anything I fancy. This is a hellish liberty. Nothing asked, nothing expected. It makes me dizzy. No matter how random or foolish, they’ll run it. I can’t even begin to describe how tempted I am to write about cricket. Just to see.

So it is, in itself, strange to be there. But stranger still it is to turn my eyes to the doings of the English-speaking world since I joined Charlie. Last week, Queen’s University Belfast (my hometown, no less) cancelled a conference about the events around January’s attack upon the magazine’s staff*. They were worried about their reputation, apparently. Huh? Then this week, a fistful of writers decide to boycott a PEN event in New York which is to honour Charlie. Really?

I read the papers and the blogs and the general runes. The growing consensus seems to be that Charlie Hebdo is, at the very least, deeply dodgy, if not overtly racist. Well, that’s a blow, I must say. Who knew I’d end up writing for some cartoon version of Mein Kampf?

Much of this anti-Charlie prissiness comes from how the magazine has been typified in the Anglo press. ie, idiotically for the most part. An infinity of pundits have made blithe diagnoses of general knavishness while not speaking any French at all.

This bears repeating. No. French. At. All. The point about language is absolutely crucial. Indeed, it may well be the only real point. It is so preposterous that it makes my head spin. How can you make any sensible judgement about Charlie if you cannot read it? Is it enough to look at the pictures? Didn't we used to hesitate before doing something so confidently asinine? Can you imagine how enraged we would be if monolingual French people judged Private Eye or Spitting Image with the same blind assurance.

Do the writers boycotting Charlie in New York all speak French? If they don’t, then, seriously, how informed can their opinions be? You might as well ask your budgie for comment. So, Feathers, what’s your view?

Am I wrong about this? Am I missing something really obvious?

It would be wrong to single out a particular newspaper or website for opprobrium. It’s almost everywhere and it’s almost everyone. I cringe with embarrassment every time a French person asks me what is going on. I’ve started pretending I’m Swedish.

A lot of this is centred around a cartoon that depicted Christiane Taubira, the French justice minister, as an ape. It is much-reproduced without its line of text Rassemblement Bleu Raciste (Racist Blue Rally). A crucial detail since it lampoons the Front National slogan Rassemblement Bleu Marine (Navy Blue Rally), a pun on the name of the FN leader Marine Le Pen. And the image itself was a mocking attack on a series of right-wing publications and websites bunged to the brim with disgraceful imagery of the minister. Without the snipped-off text underneath, and the knowledge of the lamentable tosh it was lampooning, of course Charlie would seem racist. It would seem racist to me too. But to strip the image of its fundamental components like this is akin to saying the incomparable Jonathan Swift was a baby-eating Nazi and that A Modest Proposal was actually a cookbook.

I will not weary your eyes and ears with a full disquisition on this Taubira cartoon. Both the truth and the lie are very easily found on the internet, and complete – like all modern lies and truths – with their very contemporary equal billing. 

Charlie is often vulgar, puerile and slightly nauseating. But everyone endures the brunt of this approach: right, left and in-between. They are not always funny (they are French, after all). But sometimes, that is because they are doing 4-page spreads on the reality of Roma camps in France or doggedly chronicling the gross extremes of France's lurch to the right.

They have a weekly space for animal rights stories, for Chrissakes!!! Run by a woman who calls herself Luce Lapin. With the best will in the world, even if Lucy Rabbit wanted to be a racist or a fascist, how good at it would she be with a name like that? What would all the other racists and fascists think? The truth about the Charlie people is that they're ...well...just a little bit geeky.

Yes, Charlie is tasteless and discomfiting. Have I somehow missed all the gentle, polite satire? That amiable, convenient satire that everybody likes.

If you speak French and you tell me you think Charlie is racist, I can respect that. If you don’t speak French and you tell me the same, well (how to put this politely?)...sorry, I can’t actually put it politely.

I am limitlessly proud to write for Charlie.

*Queen’s has, courageously, announced that it will revisit this decision.

Getty
Show Hide image

How tribunal fees silenced low-paid workers: “it was more than I earned in a month”

The government was forced to scrap them after losing a Supreme Court case.

How much of a barrier were employment tribunal fees to low-paid workers? Ask Elaine Janes. “Bringing up six children, I didn’t have £20 spare. Every penny was spent on my children – £250 to me would have been a lot of money. My priorities would have been keeping a roof over my head.”

That fee – £250 – is what the government has been charging a woman who wants to challenge their employer, as Janes did, to pay them the same as men of a similar skills category. As for the £950 to pay for the actual hearing? “That’s probably more than I earned a month.”

Janes did go to a tribunal, but only because she was supported by Unison, her trade union. She has won her claim, although the final compensation is still being worked out. But it’s not just about the money. “It’s about justice, really,” she says. “I think everybody should be paid equally. I don’t see why a man who is doing the equivalent job to what I was doing should earn two to three times more than I was.” She believes that by setting a fee of £950, the government “wouldn’t have even begun to understand” how much it disempowered low-paid workers.

She has a point. The Taylor Review on working practices noted the sharp decline in tribunal cases after fees were introduced in 2013, and that the claimant could pay £1,200 upfront in fees, only to have their case dismissed on a technical point of their employment status. “We believe that this is unfair,” the report said. It added: "There can be no doubt that the introduction of fees has resulted in a significant reduction in the number of cases brought."

Now, the government has been forced to concede. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Unison’s argument that the government acted unlawfully in introducing the fees. The judges said fees were set so high, they had “a deterrent effect upon discrimination claims” and put off more genuine cases than the flimsy claims the government was trying to deter.

Shortly after the judgement, the Ministry of Justice said it would stop charging employment tribunal fees immediately and refund those who had paid. This bill could amount to £27m, according to Unison estimates. 

As for Janes, she hopes low-paid workers will feel more confident to challenge unfair work practices. “For people in the future it is good news,” she says. “It gives everybody the chance to make that claim.” 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.