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?

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

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.