Monday, January 12, 2015

A French Immigrant to America Explains the Charlie Hebdo Phenomenon to His Yankee Hosts (NSFW)

[Disclaimer: not for young children, and definitely NSFW]
I was listening to NPR [Thursday] morning and, on the top of the usual tripe, some idiot correspondent in Paris described Charlie Hebdo as a mix of Mad, Playboy, and The Daily Show.

Oh boy.

If you're interested, I'll try to describe what it was, where it comes from, and why the death of the main, historical cartoonists is such a shock for 3 generations of French people.

This is my take on it, I don't pretend to be objective. I'm a Frenchman who grew up with these guys, and stuff they did played a big role in my childhood.

  … First off, French humor in general is far more rude and crass than American humor. We're not nearly as prudish as Americans in general are, and culturally much more confrontational than Americans, who already are a very confrontational bunch by world's standards.

Evidently, it's impossible to give a proper comparison or point of reference in the American pop culture, especially being an immigrant that knows very little about American pop culture.

As it stood 2 days ago, the best humor equivalent I can think of would be some moments in the movie Team America, World Police: getting a point across in and crude way, uncaring of people's opinions and beliefs, and primarily for shits and giggles. Here's a very Charlie Hebdo moment in this movie:

Charlie Hebdo used to be a pretty underground, extremely Gallic mag called Hara Kiri. This wiki page traces the transition from Hara Kiri to Charlie Hebdo:

Hara Kiri's subtitle was "Le journal bête et méchant": litt. the stupid and mean magazine, but IMHO it's better translated as the For Shits and Giggles Magazine.

They were running extremely outrageous stuff, even by Gallic standards. If you're not at the office, here are some covers:

The founder and captain of this boat of fools was a particular character with the nom de plume Professeur Choron. The guy is kind of an armchair general GG Allin … [Professeur Choron (Georges Bernier)] was (he died in 2005) an extremely rude, nihilistic, alcoholic, in-your-face jerk, but he also was extremely well read and witty, and he saw through literally everybody's bullshit. He could bury anybody under a pile of his own shit in 2 sentences, discarding entirely the "class" and "social rank" of who he was addressing. He hated absolutely everybody: French, Italians, Jews, Arabs, Germans, Blacks, Americans, Russians, Chinese, any nationality, any race or creed, you name it; the whole damn world was a shitter to him, and he was the guy taking a massive dump in it while enjoying himself and making everybody laugh at the same time.

He's the guy who set the tone for Hara Kiri and later Charlie Hebdo. Hara Kiri used to be pretty underground, but everybody who was in their teens in the 60s knew it. My father had a subscription to this mag and kept them, and I used to steal them (he didn't want me to get a hold of them) when I was a teenager. They were so crass and rustled so many jimmies that they ended up being influential; much to their regret I would say, because they were merely working hard on the funniest way shit in your cornflakes, nothing more, nothing less.

It's probably hard to understand why such a thing would be so popular on that side of the pond, but keep in mind that the post-WW2 generations on the 2 sides of the ponds grew to to have extremely divergent mindsets. I won't venture into some victors vs humiliated losers pseudo-philosophical tripe, you get the point.

As cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo grew older, they got much softer too. But they really kept their extremely provocative attitude from Hara Kiri, something they took pride in, and everybody in France saluted them for, to the extent it became a source of national pride when these goat fuckers got their panties in a twist over a drawing.

Then there was Cabu, the main cartoonist at Charlie Hebdo. Cabu [Jean Cabut] was a pretty soft spoken, far left leaning Anarchist. This guy worked at Hara Kiri then Charlie Hebdo, but also other cartoon magazines like Fluide Glacial that many people my generation read. He also featured in kids TV show like Récré A2 that virtually my entire generation watched (there were 3 TV channels nation wide at the time) when coming back from school. I don't know any American equivalent since I didn't grow up here, but imagine a guy you used to watch and love every day for your entire childhood: he was THAT guy to an entire generation of French people.

Cabu was very far from Choron as it comes to personal behavior, but they did share a very strong taste for "provocation", for lack of a better term.

Charb [Stéphane Charbonnier] and Tignous [Bernard Verlhac] are also well know by the large readership of Fluide Glacial, a cartoon mag that made 2 generations of French people laugh their asses off, and counting.

Wolinksi has always been a commie, but he published so many cartoons and drew in so many commie publications that a lot of people knew and enjoyed him (there's no shortage of commies in France).

So there it is: these people were considered a national treasure, and they were a huge part of French popular culture for 3 generations of French people. Even though they were arguably controversial and proud of it, they were not considered such in France, since they became such an important part of the modern French culture. Don't get me wrong, I'm not idolizing them, after all I disagreed with Charlie's political views 99% of the time, but to the average Frenchman they were an actual part of our lives, including mine.

This is what we lost [Wednesday]. …
Update: More covers from ActuaBD (merci à OT)