Charlie Hebdo’s Anti-Imperialist Roots

tags: France, Charlie Hebdo

Daniel Foliard is an assistant professor at Paris Ouest-Nanterre la Défense University

In a recent interview, George Wolinski (1934-2015), one of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists killed in the Paris terrorist attacks on January 7, 2015, had claimed his magazine’s work was the legacy of L’Assiette au Beurre, an innovative satirical weekly published in France between 1901 and 1912.

Both stylistically and politically, the two periodicals, separated by more than a century, could also claim an affiliation with a long French tradition of dissent. Accordingly, although Charlie Hebdo is now known around the globe for its unmediated satire on religions, we should not overlook its position in the longer history of French anti-imperialism.

The 1881 laws on the freedom of the press had opened the golden age of French political caricature, paving the way for Samuel-Sigismond Schwarz to found L’Assiette au Beurre in 1901. The new illustrated weekly was, however, initially a failed commercial venture.

André de Joncières took over in 1904 when Schwarz went bankrupt. The new owner continued its founding tradition, running the paper with little or no censorship. Some of the most prominent artists of the early 20th century — Willette, Juan Gris, Félix Vallotton, Caran d’Ache among many others — rushed to publish their drawings in a paper that offered them an unprecedented freedom of speech as well as an incredible stylistic liberty. Other satirists such as Jules Grandjouan and Henri Gustave Jossot contributed to give it an anarchist stance. But the paper had no definite editorial line except an all-out attack on established interests.

L’Assiette au Beurre targeted the establishment indiscriminately. The paper was fiercely anticlerical and antimilitarist. It also launched virulent attacks on European colonialism in all its forms. Thematic issues regularly addressed foreign affairs and imperial expansion. Graphic cartoons denounced colonial atrocities such as Papka’s horrific execution in Fort Crampel (Oubangui-Chari, Central Africa) on July 14, 1903, wherein two French government administrators, Gaud and Toqué, decided to kill the suspect with dynamite to strike the locals with awe. Nor was French colonial violence L’Assiette au Beurre‘s only target. In 1901, for instance, Jean Veber directed an issue devoted to the concentration camps in the South African Transvaal....

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