'Charlie Hebdo' Staffer Pushes Back Against Writers' Opposition To Award

'Charlie Hebdo' Staffer Pushes Back Against Writers' Opposition To Award

2:02am May 05, 2015
Jean-Baptiste Thoret, Charlie Hebdo's film critic, speaks at a news conference in Washington on May 1. Thoret will receive, on behalf of Charlie Hebdo, the PEN American Center's Freedom of Expression Courage Award in New York on Tuesday.
Jean-Baptiste Thoret, Charlie Hebdo's film critic, speaks at a news conference in Washington on May 1. Thoret will receive, on behalf of Charlie Hebdo, the PEN American Center's Freedom of Expression Courage Award in New York on Tuesday.
Andrew Caballero-Reynolds / AFP/Getty Images
Jean-Baptiste Thoret, Charlie Hebdo's film critic, speaks at a news conference in Washington on May 1. Thoret will receive, on behalf of Charlie Hebdo, the PEN American Center's Freedom of Expression Courage Award in New York on Tuesday.

Jean-Baptiste Thoret, Charlie Hebdo's film critic, speaks at a news conference in Washington on May 1. Thoret will receive, on behalf of Charlie Hebdo, the PEN American Center's Freedom of Expression Courage Award in New York on Tuesday.

Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images

We've been telling you about the opposition from some writers to the decision by the PEN American Center to give Charlie Hebdo its Freedom of Expression Courage Award. The satirical French publication was targeted by Islamist militants Jan. 7 apparently for its cartoons of Islam's Prophet Muhammad. The attack killed 12 people.

"There is a critical difference between staunchly supporting expression that violates the acceptable — and enthusiastically rewarding such expression," more than 180 writers said in their letter of protest.

In particular, they criticized Charlie Hebdo's cartoons of Muhammad, saying the drawings were intended to "cause further humiliation and suffering" to a victimized population. But Jean-Baptiste Thoret, a film critic for the magazine, who is accepting the PEN award in New York on Tuesday, told NPR that stand is seemingly contradictory.

"I have to say that if you're standing for the freedom of expression, you can't be at one moment for this freedom of expression, and two or three minutes later, against that," he told NPR's Melissa Block. "You know, you're honoring a principle. You're not honoring a specific content in a magazine. Even in Charlie Hebdo," we did not often agree.

Thoret said much of the criticism directed at the magazine appears to come from those who "don't really know what they are talking about." He said the magazine never attacked Muslims. What it did do, he said, was sometimes satirize religion.

"Nothing is sacred for us," he said. "That's something that is very important."

It's also important to note here that Charlie Hebdo had a long tradition of lampooning figures from business, politics and religion. But it was its cartoons of Muhammad that it first printed in 2005 that got the most attention. Many Muslims consider any depiction of their prophet — even positive ones — to be blasphemous. Charlie Hebdo was firebombed in 2011 and received death threats over the years that culminated in the Jan. 7 attack that resulted in the deaths of some of its best-known cartoonists and staff members.

The attacks led to a global outpouring of support for the magazine — and defenders adopting the slogan "Je suis Charlie" [I am Charlie]. Thoret told Melissa that the slogan's popularity is ironic.

"Before Jan. 7, very few people were Je suis Charlie at that time; so the irony is that today everybody is Je Suis Charlie, of course," he said. "We are all OK with that. We are all against terrorism. But maybe it would have been more useful 10 years ago. At that moment, we [were] very alone. So for me it's part of that irony. Everybody is Je suis Charlie, but ... maybe it's too late."

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Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

When two radicalized Muslims stormed the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and killed 12 people back in January, there was an immense global outpouring of support for the publication. But now a literary group's decision to give Charlie Hebdo a Freedom of Expression Courage Award is drawing dissent. The PEN American Center will bestow the award tomorrow night, and more than 200 writers have signed a letter of protest. They write (reading) there is a critical difference between staunchly supporting expression that violates the acceptable and enthusiastically rewarding such expression.

These dissenters say in particular that Charlie Hebdo's cartoons of the prophet Muhammad are intended to cause further humiliation and suffering to a victimized population. Charlie Hebdo's film critic Jean-Baptiste Thoret came by our studios, and I asked him about that.

JEAN-BAPTISTE THORET: I have to say that if you're standing the freedom of expression, you can't be at one moment for this freedom of expression, and two or three minutes later, against that. You know, it's - you're honoring a principal. You're not honoring specific content in a magazine. Even in Charlie Hebdo, we often not agree together.

BLOCK: Well, let me follow up and ask about the distinction that these objectors are drawing. They are saying provocation is not the same as courage. What do you make of that?

THORET: It's very strange because I have the feeling that a lot of people are talking about Charlie Hebdo, but they don't really know what they are talking about, saying that we are attacking the weak people.

BLOCK: The victimized people.

THORET: Absolutely. We never attacked Muslim peopl, for example, or a person in particular. We are attacking, we are criticizing, making parody sometimes of religion, of icon; nothing is sacred for us. That's something very important, so we don't attack particular people.

BLOCK: Let me take you back to the morning of January 7. How was it that you happened to not be at work that morning? What made you late?

THORET: I was looking, in fact...

BLOCK: Yes.

THORET: ...I was about to take the subway and suddenly I received a lot of text message and phone calls and in a few seconds - maybe 10 or 15 seconds - I understood that something happened in Charlie Hebdo.

BLOCK: And as you were getting those text messages that morning, what was going through your mind?

THORET: It's like an idee you repressed, you know, for a long time and - because we all knew that some of the cartoon were - were difficult for some people. And suddenly, you have the impression that all this repressed is - explode in your face, you know, because it was just about what? Little guys in cartoon, you know? It's not a question about reading an article. It's a question about viewing or interpreting a cartoon. And the violence of what happened - it's hard to make sense of that.

BLOCK: Does Charlie Hebdo feel like a very different magazine to you now as you work there?

THORET: A little bit. The first reason is obvious. It's because part of the staff member disappeared that day. But, of course, the most important is to keep anew this energy - this humor - because it's very difficult to find something funny. It's more difficult today.

BLOCK: Mr. Thoret, I'm looking at a cartoon that ran in Charlie Hebdo a couple of months ago at the end of February, and it's a series of images that show the Je suis Charlie slogan. So you see Je suis Charlie on detergent bottles and on posters and on fliers and store windows. And then at the bottom, the last panel says meantime at Charlie, and you see two staffers sitting at a table. They're guarded by police. They're not drawing, they're not writing, but they're thinking, who am I? Que suis-je? Is that what it feels like at the magazine now, who are we?

THORET: I think these cartoons say better than a thousand words. It's a sort of paradox, a sort of irony to see so many people in France and all over the world saying Je suis Charlie. What does that mean, Je suis Charlie? Before January 7, very few people were Je suis Charlie at the time. So the irony is that today everybody is Je suis Charlie. Of course, we are all OK with that. We are all against terrorism, but maybe it could have been more useful 10 years ago. At that moment, we are very alone so it's - for me it's part of the irony. Everybody is Je suis Charlie, but question - maybe it's too late. It's quite easy to say Je suis Charlie, but can you really act as Je suis Charlie?

BLOCK: Mr. Thoret, thanks so much for coming in.

THORET: Thank you for this invitation (ph). It was a pleasure.

BLOCK: Jean-Baptiste Thoret is a film critic for the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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