PARIS WEATHER

Looking back at France’s long tradition of caricature

French history teacher Samuel Paty was murdered on 16 October after showing two caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed in a class about freedom of expression. In recent years, caricature in France has hit the headlines because of the irreverent cartoons of Charlie Hebdo and the 2015 terrorist attacks. But caricature has a long and colourful tradition in the country. 

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The Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published a series of Prophet Mohammed cartoons in September 2005, which caused a global uproar. The French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo republished the cartoons in February the following year, and has not held back from publishing offending images of the Prophet in the years since. The newspaper’s office building was targeted in a fire-bomb in 2011, and four years later 12 people were killed in a terrorist attack at the same site. But caricature is nothing new in France: the country has a long history of deliberately incendiary cartoons and sketches. Let’s take a look back in the archives. 

The Middle Ages

In the Middle Ages, caricature became increasingly common. “The first illustrations, which appear at the end of the 14th century, are engraved on wood,” describes the Bibliothèque nationale de France (BNF), the national library of France. Sculptures inside or outside churches would show “grotesque characters, fantastical and symbolic animals”. But it’s the birth of the printing press in the 15th century that helps to popularise the style. Protestant reformers use caricature to mock the pope. In France, King Henri III is ridiculed by a campaign of caricatures before his murder.

“The explosion of political caricature always comes about at a time of crisis; what’s more, caricature is closely linked to the material of the document itself and how it is circulated (a picture inserted into a pamphlet, sold as a loose sheet or as part of a series, a poster, illustration in a local newspaper, a sketch in a reputed newspaper)”, explains the BNF.  

The French Revolution

According to the historian Annie Duprat, it’s during the French Revolution that caricature really comes into its own. “When Pope Pius VI condemns the Civil Constitution of the Clergy voted by the National Assembly in spring 1791, Jacques Bonhomme – a character representing the everyday Frenchman – wasted no time with his reaction: he wiped his behind with the Pope’s briefing,” she writes in an article for The Conversation. That irreverent image combining scatological humour and a shocking inversion of typical values is an example of how caricature became its own kind of “political language”, she says. According to the BNF, 1,500 satirical illustrations were made between 1789 and 1792.

‘The Pope’s briefing in 1791’, a response to the statement ‘Caritas’ issued by Pope Pius VI, in which he condemns the civil constitution. M © Paris Musées / Musée Carnavalet

‘The Pope’s briefing in 1791’, a response to the statement ‘Caritas’ issued by Pope Pius VI, in which he condemns the civil constitution. M © Paris Musées / Musée Carnavalet

‘The Pope’s briefing in 1791’, a response to the statement ‘Caritas’ issued by Pope Pius VI, in which he condemns the civil constitution. M © Paris Musées / Musée Carnavalet © Paris Musées / Musée Carnavalet

The July Monarchy

Unsurprisingly, the king was a main target for caricaturists. In the 19th century, with the rise of the press, the number of illustrated periodicals grew. During the time of the July Monarchy from 1830 to 1848 it was the king at the time, Louis-Philippe, in the firing range. He hit back. The caricaturist Daumier spent six months in prison after he portrayed Louis-Philippe as the giant Gargantua, a character taken from a series of novels by Rabelais. Later Daumier drew the king’s face onto a pear, copying a motif created by the artist Charles Philipon. Philipon himself was sentenced to six months in prison for ‘insulting the king’. In 1835, a law reinstated censorship (which had been abolished in 1824 by Charles X) for cartoons, engravings and lithographs. 

The Dreyfus Affair

It wasn’t until a new law on press freedom was created in 1881 that caricatures started to proliferate again. At the end of the 19th century, the Dreyfus Affair provided cartoonists with the perfect story to let their imaginations run riot. The Dreyfus Affair was a political scandal that ran from 1894 to 1906 – and has become shorthand for miscarriage of justice and anti-Semitism. The famous drawing by Caran d’Ache, ‘Ils en ont parlé’ (‘They talked about it’), shows an elegant family dinner descend into chaos after the contentious news story is brought up at the dinner table. The drawing was published in the daily newspaper Le Figaro, and since then has become an iconic illustration from that era.  

The famous drawing by Caran d’Ache about the Dreyfus Affair. © Wikimedia

The famous drawing by Caran d’Ache about the Dreyfus Affair. © Wikimedia

The famous drawing by Caran d’Ache about the Dreyfus Affair. © Wikimedia © Wikimedia

The First World War

On the website of the First World War Centenary Program, the historian Laurent Bihl notes that at the beginning of the Great War, “a large part of the French satirical press didn’t survive”. This was because printing was interrupted due to “the state of siege, the fact that many illustrators went off to fight, and the shortage of resources”. But the publications that did survive used their solitary positions on the market to publish propaganda against the enemy. This period also saw the creation of new publications, such as the satirical newspaper Le Canard Enchaîné, which still exists today. 

May 68 and Charlie Hebdo

During the Second World War, censorship wiped out caricatures for the most part, except in pro-Vichy newspapers that sided with the Nazis, where they were used to spread anti-Semitic propaganda. Cartoons only became political again in the 1950s, and caricatures about Charles de Gaulle became particularly popular. The cartoonists used them to denounce the authoritarian aspects of the incumbent government and to compare it to other epochs under different authoritarian leaders: Louis XIV or Napoleon, for example. The caricaturists often portrayed de Gaulle as a kind of all-powerful sovereign – at his expense. 

A photo of a poster on a wall in Paris, taken in September 1958. The poster is from the PCF and calls vote no to a referendum on the Constitution of the Fifth Republic proposed by Charles de Gaulle. AFP

A photo of a poster on a wall in Paris, taken in September 1958. The poster is from the PCF and calls vote no to a referendum on the Constitution of the Fifth Republic proposed by Charles de Gaulle. AFP

A photo of a poster on a wall in Paris, taken in September 1958. The poster is from the PCF and calls vote no to a referendum on the Constitution of the Fifth Republic proposed by Charles de Gaulle. AFP AFP

It’s during this period, in 1960, when Hara-Kiri, the pre-cursor to Charlie Hebdo, was launched, first as a monthly newspaper, then as a weekly in 1969. Hara-Kiri subtitled itself “the stupid and nasty newspaper”, and tried to live up to that description as much as possible in its provocative and derisive treatment of French social mores and values. It was temporarily banned twice by the French government in 1961 and 1966, then published a mocking cover in response to the death of de Gaulle in November 1970, which was the final straw for the authorities, who banned it permanently. 

It was resurrected two years later under the name Charlie Hebdo, but as the BNF notes on its website, it evolved into a different beast: “Press illustrations slowly replaced caricature, and the training, status and practices of the cartoonists changed. They now called themselves artist-journalists.” 

Charlie Hebdo has weathered the storms over the years, despite briefly disappearing from circulation in the 1980s as its readership fell. It has been the target of numerous complaints, predominantly from the political far right and Catholic organisations. But it is its treatment of Islam that has earned it death threats — threats that were eventually acted out in the January 7, 2015 terrorist attack on its offices, which killed 12 people and was claimed by al-Qaeda. 

The famous front page of Charlie Hebdo on 16 November 1970 announcing the death of Charles de Gaulle.

The famous front page of Charlie Hebdo on 16 November 1970 announcing the death of Charles de Gaulle.

The famous front page of Charlie Hebdo on 16 November 1970 announcing the death of Charles de Gaulle. FRANCOIS GUILLOT AFP/Archives

This article was translated from the original in French by Catherine Bennett.

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