The story behind Charlie’s first cover page on Mahomet

This text was published nearly ten years ago, in May 2006, just after the cartoons affair. A special edition “Charlie Blasphème” (Charlie Blasphemy) written by Caroline Fourest and Fiammetta Venner, illustrated by Charb and Luz.


The day the affair exploded (We are all Danish!)

Monday 30 January. The AFP dispatches kept coming in. The republication in Norway of the inoffensive cartoons appeared to cause a delayed chain reaction which was over-excited and above all unbelievably disproportionate. A second Rushdie affair was brewing, but even more explosive. And this time the defenders of freedom of expression were a damn sight more apprehensive. Several members of the editorial team were interviewed by the press (including Philippe Val and Caroline Fourest) declared that the entire media should reproduce the cartoons “in solidarity and on principle”. Firstly, to inform the public, so that they could see and judge for themselves. Secondly, to break the boycott. We are all Danish! Philippe even offered to call several newspaper editors to propose publishing them simultaneously. This way, if everyone published them at the same time and if the movement spread across Europe, then the number of targets was multiplied and the danger curtailed by the solidarity movement.. The editorial team of France Soir, that we had not contacted, seemed to share the same opinion. On February 1st they published the famous cartoons. Would our colleagues at other papers follow suit out of solidarity, even if it was no longer a scoop?


Editorial meeting (standing together)

Thursday 2 February, day of the editorial meeting. That same morning it was announced on all the radio stations that the proprietor of France-Soir had sacked the chief editor. We were astounded. We had been expecting heated discussions, but this latest development brought us together. Perhaps we didn’t always agree on the most tactful way to address anti-Semitism or Islamism, but we were all journalists at Charlie because we appreciated its liberty of tone which paid no heed to the established order, from whatever direction. Even more so because if religious followers pulled together over this affair, then certain anti-racists would play the scabs by denouncing the publication of the cartoons as a “pathetic provocation”. Philippe declared in the press “If we back down it will be another Munich”.

Nevertheless, we knew that we were taking on one hell of a responsibility. From now until the issue came out, other papers would have already published the cartoons. So it would no longer be a scoop, but we are a satirical newspaper, we publish cartoons, therefore much more liable to get people worked up… The cartoonists ,especially, were feeling the pressure. They had to find a new angle, and be right on the mark….


At last the newspaper was put to bed (we were all a bit pale)

Studious atmosphere at the editorial meeting. “I’m telling you guys, I’m scared”! said Wolinski before picking up his pencils again. Philippe, who was working on his editorial, popped his head round the door and said with a smile “You’re incredibly brave, Wolin… to say so!”. All the covers, even the ones which might end up in the waste basket or on the last page, were pinned up on the wall. And everyone filed religiously past them.

A TV crew who was following Cabu filmed us meditating. Hmm.. it’s still not right, there’s still something missing, it’s not good enough. One of the drawings in particular raised a few eyebrows. “Er, actually that one isn’t disrespectful, it’s downright racist, what do you think?” We paraded past this sacrilege (in our opinion blasphemy isn’t a sacrilege, but racism is). “Yes, frankly, that one is borderline”. In the bin. But the ones showing Jesus with a stick of dynamite up his ass, even though it was gory, we just had to laugh… perhaps to expiate. In any event it released the tension. Besides, the worst that could happen would be a lawsuit!

Anyway, we decided that in this issue all religions would be hauled over the coals. We even hesitated to do a cover on Jesus, but we all knew that it was just a way of avoiding the issue, so that we wouldn’t be suspected of “Islamophobia”. Not very brave…


The choice of cover page

It was 4pm, the paper would soon be sent to print and we still didn’t have a cover we really liked. We looked at all the drawings on the wall. Luz’s drawing on the Euro million wasn’t bad “why doesn’t Mahomet want us to recognize him? Because he doesn’t want us to know that he won the EuroMillions lottery!” True to his pacifist nature, with more than a touch of Asian zen, Jul was in favour. But we were deeply aware that it fell short of expectations.

The fundamentalists wanted to frighten the hell out of us and blunt our pencils. They were testing us. We had to resist and sharpen our pencils. “And what if we show Mahomet reading Jyllands-Posten and laughing?” Yeah he’s right, why should the fundamentalists be the only ones to put words in Mahomet’s mouth? “That’s it. Why don’t we show Charlie having an exclusive interview with Mahomet and discovering that he is in fact a nice guy, with a sense of humour…” We liked the idea, but it needed working on. A few of us sat round the table. Cabu, who draws fast, was ready to start. We let it sit for a while and read a few news items to relax.. Philippe had a flash “And what if he was devastated by what’s happening. Sort of “what morons!” We laughed. We felt it could be a relief, that it could do some good. Including for Muslims who are fed up with fundamentalists playing the ventriloquists with the prophet..

Cabu had gone off to draw. When he showed us the result, we noticed that his drawing didn’t show Mahomet’s face, as he was hiding it in his hands. Real classy. The idea was powerful, but not a petty provocation. And above all it wasn’t gratuitous, it made us think. We had our cover! We pinned it on the wall. Just to be sure we chose another one, and discussed a couple more, but deep down we knew it was an obvious choice.. Sold.

Before sending it off for the template Stéphane (Bou) remarked that Islamist websites might well play a dirty trick on us by showing Mahomet saying “it’s hard to be loved by morons”, but without the caption “Mohamet overwhelmed by the fundamentalists”.That changed everything. On the one hand the drawing makes fun of the fundamentalists, and on the other it could be construed as making fun of all Muslims. We decided to place the caption over Mahomet’s turban to prevent hacked reproductions. Besides, to dispel any ambiguity, the paper would open with a column on the Freedom Manifesto drawn up by citizens of Muslim culture or religion.

Mad rush at newsstands

Wednesday 8 February, 9h30. Not a single Charlie left on the newsstands. Even abroad. Convinced that our fellow journalists would have passed the word, we had in fact anticipated a printing more copies, but we never imagined such a huge demand! On the first day 160 000 copies of Charlie were sold (the total number would be 487 000).

In the end Le Monde, Le nouvel Obs, and Le Point published very good articles, but only a few drawings and not the most controversial.  L’Express was the only magazine which published the incriminated page from Jyllands-Posten, in the form of a document. As a result there was a mad rush. Those who were able to buy a copy put them on e-bay, at a very high price. But very soon e-bay banned the sale of Charlie to one of the online purchasers on the grounds that “Announcements which incite to hate violence or racism (or organizations promoting such ideas) have no place in the community”. Funny really when we consider that nazi insignia can be bought and sold on international e-bay!

We had calls from newsstands asking us to reprint the edition.   Others though refused to sell it. We were even told that a news vendor in Barbès (Paris) phoned an imam in Egypt to ask for his advice. But when the imam rang him back to ban him from selling the satanic paper, it was too late… He had sold out! Of course, we were soon accused of trying to make money out of this affair. In their day La Calotte had also been accused by the Church of trying to make a profit with their anti-religious postcards! This unfounded, and as usual stupid, accusation fell flat. A small remark: contrary to a lot of newspapers, Charlie is doing very well thank you (it is even one of the few papers to have increased its circulation over the past year). And that’s without any advertizing.

The most annoying part was seeing those duped by Dieudonné fall right into the “double standards” trap and the old refrain “you make fun of the prophet, but you wouldn’t dare make fun of Jews or the Shoah!” It makes you want to bang your head against a wall at such bad faith. Charlie regularly makes fun of Judaism and religious Jews, in the same way that we claim the right to make of fun of all religious symbols, including Mahomet. But we never make fun of Jews as a presumed ethnic group, in an anti-Semitic way. Similarly, we refuse to make fun of Arabs as a presumed ethnic group in a racist way! It isn’t difficult to understand, and yet certain morons pretend they don’t understand…



The international press conference: thank you fellow journalists!

Still 8 February. Safety barriers had been erected in front of the magazine. The editorial team had been evacuated due to a false bomb alert. And Philippe had to travel around with two bodyguards. Other than that, all was well. The switchboard had received a few insulting calls (quite normal), but above all hundreds of messages of congratulations, 89% of the calls, many of which were from French people saying they were of Muslim culture and who had had a good laugh when they saw the drawing, telling us to stand firm. That was our reward. However, the anti-racism movement wasn’t in great shape.. After announcing that they were going to sue France Soir, the executive of MRAP (Movement Against Racism and for Friendship between Peoples), considered suing us as well. For a long time many local committees of the movement had been dismayed by the attitude of Aounit and had started a movement “Not in our name”. Charb was also disgusted. For years he had been passing drawings to MRAP in support of their anti-racist activities… He retaliated with a drawing showing a man wondering what MRAP stands for. Another man replies: “Movement against racism and for friendship with the prophet”.


Before the paper came out Libé andLe Monde published the cover but without the caption. Even the Islamist websites hadn’t dared do that! It was worse with the anglo-saxon press. The interviews with them verged on the downright rude. If they had been able to haul us up in a court of inquisition, they would have. Fiammetta (Venner), who is one of the few editors who spoke English, had to suffer all of them. On the BBC she ended up putting one of the openly aggressive presenters in his place by reminding him that if he was so concerned about respecting everything that Islam forbids, he should also remove all the crucifixes in churches in English, seeing how Islam forbids representations of all prophets – including Jesus! For his part, Philippe was trying to explain to Japanese journalists the concept of the French form of a secular Republic.. not easy. But worse was to come.

During the press conference (chaired by Philippe and Caroline) some journalists asked us if we were planning to publish the drawings from the Iranian cartoon competition on the Shoah. Philippe already had a plan (he would ask Claude Lanzman, director of the film Shoah) and said yes, but specified that “it was not in the name of freedom of expression, but to denounce negationism”. The next day the axe fell. The New York Times, which is very indulgent towards Tariq Ramadan, often opening its columns to him, published the headline “Next step by Weekly in Paris may be to Mock the Holocaust!”

“Chirac said”, or the good old days of the ORTF (former state television and radio service of France)

For a few days we really got it in the neck. The pressure was immense. Especially since Chirac had singled us out as “provocators”: “I condemn all provocations which risk fuelling passions”. But he and Bernadette had been our targets for so long, it was an opportunity to get even… What’s more Chichi was due to visit Saudi Arabia soon, and certain contracts negotiated by a veiled Laurence Parisot of the MEDEF (French Business Confederation)   were undoubtedly more important than robustly defending freedom of expression! In any event, it was awesome. Chirac only had to whistle, like in the good old days of the ORTF, and a swarm of journalists would take up the refrain of “provocation”. A TF1 (French tv station) had been filming us for days for a documentary. The editorial meeting, the procedure, everything was ready for broadcast.   And then it was cancelled, so as not to “pour oil on the fire”. At the request of Muslim associations the UMP deputies Roubad and Raoult concocted laws against cartoons and the right to criticize religions. If we backed down, it would be another Munich…

Caroline Fourest and Fiammetta Venner

Excerpt from the special edition “Charlie Blasphème” (Charlie Blasphemy) written by Caroline Fourest and Fiammetta Venner, illustrated by Charb and Luz


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