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Thursday May 26th

Pit Talk

French professor discusses Charlie Hebdo attack

An attack on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo on Jan. 7 left the world crying “Je suis Charlie” in support of its victims. Professor Hassan Melehy is a specialist in French literature, critical theory and philosophy. Staff Writer Victoria Mirian spoke to Melehy about the recent events in France and the country’s history of satire.

Daily Tar Heel: How well known was Charlie Hebdo within France before the attack?

Hassan Melehy: It didn’t have a large circulation. It had a circulation of about 30,000, so that is not very well known at all. I’m sure that I saw it on newsstands in passing, but I never picked it up before.

DTH: How is satire usually received in French culture?

HM: People talk in this context about a tradition of satire and mocking that Charlie Hebdo was part of. Particularly, secular satire has always been a part of French culture. If you go back to the Renaissance, Rabelais probably wasn’t the first, but he was a cleric that viciously mocked the Catholic hierarchy with very obscene humor and sheer ridicule, making it look like nothing.

That was a long time ago, but France has continually had a tradition of open mockery. I would compare Voltaire with the kind of mockery that Stephen Colbert was doing. I think the person who came closest to Voltaire is Aasif Mandvi. His irreverence is astounding. But this mockery is something you’ve always found in French culture. It’s always part of protests — mockery, that is.

DTH: Was Charlie Hebdo’s satire sharper than what is commonly accepted in France?

HM: I don’t know if it was sharper, but it wasn’t as good. The other thing to distinguish is that I don’t think it’s worthy of comparing it to the satire of Voltaire and Rabelais because that was satire usually of very powerful people in the state and the church. The church controlled everything in the 16th century. The very purpose of that was to undercut its power, to make people laugh at it so they couldn’t take it seriously.

But the thing is, Charlie Hebdo tended to, as far as I can tell, pick out people who were religious minorities, like Jews and Muslims. I understand that they kind of ramped up the mockery of Muslims since 9/11. It was different than the history of mockery because this tended to almost border on a bullying.

Personally, I don’t think people should be offended by it. At the same time, to declare that it deserves protection because it’s like Voltaire and Rabelais is simply wrong. It deserves protection, just not for that reason. It deserves protection because it’s free expression.

DTH: What has been the French reaction to the attacks?

HM: There have been a lot of different reactions. One thing that’s very immediately noticeable is that the usual political divisions are aggravated.

Currently, the president and prime minister are socialists, and for a very long time, there has been a very far-right political party that has been openly anti-immigrant. That’s the National Front. They used to spend more time attacking Jews and blaming things on immigration. The leader of the party was Jean-Marie Le Pen. His daughter, Marine Le Pen, the current leader of the party, is much more diplomatic and clever about how to work the political system. She has toned down the anti-Semitism and so forth. She’s couched it mainly as an anti-immigrant rhetoric. The first thing she said was that this is a problem of immigration. Mind you, it’s really a thinly disguised code word for Arabs and Muslims. 

Another thing that happened was that there was a rally planned for Sunday, and all of the political leaders were invited except for her. She immediately went to the media and said that the only party that has a solution to this problem was not invited. That was one reaction.

DTH: What do you think will come from the aftermath of these events?

HM: It’s impossible to say because politics is so complicated, but I think the National Front will gain more support. I think that it’s hard to know what’s going to happen, and I don’t want to say that Marie Le Pen will become the next French president, but I think that would be a sad thing because Europe had a Fascist period, and so much effort has been put into leaving that behind, but a lot of the people connected to the right-wing movements would like to resurrect that era. It’s not something that’s very pleasant to see.

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