Gérard Biard is annoyed that his office is a heroic beacon of freedom in a violent world.
When the Kouachi brothers stormed that building in January and killed 12 employees at the “little satirical magazine,” suddenly “in half an hour we became a world symbol.” But Biard, the new editor-in-chief of French magazine Charlie Hebdo, insists that “it’s not our job to be a symbol. It’s our job to make people think and laugh.”
His colleague, film critic Jean-Baptiste Thoret, adds, “The life of a symbol is sometimes going to the bathroom, you know?” (RELATED: How Did Charlie Hebdo Stay In Business?)
The two spoke Friday at Freedom House, a Washington NGO that advocates for political and human rights worldwide. They are in the United States to receive an award from the free-expression organization PEN America — a choice that has angered some of the group’s members.
When PEN announced that it would recognize Charlie Hebdo, six novelists said they would not attend the award ceremony, calling the magazine racist, Islamophobic and targeted toward France’s poorest and most vulnerable citizens. Over 145 other writers have supported the objectors by signing an open letter, though they were never likely to attend the gala.
Against accusations of Islamophobia, Biard noted a recent study of 10 years’ worth of Charlie Hebdo’s crude covers — a total of over 500 cartoons. More than 300 of the covers depicted French politicians, he said, while 38 mocked religious subjects and fewer than 10 lampooned Islam in particular. (RELATED: This Is Why Jihadis Massacred Writers And Cartoonists At A French Humor Magazine)
More to the point, says Biard, “We are against everything sacred.” When his accented pronunciation of the word “sacred” led to brief audible confusion in the American audience, he went on: “Soccer? Yes, we are even against soccer!”
And to those who disagree with the award, Thoret says, “Good for them! If I support free expression, I can’t say five minutes later that they don’t have the right to withdraw from PEN.” Pointing out that Charlie Hebdo’s writers and cartoonists themselves often disagree on the worthiness of a particular piece for inclusion, he suggested, “Maybe they think the award is to Charlie for its content. The award” — called the Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award — “is given to the principle of freedom of speech, even if the product of that freedom upsets you.” (RELATED: Pope Francis: ‘Limits’ Needed On Free Expression, ‘You Cannot Insult The Faith Of Others’)
PEN’s executive director Suzanne Nossel defended the decision when introducing Thoret and Biard Friday, saying that their organization was “rejecting the assassin’s veto” on free expression.
Borrowing a line from George W. Bush, Thoret joked, “We don’t negotiate. It’s either freedom or speech or not. You can’t have ‘freedom of speech but…'”
Some in France want to dissociate themselves from the impulsive defense of the magazine, changing the slogan “Je suis Charlie” to “Je ne suis pas Charlie” (I am not Charlie). Thoret, who avoided the attack by being late to work that day, says, “That’s fine! Be what you want to be.”