French Language Blog

Nous Sommes Charlie Hebdo Posted by on Jan 12, 2015 in Culture

In honor of the courageous men and women who were murdered in cold blood at Charlie Hebdo this past Wednesday, I will not be continuing my regular grammar post this week.

Rather, I’d like to pay tribute to the fallen staff and friends of Charlie Hebdo, as well as those who died while trying to stop the perpetrators. My family and I have spent the past few days glued to the television, trying to make sense of this awful tragedy. Charlie Hebdo and its cartoonists were a cultural institution in France and were deeply loved and treasured by the French. While it was common knowledge that its staff had been targeted for the cartoons it had published in the past, I don’t think anyone believed that something like this would happen in the middle of Paris.

Political satire has long been a part of French culture, but is not such an integral part of American culture. To Americans, French political satire might seem strange; even more than foreign, it might seem downright extreme. Charlie Hebdo, a newspaper dedicated to satirical cartoons and reports, and other forms of political satire, like Les Guignols de l’Info, a satirical puppet show that lampoons politicians and current events, have an incredible impact on French culture. Oftentimes, phrases used in these satires become part of popular French language. If these journalists and artists respond to French popular culture and current events, French culture also responds to their art.

Charlie Hebdo began as Hara-Kiri in 1960 and most of its staff early on, including Jean Cabut (Cabu) and Georges Wolinski, matured in the spirit of May 1968, a time of influential leftist labor and student occupations and strikes in France. This leftist, non-conformist, and staunchly anti-religious movement was at the heart of Charlie Hebdo and remains there to this day. As it should be with satirical commentary, nothing escaped their purview; while many people mistakenly thought that the cartoonists and writers at Charlie Hebdo specifically targeted Islam or, really, fundamentalist Islam, they also used Catholicism and Judaism, as well as popular politicians on both sides of the political divide, as fodder for their art. No one was safe from the power of their pens and that’s the way it should be.

But those brave artists and activists who were killed in their office on Wednesday should not only be remembered for their politics, although this was integral to their work, but, more importantly, for their humanism. Stéphane Charbonnier, popularly known as Charb, the editor of Charlie Hebdo who was first targeted by the killers, was instrumental in obtaining thousands of signatures on a 1996 petition to ban the Front National, a xenophobic and extreme-right political party that often uses Islamophobic rhetoric, on the basis of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. Cabu, one of the most brilliant cartoonists in French history, was staunchly non-violent because of his experiences being conscripted into the Algerian War. He spent his life fighting to better the lives of others. Wolinksi, another founding member of the newspaper, used his incredible and irreverent humor to bring attention to the seriousness of every day life and its inequalities. Bernard Verlhac, known as Tignous, who drew for Charlie Hebdo since 1980, was a member of the group Cartoonists for Peace. Phillipe Honoré was another great cartoonist who spent his life resisting injustice, cynicism, and idiocy, according to Paris Match.

The economist Bernard Maris, gust editor and founder of the program RDV Carnet du Voyage Michel Renaud, copyeditor and recent French national Moustapha Ourrad, janitor Frédéric Boisseau, psychoanalyst and columnist Elsa Cayat, and police officers Franck Brinsolaro and Ahmed Merabet were also lost in this tragedy.

These courageous individuals only desired to make the world a better place through their art. They took up their pens in a society that values free expression in order to shine a light on inequalities in their own culture and around the world. Their lives were cut short, but their work will remain forever. It is a tribute to France that such important work can take place within its borders, and this must never stop.

As Franz-Olivier Giesbert, former editor of Le Point, stated on La nouvelle edition, a popular French news show: “They laughed. They laughed at everything because we are in a culture where we can laugh at everything.”

I urge you all to take a look at this moving tribute to Charlie and its staff, entitled “Charlie will live” by Laurent Joffrin. It’s a beautiful remembrance of these incredible artists, their legacy, and the loss that France, and the entire world, has suffered.

 **This was written before related attacks also took the lives of Yoav Hattab, Yohan Cohen, François-Michel Saada, Philippe Braham, and Clarissa Jean-Philippe.  This post honors the tragic loss of these brave men and women as well.   

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About the Author: Elizabeth Schmermund

Bonjour tout le monde! I'm a freelance writer, doctoral student, mom, and Francophile. I'm excited to share some of my experiences living in France, as well as the cultural nuances that I've learned being married to a Frenchman, with all of you. To find out more about me, feel free to check out my website at A la prochaine!


  1. Robert Hubbard:

    Merci for an excellent, insightful post. I will share this link on my facebook page so others may have a complete understanding of the cultural and sometimes puzzling French comedic landscape.

    • Elizabeth Schmermund:

      @Robert Hubbard Merci à vous, Robert. And thanks for sharing, too!