Circulation is up at Charlie Hebdo. So are the death threats.
Nine months after French-born Islamists slaughtered 12 in an attack on the satirical magazine that shook and then united France before giving way to something more confused, the publication finds itself in an unsettled place.
Amid an outpouring of international support, sales have never been better: a magazine that limped along with a circulation of fewer than 30,000 now counts 180,000 subscribers and distributes another 100,000 copies on newsstands. Hosted by the daily newspaper Libération in the aftermath of the attacks, Charlie recently moved into new offices.
But the magazine’s rare patch of financial stability has been accompanied by infighting and depression among its traumatised survivors, existential questions about its future and regular threats of violence from a worldwide audience that is scrutinising its pages as never before.
"People feel authorised to send us death threats, even for a drawing that's not about religion," says Laurent Sourisseau, known by the nom de plume Riss, who was shot in the right shoulder during the January 7th attack as colleagues died all around him. He is now Charlie's sole editor. "We got sued, we suffered arson in 2011, we got shot at in 2015. I wonder what is next," he says.
Just arriving at an interview is a chore for Riss, who says he now lives in a haze of “fear, prudence and lucidity”. He emerges from an underground car park hidden behind a rampart of four bodyguards. Another police officer in plainclothes, who had searched the premises a few hours earlier, was already on site.
The sudden inflow of cash and the trauma caused by the deaths of some of the publication's most-renowned bylines, such as Jean Cabut ("Cabu"), Georges Wolinski and co-editor Stéphane Charbonnier, ("Charb"), have caused internal frictions over the running of the newspaper.
Rénald Luzier, aka Luz, the cartoonist who drew a crying prophet Muhammad on the cover of the survivors' edition, has left the publication, citing fatigue. Patrick Pelloux, the columnist who called French president François Hollande on his cellphone to inform him of the shootings, is leaving at the end of the year.
“We are survivors, yes and no,” Pelloux told Web7radio last month. “A part of us has gone with the attacks.”
Despite the magazine's newly acquired status as a non-profit organisation, some of the journalists have asked for a fairer distribution of shares in Charlie Hebdo, which is 40 per cent owned by Riss and 40 per cent owned by Charb's family.
Gérard Biard, deputy editor, plays down the tensions. “In 23 years, we’ve had rows and clashes. It’s difficult to understand the pressure we are under,” he says.
All the attention has been a curse, Biard says. The irreverent publication – always on the verge of bad taste, often filled with sexually explicit and sometimes outright offensive cartoons – is accustomed to being sued by vexed politicians and religious organisations. But since the attacks, the controversies rapidly spin into worldwide outrage.
received about 20 death threats for a cover, by Riss, depicting Aylan, the Syrian toddler found dead on a Turkish beach, whose picture prompted an outpouring of sympathy across Europe for the plight of Middle Eastern refugees. Behind an image of the boy’s lifeless body in the sand, a caption reads: “So close to the goal.” Beside it is a billboard advertising McDonald’s children menus.
Riss says he wanted to depict the hypocrisy of Europeans’ reaction to the crisis as well as the “disenchantment” awaiting the migrants reaching the continent’s shores alive.
While the cover went largely unnoticed in France, it was considered offensive elsewhere. Peter Herbert, a UK civil rights lawyer, labelled Charlie Hebdo "a purely racist, xenophobic and ideologically bankrupt publication".
"Buy yourself a brain," Corinne Rey, a Charlie illustrator, tweeted back.
Even in France, Charlie Hebdo feels isolated. Some more mainstream cartoonists and intellectuals are urging it to tone down its frequent caricatures of Islam amid deep soul-searching over the place of Muslims in France.
"There are drawings that are misunderstood," Jean Plantureux, whose cartoons appear on Le Monde's front page nearly every day, told Riss during a recent conference on press cartoons. "Maybe we should take into account the feelings of other people. We could avoid tragedies."
Riss jolted with anger. “What about my feelings as an atheist?” he snapped.
, a lawyer who defended
during a 2007 trial over caricatures of the
prophet Muhammad – which the magazine ultimately won – says self-censorship has long been creeping into French media.
"There was this considerable movement of support but the fundamental question remains: is it still possible in France to have freedom of speech on religious subjects? The fact is, Charlie has been very lonely for a long time."
Riss notes a certain irony: "For a change, we don't have to worry about money if we want to do reporting trips," he says. Yet he increasingly worries whether Charlie can survive.
"We go on doing what we have always done, satire, but we're wondering where this is going," he says. "Will we able to publish Charlie Hebdo in 20 years? Will its sense of humour still be accepted? It feels increasingly difficult."
– (Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2015)