Bête et Méchant: Politics, Editorial Cartoons and Bande Dessinée in the French Satirical Newspaper Charlie Hebdo
Weston, Jane, European Comic Art
The weekly French satirical newspaper, Charlie hebdo, which originally ran from 1969 to 1982, pending a revival in 1992, distinguishes itself through its bête et méchant ['stupid and nasty'] humorous heritage, defined in its parent publication, Hara-Kiri, as the freedom to make jokes on potentially any subject, however taboo. Whilst this satirical ethos predominated in Charlie hebdo up to 1982, its enduring place in the publication has become more ambiguous since 1992, with the abrupt sacking of Siné in July 2008 seemingly belying its vigorous defence of provocative humour in the context of the 2006 Danish caricature affair. An important underlying continuity nonetheless remains in Charlie hebdo and transcends the bête et méchant project: that of negotiating a space for satirical expression that has continuously engaged with both elements of bande dessinée and the rich French tradition of polemical editorial cartooning and caricature.
Single-panelled editorial cartooning,1 bande dessinée,2 and hybridisations of the two have always coexisted in the French satirical newspaper Charlie hebdo ['Charlie Weekly'], both within its original format, which ran from 1969 to 1982, and since its revival in 1992. One of the most important specificities of this satirical weekly publication within the French humorous press is its association with bête et méchant ['stupid and nasty'] humour, the provocative satirical brand of the group of humorists and cartoonists who first conceived of the term in the early 1960s in the context of the monthly satirical magazine Hara-Kiri.3
Bête et méchant humour favoured scatology, sexually explicit material and black humour in general. A key early example of such spirit was a parodical, but genuine advertisement that appeared in Hara-Kiri mensuel in December 1964 for Renoma, a Parisian tailor, which claimed that the shop had been a former favourite of Hitler, who had bought all his favourite suits there. Whilst this piece provoked violent protests by Jewish deportee groups, the journal's founder François Cavanna situates such humour within a serious justification of the group's ethos as a determinedly de-sacralising force:
Rien n'est sacré. Principe numéro un. Pas même ta propre mère, pas les martyrs juifs, pas même ceux qui crèvent de faim... Rire de tout, de tout, férocement, amèrement, pour exorciser les vieux monstres. C'est leur faire trop d'honneur que de ne les aborder qu'avec la mine compassée. C'est justement du pire qu'il faut rire le plus fort, c'est là où ça te fait le plus mal que tu dois gratter au sang.
['Nothing is sacred. Principle number one. Not even your own mother, not the Jewish martyrs, not even people starving of hunger... Laugh at everything, ferociously, bitterly, to exorcise the old monsters. It would pay them too much respect only to approach them with a straight face. It's exactly about the worst things that you should laugh the loudest, it's where it hurts the most that you should scratch until it bleeds.']4
Defined as the freedom to laugh about potentially any subject, however taboo or sensitive, bête et méchant humour was adopted from Hara-Kiri and predominant in the original Charlie hebdo up to 1982. In contrast, only an ever-diminishing echo of it has persisted since 1992, although it undeniably remains, as a central tenet of Charlie hebdo's original spirit, a key reference point in debates surrounding the publication's current satirical tone. Over the past 15 years, the ongoing importance of bête et méchant humour in relation to Charlie hebdo has been illustrated by the growing sense of betrayal expressed by a significant portion of its readership over its turn to an increasingly serious, and less juvenile, satire, under the strong and autocratic editorship of Philippe Val.5
Under Val, the defence of a serious set of values has indeed far more explicitly nourished the newspaper's editorial line than was ever the case in the original Charlie hebdo. …