He actually did not want to go to work. Etienne Augé was that upset about the attack on the Paris head office of Charlie Hebdo. Thanks to the massive ‘Je suis Charlie’ gatherings across Europe, the French lecturer in Media and Communication headed to campus anyway, mainly to introduce the satirical weekly to his students.
“My father always used to say ‘Hey, you’ve bought that porn magazine again’”, Augé says even before we shake hands. “But Charlie is much more than vulgar cartoons. It’s important for everyone to know that.” Armed with a pile of old issues, he gave a lecture the day after the attack to explain to his students why the magazine is so important. Augé, who constantly calls it Charlie, has been a faithful reader for 25 years.
Who will fight for us?
“I didn’t believe it at first. I thought: ‘It’s not possible.’” Having lived in Lebanon for 12 years, Augé knows a thing or two about violence. Or, as he put it himself: “I’ve seen a lot of shit.” It is why he wanted to return to Europe, ‘and then you see this’. After he realised who had been killed in the attack, he felt abandoned. “I’m not ashamed to say that I cried. Who will defend us? Who will fight for us now? Who will fight for me?”
“Charlie is very important to me and Charb [Stéphane Charbonnier, the chief editor killed in the attack, ed.] was a very important man.” Augé explains that French journalism is in fact rather mediocre. France is indeed only in 39th place in the World Press Freedom Index of Reporters without Borders. “We don’t have a press that is based on and provides information, we have a press that is based on opinion. Charlie is also about opinion, but at least it questions everything. Other French newspapers don’t do that. They operate on the basis of preconceived ideas. Charlie really criticises everything. It is a continuous form of opposition.”
Farts and butt plugs
Leafing through the copies of Charlie Hebdo that he had brought to lend weight to his words: “It’s very French and refers to many details in French culture, so I’m not sure you’ll understand it.” There was an array of cartoons about politicians and religious extremists, and one in which someone farts and rips his trousers as a result. “As a grown man with a doctorate perhaps I shouldn’t be laughing about it, but I still think it’s hilarious.” He points out a cartoon of a bomber from which objects that look like butt plugs are falling. The cartoon is not only about French involvement in the fight against IS, it is also about an artist who could exhibit a work on a prestigious square in Paris. “The artist had set up a kind of Christmas tree at Place Vendôme, but most passers-by thought that it looked like a butt plug.” The weekly ridicules everything.
According to Augé, Charlie Hebdo’s subtitle is an accurate reflection of the publication’s non-conformist nature: ‘Journal Irresponsable’. “They’ve been using the subtitle as a proud nickname ever since the then president Jacques Chirac called the magazine irresponsible in 2006 following the publication of Mohammed cartoons.” Although the magazine projects a kind of adolescent, bad boy nature, most of the authors and cartoonists are actually quite a bit older. “Some are in their sixties or even seventies. I find that very hopeful. Maybe I’ll also still be rather pissed off at that age. I really hope so.”
When Augé was living in Paris, he always bought Charlie Hebdo. One morning, he was sitting in the metro and reading when founder François Cavanna took a seat across from him. “We spent half an hour talking about why he thought it was important for young people to read Charlie. I was so happy. And he was so angry at the world. It made a tremendous impression on me that an old man could still be so pissed off.” That being pissed off is exactly why Augé wanted to show the magazine to his students. He would personally not wish to work in academia if he thought that the world was a beautiful place. “I consider it a very important driving force. I want my students to have it too. I want them to be angry and willing to make the world a better place.” TF