Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical weekly propelled to global notoriety when its cartoonists were shot dead by jihadist gunmen a year ago on Thursday, has been abandoned in its struggle to “laugh at everything”, one of the survivors of the attack said.
In the wake of the killing of eight of its staff on January 7, 2015, Charlie Hebdo became one of the best-known publications in the world and the hashtag #JeSuisCharlie flashed across social networks.
The newspaper was held up as a symbol of freedom of expression and an astonishing 7.5 million copies were sold of the first issue produced by its surviving staff just a week after the attack.
But now those same staff feel they have been left to carry that torch alone, according to the newspaper’s financial director, Eric Portheault, who escaped death by hiding behind his desk when the gunmen stormed in.
“We feel terribly alone. We hoped that others would do satire too,” he said. “No one wants to join us in this fight because it’s dangerous. You can die doing it.”
A month before the attack, Charlie Hebdo was close to shutting down as sales had dipped below 30,000. Its brand of provocative, no-holds-barred humour appeared to have gone out of fashion.
Most people were unaware that its staff had been under police protection since it had published cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed in 2006. In 2011, its offices were firebombed and it was forced to move premises.
– Painful road –
Despite the earlier threats, few people could have imagined an attack as bloody as that carried out by brother-terrorists Said and Cherif Kouachi in the paper’s modest offices in a quiet street in eastern Paris.
The assault — claimed by Al-Qaeda’s branch in the Arabian Peninsula — took the lives of Charlie Hebdo’s top cartoonists, known by the nicknames Charb, Cabu and Wolinski, as well as nine other people, and sparked horror across the world.
Donations poured in for the victims, and 200,000 people signed up for a subscription.
But that so-called “survivors’ issue”, featuring the Prophet Mohammed with a tear in his eye on the cover under the title “All is forgiven”, also sparked violent protests in several Muslim countries.
Despite losing many of its key staff, Charlie Hebdo has continued to produce a 16-page issue each Wednesday of cartoons and drawings that — its creators take pains to point out — poke fun at all religions and politicians.
But it has been an emotional experience for the staff left behind, including several who narrowly escaped death, such as cartoonist Laurent Sourisseau, known as Riss, who was seriously injured in the attack.
Riss, 49, took over the management of the paper and became its main shareholder. But some staff were unhappy with the new leadership and demanded more transparency in the management of the vast sums donated, to ensure they went to the victims and their families.
The row calmed down, but one of Charlie’s best-known cartoonists, Luz, resigned in September, saying he was too traumatised by the attack to continue.
“Those we lost left an enormous, monstrous hole,” said Portheault. “Others didn’t want to work with us because they thought it was too dangerous, which is understandable. We have a Sword of Damocles hanging over our heads.”
– ‘No self-censorship’ –
The team of around 20 staff has recently moved into new ultra-secure offices. Unlike the offices that were attacked, the address is a closely-guarded secret.
Despite the dangers, the members of the new team say they are determined to continue mercilessly poking fun at France and the rest of the world.
“There is no question of self-censorship, otherwise it would mean they (the terrorists) have won,” Portheault said.
“If what is happening in the news leads us to draw the Prophet Mohammed again, we would do it,” he added.
The cover of Wednesday’s one-year anniversary issue features a bearded man representing God with a Kalashnikov slung over his shoulder, under the headline: “One year on: The assassin is still out there”. One million copies have been printed.
Several of the newspaper’s recent drawings have drawn criticism, especially abroad.
When Riss pictured Aylan, the Syrian toddler found dead on a Turkish beach this year, under a McDonald’s sign in what was intended to be criticism of the consumer society, he was accused of racism.
An exasperated Luz even felt compelled to produce an explanation of what a satirical drawing is.
As a result of the attack, Charlie Hebdo now has a hefty financial war chest and a global readership.
“We are read by far more people now, who have discovered Charlie’s special type of humour,” said Portheault. He hopes sales will eventually stabilise around the 100,000-mark.
The massive injection of funds has done nothing, however, to heal the staff’s psychological wounds — and the jihadist attacks in which 130 people were killed in Paris in November made the process of recovery even harder.
“With the November 13 attacks and then the one-year anniversary, everything has come back up to the surface,” Portheault said.
“But we won’t give up. We don’t want them to have died for nothing.”