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The front page of Charlie Hebdo, shown near the magazine’s Paris office on Jan. 7, 2015, shows a caricature of French author Michel Houellebecq. (JACKY NAEGELEN/REUTERS)
The front page of Charlie Hebdo, shown near the magazine’s Paris office on Jan. 7, 2015, shows a caricature of French author Michel Houellebecq. (JACKY NAEGELEN/REUTERS)

What is Charlie Hebdo and why was it a target? Add to ...

In this Sept.19, 2012 file photo, publishing director of the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo Stéphane Charbonnier - also known as Charb - displays the front page of the newspaper as he poses for photographers in Paris. Masked gunmen stormed the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo Wednesday Jan.7, 2015, killing 12 people including Charb, before escaping.

What is Charlie Hebdo?

Charlie Hebdo is a satirical left-wing French weekly (the word "hebdo" means weekly in French) that gleefully skewers religious figures, politicians and celebrities. It was first published in 1969, then closed in the 1980s before reappearing in 1992. Its current editor, Stéphane Charbonnier, was killed in Wednesday’s attack.

And despite the terrorist attack that killed eight of its staffers, the magazine will publish again. Charlie Hebdo's legal counsel told French media that the magazine's next edition will come out Wednesday, with only eight pages instead of the usual 16, but with an increased circulation of one million, from the standard run of 60,000 copies.

The French weekly was born in controversy. Its founders had been publishing another lurid magazine, Hara Kiri (motto: "The journal that's mean and stupid").

In 1970, the weekly edition of Hara Kiri was banned from publishing following a cover that made light of the death of former president Charles de Gaulle. The Hara Kiri editorial team then launched Charlie Hebdo to skirt the court restriction.

Though some reports say that the magazine's name refers to the American comic strip character Charlie Brown, others believe it alludes to de Gaulle.

Charle Hebdo closed in the 1980s before reappearing under a new team in 1992. The new contributors included some of the cartoonists who would shape recent controversies and died in Wednesday's shooting -- Mr. Charbonnier, Georges Wolinski, Jean Cabut, Bernard Velhac and Philippe Honoré.

"Our chief responsibility is to respect French law. We are a French satirical magazine published in France and in a few French-speaking countries like Belgium. We are not sold in Morocco or Muslim countries," Mr. Charbonnier, who became chief editor in 2011, has said in the past.

He has argued that the magazine ridicules fundamentalists or clerics, not a specific faith. One of Charlie Hebdo's most famous cover for example features the Prophet Mohammed crying, with the headline: “Mohammed overwhelmed by fundamentalists.”

“It’s hard being loved by these [idiots]," the tearful Prophet says in the cartoon.

Such nuances can be harder to discern at other times. When the anti-Islamic movie trailer"Innocence of Muslims" became a controversy, Charlie Hebdo's cartoons including one titled"Mohammed, a star is born!" It showed a bearded man on all fours, wearing nothing but a turban and a star covering his anus.

The latest bout of controversy started in 2006 when Charlie Hebdo reprinted a series of cartoons mocking the Prophet Mohammed that were originally published by a Danish newspaper. That prompted a lawsuit, ultimately unsuccessful, against Charlie Hebdo’s then-editor. Muslim groups accused the publication of inciting hatred, but the court ruled it was shielded by laws protecting freedom of expression.

Has the magazine been targeted in the past?

Yes. In 2011, the magazine’s office was firebombed after it published an issue supposedly guest-edited by the Prophet Mohammed. It featured a front-page cartoon of the Prophet together with the words, “100 lashes if you don’t die of laughter.”

The attack on its office, which left the premises a smouldering ruin, did little to intimidate the magazine. The cover of the following week’s issue had a drawing of two men kissing, one a bearded Muslim and the other a cartoonist for Charlie Hebdo. The caption: “Love is stronger than hate.”

The Nov. 2011 cover of Charlie Hebdo after their offices were firebombed.

Why might it have been attacked now?

Charlie Hebdo has continued to poke fun at a variety of targets, including jihadists. In 2012, it published more cartoons of the Prophet. Its caustic irreverence continued right up until the attack: a tweet sent out earlier Wednesday shows a mock New Year greeting from Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (“And especially to health”).

"No one is forced to read us. Charlie Hebdo is sold in stores, we do not post our content on our website. To read us is a voluntary act. We are not imposing it on anyone," Mr. Charbonnier has said.

Getty Images

Charlie Hebdo's current cover refers to a new and controversial book being published on Wednesday by French author Michel Houllebecq. The novel, Submission, imagines a future France run by an Islamic party. Charlie Hebdo’s cover features an unflattering cartoon of the author, who is supposedly offering his predictions for the years ahead (“In 2015, I lose my teeth … in 2022, I observe Ramadan.”)


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