The last thing you expect to hear from one of the surviving cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo is laughter. But the way Bernard Holtrop sees it, laughing – and making other people laugh – is the best response to the horror of the past week.
Mr. Holtrop, better known in France by his nom deplume of Willem, won't say what he has drawn for this week's issue of Charlie Hebdo – a special production that will see one million copies of the satirical newspaper printed on Wednesday (rather than the usual print run of 60,000), in a defiant retort to the Islamist gunmen who attacked its offices last week. But the mirth of the 73-year-old cartoonist suggests he's quite pleased with his contribution.
"You should wait until Wednesday. A cartoon can't be told, it must be seen," he chuckles during a telephone interview with The Globe and Mail. "We will show we can continue, even though our best talents are gone."
The best talents Mr. Holtrop is referring to are the quintet of France's best-known cartoonists – Georges Wolinski, Jean Cabut, Philippe Honoré, Bernard Verlhac and editor-in-chief Stéphane Charbonnier – who were assassinated last Wednesday when two Kalashnikov-wielding extremists burst into the central Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo and opened fire. Seven others, including journalists, policemen and a building maintenance worker, died in the massacre.
Mr. Holtrop is perhaps only alive today because he doesn't like staff meetings. He was in no rush to make it to the start of the weekly gathering of Charlie Hebdo's editors and contributors last Wednesday, and was still on his train to Paris when the shooting occurred. He only found out something had gone terribly wrong when his mobile phone started to ring. "At first you don't believe it. Then, when reality sinks in, it's horrible," he said of his initial reaction to the news.
The massive outpouring of support from French society in the days since – including a million-strong march on Sunday where supporters chanted "Liberté! Charlie!" as they moved through the streets of Paris – "helps a lot" in giving the remaining Charlie Hebdo staff the strength to continue, Mr. Holtrop said. But he starts laughing again when he contemplates how figures and institutions that were among Charlie Hebdo's favourite targets have spoken out in support of the magazine since the attack.
"Some of it is a little embarrassing, like the Pope and Queen Elizabeth. These are new friends," he said. Pope Francis celebrated mass last week in memory of the victims, while the Queen expressed her "sincere condolences."
This week's edition of Charlie Hebdo is being produced with plenty of the help. The newspaper's 30 or so surviving staff are working in borrowed space – and behind a police cordon – on the top floor of the offices of France's left-wing Libération newspaper. Another newspaper, Le Monde, lent them computers, while donations have come in from media organizations around the world, including Google and Britain's The Guardian newspaper.
Johan Hufnagel, deputy editor of Libération – which also provided Charlie Hebdo with premises in 2011 after it was firebombed following the publication of highly controversial cartoons featuring the Prophet Mohammed – said it was natural that Libération again welcomed the Charlie Hebdo staff "home" following the latest attack, though he said some at his newspaper were uncomfortable with the police presence outside their offices.
Though Mr. Hufnagel didn't agree with everything Charlie Hebdo did – Libération is among the media that have avoided reprinting the caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed – he said the newspaper deserved support. "Charlie Hebdo represents the ultimate frontier of freedom of expression, and liberty of the press. It is at the avant-garde of this. They have a very French side. Provocative, ferocious satire."
Charlie Hebdo staff were working in near-complete seclusion on Sunday as the deadline neared, and Mr. Hufnagel said neither he nor anyone at Libération had any idea what Wednesday's edition would look like. But he predicted the planned million copies would sell out very quickly.
Mr. Hufnagel said he sensed many Charlie Hebdo staff were uncomfortable with the support the newspaper has gotten from all corners since the attack.
"Their job was to destroy all totems and symbols. Being today the greatest totem of liberty of expression in all of France. … If it were not so tragic, they would be laughing."
The man known as Willem already is. Mr. Holtrop said that keeping the same defiant, mocking attitude was the only way to ensure the spirit of Charlie Hebdo survived the attack.
"The message is that we will go on. That we are stronger than they are. Weapons are not our strength. We draw funny things. That's our strength."