In an interview with RFE/RL’s Georgian Service, Gerard Biard, the editor in chief of the controversial French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, talks about the difficulties in creating satire in times of war, especially in Russia’s ravaged media landscape.
After his magazine was targeted by gunmen in a 2015 attack that left 12 people dead and 11 injured, Biard understands better than many the huge risks that come with the publication of material deemed by some to be problematic.
The Islamic extremists who carried out the attack said they were acting in revenge for the publication of cartoons that mocked the Prophet Muhammad. And with the proliferation of social media, Biard says that the risks have increased, making everyone — not just journalists and activists — potential targets.
RFE/RL: What is your and Charlie Hebdo’s take on the war in Ukraine and its main architect, Russian President Vladimir Putin?
Gerard Biard: Of course, we stand [with] the Ukrainian people. The main fear with the war is that it will degenerate into a Third World War. But I think that a Third World War has already begun; it’s a war between countries with democratic values and democratic systems and institutions on one side and those who don’t have them on the other.
It’s not only about Russia — there is China, Iran, and some others even in Europe, such as Turkey. Countries who don’t have a culture of democracy. The main problem with Russia — and you have the same problem with China — is that there is no culture of democracy, no foundation for it. And war is easy for dictators….For example, with [former U.S. President Donald] Trump, he tried to [carry out] a coup. He tried to [hold on to] power and, as we know, he failed….Because in the United States, you do have this political culture of democracy, you have institutions, you have something to defend. [But] there are no such things in Russia. It never was a democracy. The same for China….How do you sell democracy in a country where no one is buying it?
RFE/RL: What is it like to look at this war through the prism of political satire?
Biard: The problem when you are [talking] about looking at a war through satire is that you have to deal with civilian deaths, and that’s one of the major taboos. You have to be very precise, very accurate in what your message is, as satire is usually open for many interpretations.
You have to choose very carefully the way you treat this subject. On the war in Ukraine in particular, looking at the front-page cartoons we’ve published, most of the time we use the war in Ukraine to also deal with French political realities. For example, right now I’m looking at this cartoon that we made a few weeks ago, before the French elections: On it, there is Putin playing with a drone, but this is not just a regular drone; it has the face of [French far-right leader Marine] Le Pen and the text says: “Putin’s Drone. Can It Win?”….
And then we have various cartoons dealing with the character of Putin himself. He is so easy to [work with because] he is a dictator, and dictators are the easiest to draw for a caricaturist — although by far not the safest. But for better or worse, we’re used to being threatened, not only by dictators but by almost anyone who is on social media nowadays. And not just cartoonists; anyone can be threatened by anyone these days.
RFE/RL: Out of the many cartoons Charlie Hebdo has done on Putin, which one is your favorite, and which depicts him most accurately?
Biard: There is one where he is made into a gorilla. You don’t even need to explain this cartoon. The way Putin is depicted as a gorilla with tiny, tiny, tiny [genitals] over the red nuclear button. You look at this cartoon and you [immediately recognize] Putin.
RFE/RL: On the subject of presidents, let’s discuss yours, French President Emmanuel Macron. Quite a few eyebrows were raised at his persistence in continuing to telephone Putin despite the fact that Putin showed no signs of wanting to cooperate. Plus there are Macron’s remarks on how we shouldn’t humiliate Russia or Putin. What is your take on Macron’s position?
Biard: It’s a lot to do with the way Macron is politically. His main objective is to lead. Obviously he tried but he failed, because it’s not so simple. He tried to lead the “European action” regarding the war in Ukraine. He tried to remain the main interlocutor for Putin in Europe, but the problem that he didn’t understand was that Putin doesn’t want one.
And he’s not the only one who tried. There was [former French President Nicolas] Sarkozy, who in 2008, when Putin attacked Georgia, went to Moscow, to the Kremlin. We didn’t know what he said to Putin, but looking at his face at the end of the meeting, we knew at this moment how Putin responded. It was “f*** off.” That’s the only response Putin knows: “F*** off. I do what I want.” Maybe in other words, but he said “F*** off” to Macron, as well.
RFE/RL: The right to mock, to ridicule, is an integral part of artistic license. How symbolic or ironic is it that there are no notable satirical media outlets left in Russia?
Biard: Even in Soviet times, there were [satirical publications.] Putin is a real autocrat. The Soviet Union was a system; you had many people. [But] with Putin, you just have one person who wants to control everything. He doesn’t [tolerate] objections or any criticism. Nothing. He managed to cancel all criticism. You can still do it, but you’ll go to jail, or you will die. And you won’t die in a pleasant way. That’s the main problem with Putin.
RFE/RL: I remember the Kremlin spokesperson blasted you and Charlie Hebdo for a 2015 cover on the Russian plane crash in Egypt, which killed 224 people. Was civilian death a sensitive topic back then? Is it not ironic now that your cartoon was called sacrilegious and blasphemous when you look at what Russia is doing in Ukraine?
Biard: Yes, generally speaking, [as I said,] civilian deaths are one of the main taboos. With Ukraine, Putin has no problem [with dead people], no taboo. Regarding the “sacrilegious” and “blasphemous” [accusations], these days with social media every word can be blasphemy….It’s very difficult today to be a cartoonist or a satirical artist. You can’t be a satirical artist on Facebook. It’s impossible.