Creative problem solving for refugees.
Death by garbage truck.
Detention? Give me a loud speaker.
These are the winning topics expressed by three French teenage girls as part of Charlie Hebdo’s first annual literary prize.
While continuing to grieve for the 11 journalists murdered in January 2015 by two brothers claiming allegiance to Al Qaeda, Charlie Hebdo’s editorial team is working to educate French youth on the role that free speech, and in particular cutting satire, plays in democracy.
Nearly 1,400 young writers from Francophone countries entered Le Prix Charlie Hebdo, which asked participants to explore in 4,000 words how France could replace le baccalaureat, the often-dreaded series of written and oral exams that students must pass to enter university. Contestants had to be between the ages of 12 and 22 — in other words, those who are preparing for or have recently passed “le bac.”
All styles were welcome — from the absurd, grotesque, and dark to zany parody and biting irony.
“Charlie Hebdo encouraged entrants to express themselves freely and to avoid self-censure,” the magazine’s publicist told me during a recent conversation in Paris, where I hand-delivered print copies of my e-zine, Creativity Is Risky: Free Speech in a Charlie Hebdo World. “It was a unique opportunity to address themes and use language that would never be permitted in school.”
The Winning Ideas
Riss, the journal’s chief executive, who was shot in the shoulder and lives under a fatwa, said that after the attacks the magazine received many cartoons from young people with a liberated tone of voice. “This prize is a means to continue the dialogue between this generation and Charlie,” Riss told Le Parisien. “We are a magazine that dares. We want to transmit this taste, to help youth to loosen up, at an age when everything is still possible.”
After the magazine’s jury identified 10 finalists, 5,000 people voted on the contest website for the three winners: Alice Petit (nom de plume: Kaptain’Globule), 18, who passed the bac last year and is now studying graphic design; and high school students Aurelie Liot (Tiliote),17, and Enora Frigout (Enorahope), 15. While many French news organizations covered the contest, this article is the only one written in English.
Amidst a few calls to replace the bac with farting contests to, in one writer’s words, “give a breath of fresh air” to the French school system, other essayists addressed issues such as unemployment and war. Commenting on the content of history courses, one entrant wrote, “Are we supposed to think the French state improved the lives of the people it colonized?” Few essays were positive — it’s not in the magazine’s nature — yet one writer wished the bac would teach people to love.
In all, the essays reflect serious concerns among young people, who have grown up with war and are now witnessing bloodshed and carnage on French soil. Likewise, many expressed fears that after all their academic studies they won’t be able to find a job.
High School for a Refugee
Liot’s essay, “If you replaced the bac by…a migrant’s passage,” describes in frightening detail what an individual fleeing war must master to enter Europe.
“This much-feared exam won’t last a week but rather several months,” her essay begins. “You are presently on Libyan soil awaiting your smuggler who will be your examiner as you pass through your different tests. A word of caution: never forget that this person is not your friend, he is not there to help you, his only role is to evaluate you, you cannot trust him or count on him.”
She points out that a refugee, like a French student, needs to learn math (the kilometres he will travel and how much to pay his smuggler), geography (where on European shores has he landed or did the smuggler take him back to the starting point as just another test along the way?), creative problem solving (lose a leg? make a tourniquet), and foreign languages (to integrate into society).
For this refugee, earning the bac means citizenship in his adopted European country. But if he is deported, he fails and has to start all the tests over again. If he dies, his fate no longer concerns him.
Death by Garbage Truck
Even in death, the bac hovers over a test taker in the only fictional essay entered in the contest. In “Today’s the day, the damned day,” Petit recounts her death by garbage truck on the way to an exam.
“My ectoplasm soared through an open window at the center of examinations, crashing right onto the stack of philosophy tests. I caught a glimpse of the first question: ‘Does death give meaning to life?’ Having already died…I was going to have all the time I needed to reflect later on.”
Ultimately, her ghost throws all the “classified” tests out the window. The test is canceled, causing a nationally televised panic and an apocalypse at the Ministry of Education.
“Although I didn’t have the time to give meaning to my miserable life, which ended under a heap of putrid garbage, I had at least just ruined those of a million high schoolers and worthless, pencil-pushing teachers,” she writes. “And that would give meaning to my tragicomic death.”
Imprisoned in Her Own Thoughts
Free speech, which Charlie Hebdo has come to symbolize since the attack, is the theme Frigout explores in “They tell me…”
“If I don’t feel that I can express myself freely, then deep down inside, I would always feel trapped with my ideas,” she writes. “What’s the use of living in a closed world where freedom of expression is met with punishment! One hour of detention for a few words exchanged, it’s like a bullet in the shoulder for a published cartoon. Personally, I think that in the end, they are the ones who don’t hear me very well. They don’t listen enough. So now I shout loud and clear, from the depths of my heart, to replace the bac by a loudspeaker.”
In reading Frigout, I couldn’t help but think of the French teenage boy in Val-de-Marne southeast of Paris, who received death threats, including a letter containing bullets, for supporting Charlie Hebdo in his high school newspaper a week after the murders. “We want your death,” one letter said. “Say your goodbyes.” I wonder if Frigout thought of him while writing.
Meanwhile, Charlie Hebdo continues to outrage some readers with its biting and often misunderstood satire. The town of Amatrice, Italy, has asked prosecutors to sue the magazine over cartoons published after the August earthquake that killed hundreds of people. The cartoon, “Earthquake Italian Style,” depicted the victims as pasta dishes. After angry reactions, Charlie Hebdo published another cartoon with the caption, “Italians, Charlie Hebdo doesn’t build your homes, it’s the mafia.”
Indeed, the country’s anti-mafia prosecutor, Franco Roberto, has opened an investigation into why so many buildings collapsed, telling La Repubblica that it is “impossible to hide” the mafia’s role in construction that often fails to withstand earthquakes.