Gérard Biard: Laughing in the face of fear

Over one year on from the horrific Charlie Hebdo murders, GEN sat down with the magazine’s editor-in-chief to talk about freedom of expression in a time of grave instability.

Charlie Hebdo editor-in-chief Gérard Biard speaks to journalists at the 2016 GEN Summit in Vienna. Photo: Luiza Puiu, European Forum Alpbach for GEN

“Whatever you write, whatever you draw, will be shocking to someone, somewhere in the world.” So says Gérard Biard, editor-in-chief of the French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo. Soft-spoken and with a face that often cracks a warm and gentle smile, he is an unassuming marked man.

Despite having to travel with two burly security guards in tow, Mr Biard said that he does not live in fear. In fact, he refuses to do so.

“Immediately after the attack, I felt anger,” he said. “I was angry. I’m not afraid, but maybe there’s a good reason for that: I was not present during the attack [he was at a conference in London]. But I’m also not afraid because I don’t think you can work under fear and I think that fear is maybe the wrong answer to the problem we face [as a society]. I’m glad that we can go on. I’m glad that people at Charlie go on doing their jobs very well.”

In the aftermath of the attack, the phrase “Je Suis Charlie” became a meme for freedom of expression. What did Mr Biard think of this reaction from social media users?

“It was very comforting,” he said. “I’m not sure that every person who claimed ‘Je Suis Charlie’ really knew what it meant. But that’s okay. It’s natural after such a traumatic event.

“It was very traumatic for French society. We are a country that has lived in peace for 70 years. We are a democracy. It was the first time since World War II that journalists were physically threatened and physically exterminated.”

Photo: Luiza Puiu, European Forum Alpbach for GEN

Throughout its fractured history, the magazine — which Mr Biard refers to as a newspaper — has faced criticism and received threats for depicting Muhammad, a taboo in Islam. It has also been accused of making racist comments. Mr Biard maintains that Charlie Hebdo cartoons are often taken out of context and misunderstood.

“There is an urban legend that we are obsessed about Islam,” he said. “We don’t laugh at people’s beliefs. We laugh at the way that their beliefs are politically instrumentalised by other people, by leaders. We don’t care about people’s beliefs or religion. We care about what religions do politically.

“When we attack Islamism, it has nothing to do with Muslim people. I think many of them understand that. For me they are French citizens. Period. I don’t see them as Muslims. I see them as poor people. They must have the same rights and they must be seen in the same way as all French people. But if you accept that they define themselves only as religious, it is the wrong way to help them, to fight against the discriminations that they suffer.

“As far as I know, religion gives no rights to anyone. [Religion] takes away rights.”

He noted that a study of 523 covers that Charlie Hebdo published over the last 10 years showed only seven were about Islamism, which he is quick to distinguish from Islam. Twenty-seven were about other religions, including Christianity. The rest, he said, were about French politics.

“The point is that we are a French newspaper and we comment about French news… When we make covers about [François] Hollande, nobody cares. Because nobody cares about Hollande except French people.”

Mr Biard believes that “we must confront ourselves with other ways of seeing society” if we are to evolve intellectually and protect democracy.

“The history of mankind is made from these exchanges,” he said. “The first reaction is to fight. But after a while, you stop fighting and you talk. It’s the way we built societies.

“The problem is that we can’t exchange ideas. [Fundamentalists] want to impose their ideas. They want to impose a political system. If you live in a democracy and if you believe in democracy, you can’t be stopped by that. You can’t be stopped by the fact that someone somewhere will not understand you.

“Ideas can be exchanged. We have no problem having a discussion with anyone — but not with bullets.”

When asked about his memories of creating the “survivors’ issue” of Charlie Hebdo, Mr Biard said: “We were all very happy when we had this front cover, because it was very, very difficult to create. We were very comforted that we did it. When the Kouachi brothers ran out from our offices and said ‘We killed Charlie Hebdo’, they were wrong. They didn’t. We knew that it would be very difficult. It always will be. But on that point, they didn’t succeed.”

Gérard Biard speaking at the GEN Summit. The cover of the “survivors’ issue” is projected on the screen. Photo: Luiza Puiu, European Forum Alpbach for GEN

Reflecting on France’s ongoing state of emergency and the November 2015 attacks in Paris, Mr Biard said he is concerned at the heightened level of fear experienced by French citizens.

“We go on. We will continue to go to concerts. We will continue to go out. But fear is here.

“It’s even harder [for the state to protect its citizens] considering that we are in more and more violent societies. Verbal violence that you have on social networks is now turning into physical violence. We are arriving at a very, very dangerous point, I think.”

After our interview ended, we asked Mr Biard to play a game. The rule: We ask him a question and he answers with a facial expression. Here is the result.

Photo: Luiza Puiu, European Forum Alpbach for GEN