Protesters on the Republic Square in Paris after the attacks on the offices of Charlie Hebo in 2015. Photo: arenysam /

In Charlie’s shadow: France’s not-so-funny right-wing press

  • December 8, 2020

Fascism & Far Right

With French values at a crossroads following renewed debate over Charlie Hebdo, are media commentators overlooking the polarizing “poubelle” press?

In recent weeks, France’s socio-political climate has reached fever pitch. Press coverage of the ongoing Charlie Hebdo trial combined with the gruesome murder of Samuel Paty has reignited the debate over the cherished yet imperfect Republican principle of freedom of expression.

At the same time, the new Global Security law introduced last month did not help matters. Its prohibition of filming law enforcement officers in light of a recent spate of viral incidents of police brutality has led to violent protest and public uproar. These converging circumstances are making the discussion on freedom in France all the more unavoidable.

Many outside the French speaking world only became aware of Charlie Hebdo’s existence following the controversial publication of caricatures of the Prophet in 2006. At the time, French President Chirac roundly condemned the “overtly provocative” actions by Hebdo. Six years later, the magazine once again published another series of caricatures depicting the Prophet, unleashing a new wave of indignation and controversy. A deadly terrorist attack on its Paris offices in 2015 ignited more than just global outcry and grief: it left France shaken yet defiantly determined to protect the core values of the Republic.

Fast forward to 2020 and the murder of Paty, a teacher who was targeted after showing some of the caricatures in a lesson on freedom of expression, has left many decidedly angry, nationalistic and volatile in their reactions. Unlike Chirac, Macron refused to condemn these caricatures, sending out further shock waves. Some nations such as Turkey and Kuwait condemned Macron’s position and called for boycotts of French products.

To international critics and outsiders, Charlie Hebdo appears to be the only magazine on French news kiosk shelves that merits attention. But in reality, this is not the case. Hebdo is merely the most notorious “provocateur-in-chief” and actually vies for the public’s moral outrage with a right-wing reactionary press whose unashamed raison d’etre is in peddling disgusting scare stories aimed at stoking racism and xenophobia.

It is imperative to analyse such scare stories in a wider tradition of racism within France. From justification for colonialism via racial theory, to support for the Vichy government; themes of orientalism, antisemitism and ethnocentrism have been past and present realities of France’s cultural, social, political and of course, media discourses. The reactionary right-wing press builds directly on this dark tradition and it is high time that we dedicate attention to this highly visible public threat to France’s social fabric and security.

Judging a magazine by its cover

A month before Paty’s death, Hebdo republished the collection of controversial caricatures to mark the beginning of the legal trial over the 2015 attack. An editorial choice that ramped up the adversarial nature of proceedings further still. This framing of homogeneous French principles and universal idealism versus the “Islamic” tradition is unfortunate, dangerous and often willful.

Yet, many of France’s own citizens will contend that the values of the Republic are seen as nothing more that idealist virtues that hold little reality within their own socio-political and economic experience. The discontent of the Gilet Jaunes, consecutive public sector strikes alongside the fresh protests over the Global Security law are testament to this. In practice, these same values have become symbolic and ideological battlegrounds which are exploited and egged on by a provocative politicized media. This debate sparked in part by Hebdo’s “with us or against French values” attitude does little to champion the right of expression or press freedom in an inclusive and nuanced way.

Yes, freedom of expression ensures one’s ability and freedom to think, say or print what one wishes, provided it does not call for violence nor incite hatred. However just because you are free to provoke does not mean it is responsible, wise or productive to do so.

Criticism of Hebdo is nothing new and is expected, if not inevitable. It is hardly surprising that Hebdo’s trademark blend of provocative statement and political satire lays itself open to misinterpretation — willful or otherwise. In a democracy it is healthy for society to deliberate on what constitutes freedom and infringement, but such deliberations can fuel tension and fragmentation between social, ethnic and religious groups.

Yet, the frustrating truth is, that outside of France, very few — even those in active objection to Hebdo — have actually ever read the publication. By literally judging a magazine by its cover, all nuance and any possibility of a meaningful debate is lost.

Trashy values on the kiosk shelves

Many readers may have heard of Charlie Hebdo but in France there is an entire media ecosystem in which other magazines yield influence and mass following. Of particular note is Valeurs Actuelles a right-wing current affairs weekly founded in 1966 and since 2016 owned by Franco-Lebanese magnate Iskandar Safa. Its editor-in-chief between October 2012 and May 2018, Yves de Kerdrel, described his typical audience as those “who come…from the provinces, are not political but societal. They want to be told about ‘gender theory,’ ‘family,’ ‘school’ and ‘Islam.’”

Since de Kerdrel became the editor-in-chief of Valeurs Actuelles, the publication has seen its readership rocket, from an average of 88.000 in 2012 to over 123.000 in 2015, a year marked by jihadist terrorism in France. As of 2019-2020, that figure has somewhat decreased to around 107,000.

Valeurs Actuelles is known for its inflammatory, sensationalist and fear-mongering cover stories concerning, among other things, Islam(ism), immigration and integration. Jean-Claude Dassier, former vice-president of the magazine defended such covers and headlines, arguing “It’s provocation, we do it on purpose, obviously. In the kiosk, you have to understand that we are displayed alongside Alternatives économiques and Jeune Afrique. When you’re small at the back of a class, you have to be a little rowdy to get noticed.”

Among its published headlines are: “Barbarity, Terror, Sharia: The Islamists who want to bring France to its knees”; “Islamism: the internal threat”; “Islam, Immigration: how the left wants to change the people”; and “The Mosque Invasion: Our identity threated.” Meanwhile, among the common visual motifs are, predictably, veiled Muslim women and bearded jihadists. Put plainly, this toxic brew of highly charged rhetoric and crude, xenophobic insinuation is a horrifying throwback to the anti-immigration, Islamophobic and pro-nationalist narratives of the far-right Front National of the 1980s.

One particular 2013 cover featuring a veiled Marianne (France’s matriarch), did not bode well and triggered a lawsuit in which editors were ordered to pay €2,000 in damages to anti-racism charities. France’s Muslims are not the sole group targeted; another polemic cover on the Roma, prompted French senator David Assouline to fittingly rename them “Valuers Poubelles or trashy values. It is all to easy to forget that these “trashy values” have real-life consequences and societal implications. They enable a climate of fear and exclusion that has led to an alarming raise in Islamophobia and xenophobia in France in recent years.

In search of legitimacy

Symbiosis between Valeurs Actuelles and the Front National has become impossible to ignore since de Kerdrel’s tenure as editor began, with media observers noting a sharp shift to the right. Marine Le Pen and others in the party regularly choose Valeurs Actuelles as unofficial platform to diffuse their campaign rhetoric, announce policies or give exclusive interviews. On multiple occasions, Le Pen herself has authored articles in the magazine and has even appeared as the lead cover story of various issues.

Such a fostered collaboration and unambiguous association between the two is no mistake. The Front National wish to present their leader Le Pen, often namely simply Marine, in a more humanized light and are using every media appearance to do so. The 2018 rebirth as the Rassemblement National is the latest manifestation of Le Pen’s intention to be seen as a viable candidate for the presidency in 2022.

Le Pen is not alone in her search for legitimacy; Valuers Actuelles under De Kerdrel has attempted similar manoeuvres to de-demonize itself. In 2015 former French president Nicolas Sarkozy graced its pages in the form of an exclusive interview in order to pander to Front National voters. Then — more shockingly — in late 2019 Macron accepted an interview with them in which he went so far as to praise Valeurs Actuelles as “a good magazine” which “must be read to understand what the right think.” At the time, more than a few eyebrows were raised at his faux pas that further legitimized these “trashy values” as a reputable ones.

In August 2020, the relationship between the Front National and Valeurs Actuelles became strained following a seven-page feature which portrayed Danièle Obono, a black National Assembly member of far-left La France Insoumise as a chained African slave. The outcry was universal. Even the Front National tried to distance itself, with its party treasurer describing the article as “humiliating and contemptuous” and the party’s vice-president labeling it as “in bad taste.”

Yet, the reaction of party leader Le Pen could not have been more different. Posting on Parler, a Twitter-esque social media platform which has gained significant following within American and European far-right circles, she defended the magazine’s use of its freedom of speech and called for its support. But after seeing the collective condemnation, Le Pen followed suit and denied ever making such comments; claiming she was unable to recall donning her support to the article, funny that.

Since the caricatures were first published, Islam and immigration have been subject to increasingly securitized discourses within both political and media spheres, with political scientist Antony Messina defining this securitization process as a “transformation of ostensibly non-security issues into urgent security concerns.”

Far from the “poke-the-bear” satirical cheek of Hebdo, the lurid headlines, provocative imagery and inflammatory language deployed by the likes of the Presse Poubelle all work to intentionally frame and portray Islam through a solely danger- or threat-based lens. Such a securitized discourse is detrimental to community relations and societal cohesion as well as the Republican pillar of fraternité. This willful promotion and standardization of Islamophobic content works to stock the pseudo-intellectual arsenals of prospective radicalizers, both right-wing and Islamist.

It is true that media outlets on the extremity of speech and opinion feed off each other’s shock and provocation. But the likes of Valeurs Actuelles do not operate in mediatic solitude and should be regarded as representative of a larger culture of Presse Poubelle, wherein others such as Le Point and L’Express equally flirt with extreme-right motifs and securitized talking points.

But what is missing in international reporting of the French press is a balanced representation; an acknowledgment that Hebdo is only the tip of iceberg of critique-worthy content within the French media establishment. And yet, this article may very well be the first you have heard of the likes of Valeurs Actuelles or the Presse Poubelle. If conscious efforts are at play to critique Hebdo publicly, there should also be, at the very least, an effort to contextualize and objectively examine other players within France’s milieu mediatique.

Challenging the “valiant truth tellers”

There is a bittersweet irony that the progressive and liberal media have become subject to intense critique and public scrutiny, while reactionary and illiberal voices are given free rein to securitize and polarize without the same critical reception or treatment both domestically and internationally.

This entire debate uncovers the fractured and paradoxical nature between the Republican bedfellows of liberté, egalité and fraternité. The use of the first by the press has direct consequences and implications for the latter two. Yes, both publications mentioned in this article are exercising their right of free speech, however, to what level is the difference in their tone and intention important? One requires readers to look beyond the overt provocation in order to analyze their embedded satirical nuance, while many others in the Presse Poubelle hold up no satirical pretense whatsoever and instead simply weaponize respected and honorable — yet unobtained — French Republican principles.

What does unite Charlie Hebdo and Valeurs Actuelles, however, is the way they both pride themselves as valiant truth tellers of the French press; the only magazine that will dare to say what everyone secretly thinks or is too afraid to say. Two distinct points on the spectrum of expressive freedom, and yet only one has been loudly and internationally condemned …until now.

Outside of the Charlie Hebdo debate, protest is again becoming a weekly occurrence across France, this time due to passing of a controversial security law which among other things aims to restrict the freedom to film on duty police officers. The adoption of this law coincides with numerous filmed examples of police brutality in recent weeks. Opponents of the law see its use of security issues in order to curtail public freedom of expression and permits the forces of law and order to avoid accountability for their acts.

This uproar concerning the new law has shown more than ever the need to understand and consider securitization’s implications on the media and politics. There is a clear tribal need to stand by one’s principles in today’s ever divided world, France included. But if one wishes to see France truly begin to strive for her supposed values of liberté, egalité and fraternité then the loud vocal challenging of sensationalist racism, xenophobia and securitization from our media establishment and political representatives must be on the top of all of our agendas.

Chaim Narang

Chaim Narang is a British academic and researcher based in Paris. A graduate of International Relations, his latest piece of published research focuses on radicalization, socio-economic discrimination and the securitization of French-born North Africans.

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