Stéphane Charbonnier, the editorial director of the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, was often pictured with his fist aloft.
Charbonnier, 47, a cartoonist known professionally as Charb, was among 12 people killed Wednesday when gunmen attacked his newspaper’s offices in Paris. He had been instrumental in a series of defiant campaigns that divided public opinion — some saw them as powerful stands for free speech, and others as needless provocations.
He oversaw the publication of a spoof issue in 2011, advertised as guest edited by the Prophet Muhammad, which led to the paper’s offices being firebombed.
In 2012, Charbonnier defied the advice of the French government and published crude caricatures of Muhammad, shown naked and in sexual poses. Depictions of the prophet, even if reverent, are forbidden by Islamic law. One of the people killed Wednesday was a police officer assigned to guard the paper’s offices after those episodes.
“Is it really sensible or intelligent to pour oil on the fire?” asked Laurent Fabius, the foreign minister at the time, when he closed French embassies, consulates, cultural centers and schools in about 20 countries.
Charbonnier himself was under police protection, though he told Le Monde, the French daily, that as a single man he did not fear retaliation, and that however pompous it might sound, he would rather “die standing than live on my knees.”
When the French prime minister at the time, Jean-Marc Ayrault, said that the government planned to block a series of protests by Muslims, Charbonnier defied that too.
“Why should they prohibit these people from expressing themselves?” Charbonnier said at the time. “We have the right to express ourselves; they have the right to express themselves, too.”
Charbonnier, a slight man with thick glasses, had worked at Charlie Hebdo for more than 20 years, he said in an interview with Al-Jazeera English in 2012. For that entire time, he said, the newspaper had been “provocative on many subjects. It just so happens that every time we deal with radical Islam we have a problem and we get indignant or violent reactions.”
A recent cartoon by Charbonnier, shared on social media Wednesday, appeared gruesomely prophetic. It pictured a hapless-looking man, dressed in the style of many Islamic extremists, under the words “still no attacks in France.” The extremist, in a speech bubble, pointed out that he had until the end of January to present his New Year’s wishes.
Among the dozen people killed in the attack Wednesday were two of the magazine’s founding cartoonists, Jean Cabut, who used the pen name Cabu, and Georges Wolinski. Also killed was Bernard Velhac, who used the pen name Tignous.
“To have cartoonists slaughtered for publishing cartoons is something we haven’t seen since the 18th century,” said Françoise Mouly, the art editor of The New Yorker magazine, who was born in France and grew up reading Charlie Hebdo. “They were troublemakers for my entire life,” she said.
The 45-year-old newspaper, part of a long tradition in France of using satire and insolence, regularly targets politicians, the police, bankers, religion and religious figures — from popes to prophets. This week’s issue included a mock debate about whether Jesus exists.
The newspaper was born in controversy in 1970 when a publication called Hara-Kiri, where Cabut and Wolinski had worked, folded after coming under criticism for mocking the death of Charles de Gaulle. Its staff pivoted to set up a new weekly, Charlie Hebdo — Charlie Weekly — a reference to its reprint of Charlie Brown cartoons from the United States. The paper’s founding “was the moment when cartoonists became important in French culture,” Mouly said.
Although its circulation is only around 30,000, Charlie Hebdo has sparked controversy and drawn the ire of Muslims with its provocative cartoons. In 2006, the newspaper reprinted cartoons of Muhammad first published by a Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, prompting a lawsuit from French Muslim groups. After the attack in 2011, Charbonnier worried about the future of the newspaper, but it persevered and continued to stoke controversy.
Cartoonists elsewhere were shaken to once again find themselves targets of extremist violence.
“It is so out of proportion with the actual impact they had,” Mouly said. “But this on the other hand is the same kind of thinking that has fundamentalists killing children.”