On Sunday 26 April I saw a Facebook posting which carried the pithy comment “anyone still Charlie”? The posting shared a story from “OurAfricaBlog” about an allegedly outrageous cartoon which, the blog claimed, appeared in the French satirical magazine whose leading staff members were brutally murdered by religious fascists earlier this year.
The cartoon dealt with the horrific drowning of migrants in the Mediterranean the previous week. It featured roughly-drawn black figures falling to the bottom of the ocean under the headline “Regroupement Familial En Mediterranee”. The blog translated this as “Family reunion in the Mediterranean”, described the cartoon as “Charlie Hebdo ridiculing the African migrants who drowned whilst on the way to Europe” and finished their commentary on the item as “speechless”.
This Facebook status was from an SWP member. After a bit of research it became obvious that this link was being shared widely on social media and that most people were responding with the full range of outrage, moralism and, most of all, demands that those who had shown solidarity with the French publication apologise, recant and accept the claim that CH is a racist publication.
There are two problems with this story. And they are the same problems that dogged all attempts to smear Charlie Hebdo immediately after the murders at their offices.
Problem number one: the story isn’t true.
Charlie Hebdo didn’t publish the cartoon. It was drawn by a cartoonist called Ali Dilem and published in an Algerian paper called Liberté. There is a link, in that Ali Dilem had recently been appointed to work for CH.
Problem number two: the cartoon is an attack on a racist immigration policy introduced by the French government.
“Regroupement Familial” is a policy for non-EU residents in France being joined by other family members from abroad. This requires an 18 month initial stay (12 for Algerians) before they can come and be given formal status.
The point being made by the cartoonist is that this policy has contributed to the Mediterranean disaster and there is likely to be more such tragedies if the policy is not overturned. This, the satirist’s argument goes, is what “regroupement familial” really means. Whether people agree that satire and cartoons can properly deal with an issue of this gravity and misery, the purpose of this particular example was very plainly anti-racist and for more open borders.
Another aspect of this latest attempt to whip up a scandal was the lack of any attempt to examine the context, to investigate what the magazine’s attitude to the Mediterranean tragedy was.
It wouldn’t have taken much effort. Last week’s edition of Charlie Hebdo carried a full front page cartoon of a crowded boat called Titanic sinking with a female figurehead singing Celine Dion’s song from the movie of the same name. The figurehead looks very much to me like Marine Le Pen. The headline is “Une Titanic Par Semaine” (A Titanic Every Week). The message is that the racist attitudes toward refugees promoted by the likes of Le Pen will lead to more deaths at sea.
The determination of much of the British left to smear Charlie Hebdo, months after the murderous attack on their office can seem incomprehensible at times. The persistence and desperation has all the appearance of an especially odd obsession. We should resist that conclusion though. It is nothing of the sort.
The attack by religious fascists on journalists and cartoonists who dared publish material they find offensive really was an affront to humanity and to liberty.
Political questions don’t get any easier than “how should we respond to this”? Socialists, democrats, anyone with a shred of humanitarianism owed these victims a basic duty of solidarity. That didn’t have to mean enthusiasm for everything (or indeed anything) they published or necessarily declaring that “we are all Charlie”. But it did mean understanding that were clear sides here, there was a barricade, and there was only one side we could possibly be on.
Instead a far-too-large portion of the British left at best ducked the issue and at worst took the wrong side. Attempts to change the argument and portray Charlie Hebdo as racist before the victims were even buried were shameful and indefensible but they were also widespread. These attempts failed and discredited all those who took part in them.
But the persistence of the attack on the magazine is not an odd obsession and nor is it incomprehensible. Rather it is the inevitable product of a political and moral collapse on sections of the left. Until CH can be proven to be what its enemies say it is, until the smears can be made to stick, those that failed to show it any solidarity cannot recover the ground they lost after the attacks. They don’t deserve to.
A socialist politics that equivocates on issues like free speech and fascism is worthless and can play no role in the liberation of the working class.