Free speech — a fun but dangerous business

Ward O’Neill juxtaposes a happy gathering of cartoonists in a French village, a light-hearted film about their ilk and the tragic events of the Charlie Hebdo attack

The 33rd Salon International de la Caricature du Dessin de Presse et d’Humour was held in September and October of 2014. Visiting the small French village of Saint-Just-le-Martel, home of the Salon, were 185 cartoonists from all parts of the world. This is an extremely popular event in the Limousin region, and over eight days thousands of visitors crowded the exhibition hall to see the large display of cartoons and, if they were lucky, to have their caricatures drawn by the visiting cartoonists.

It was an extraordinary festival, memorable for the generosity of the villagers, the degree of organisation, the range of events and the many new friends made in the international world of cartooning. At the reception desk there was a makeshift bookshop where you could buy copies of collections of cartoons by Cabu (Jean Cabut) and Georges Wolinski – both famous contributors to Charlie Hebdo. For many, these books are now poignant souvenirs of a visit to Saint-Just-le-Martel.

The title of one of Cabu’s books, translated from the French, is Can We Still Laugh at All? The cover shows a gaggle of people – priests, rabbis, mullahs, police, army veterans and even a chef – all declining to be the subject of laughter or irreverence. The cartoons themselves are disrespectful, crude, vivid and funny, and sometimes not. To be the butt of a cartoon such as these would, in all probability, be quite painful. The French themselves love these cartoons – mostly. Even President François Hollande (or Flamby, as he is called, after a commercial crème caramel product) concedes the popularity of his tormentors.

Tragically, Cabu and his Charlie Hebdo colleague Georges Wolinski, a guest of the Salon, are now dead – murdered in the Paris office of their newspaper along with eight other colleagues and two police officers. Many others were critically wounded. Another visitor and cartoonist at the Salon, Corinne Rey – or Coco as she is known to her readers – was forced at gunpoint to open the office door by the gunmen.

Peter Broelman, Illawarra Mercury

Peter Broelman, Illawarra Mercury

Like many terrorist attacks, it is not only a heartless crime against people but also a calculated blow against free speech. Whatever anyone says, these events have and will intimidate people anywhere who are publishing challenging, perverse and sometimes offensive ideas. Undeniably, Charlie Hebdo is an unconventional and, as they themselves say, an irresponsible newspaper.

One event during the Salon with direct relevance to the Charlie Hebdo shootings was the screening of the film Caricaturistes – Fantassins de la Démocratie in the lovely medieval village of Saint-Léonardde- Noblat, some 12 kilometres from Saint-Just-le- Martel. The title translates as “Cartoonists – Foot Soldiers of Democracy” and the film, directed by Stéphanie Valloatto with Le Monde cartoonist Plantu (Jean Plantureux), centres on the challenges faced by 12 cartoonists working in different circumstances, with differing degrees of difficulty, around the world. Plantu visited his subjects in their home environments.

What seems at times, even to its practitioners, as a light-hearted and less than substantial filmic contribution to the world of letters and ideas changes when we consider the lengths that some will go to in stopping the cartoons and their messages getting out. The film takes us from Tunisia to China, Israel, the United States, Venezuela and several other countries. Cartoonist Rayma Suprani, winner of the main prize at the Salon and a visitor to Saint-Just-le-Martel, suffered the indignity of being sacked in absentia from her newspaper in Caracas after it was taken over by the Venezuelan government.

But being sacked, harassed, ostracised, fined or jailed is nothing compared to a bloody and purposeful assassination carried out by extremists. Suddenly, and dramatically, the stakes have been raised. These shootings are a tragic postscript to an interesting film, a sad reminder that free speech for some is a deadly business.

Both Cabu and Wolinski challenged powerful and entrenched ideas. Their cartoons were undoubtedly offensive to the Catholic church, to Islamists, to Israel, to women and many others. A nasty idea has taken foothold, that the staff of Charlie Hebdo were somehow the agents of their own demise. That has already happened in the United States, among sections of the churches, extremist Islamic groups and on the far right.

The intimidating methods of terrorism – pour encourager les autres as the French say – can only be countered by an overwhelming demonstration of revulsion at these awful crimes by the people of France and everywhere else. This has happened in France and across the world. Hundreds of thousands of people have demonstrated their support for the victims at the Charlie Hebdo office.

The pen never misses, Mark Knight, Herald Sun

The pen never misses, Mark Knight, Herald Sun

In contrast to these terrible events, at the Saint- Just-le-Martel Salon, 400km south of Paris, we had enjoyed the spirited hospitality of the villagers and our generous hosts. Each day we sat down together at lunch and dinner in a large tent, eating meals prepared and served by young and enthusiastic volunteers. We were entertained by choirs and cabaret performances. We witnessed Justine – a Limousin cow – being led into the exhibition hall to officially open the 2014 proceedings. Justine, something of an old trouper, has been up the Eiffel Tower and travelled on a TGV train. What sangfroid. Some poor sheep were harmlessly spray-painted with cartoon figures.

The Australian contribution to the Salon – the work of 45 cartoonists – was represented by Eric Lobbecke, Peter Sheehan, Judy Horacek, Christophe Granet and me. We were awarded the International Press Prize for our collective efforts. Eric and Christophe – both with French backgrounds – were able to communicate more effectively and graciously with the French audience than their largely monolingual colleagues. We did do our best however, and became quite adept at ordering aperitifs.

The cartoonists owe their hosts, volunteers and organisers a debt of gratitude. The director, Gerard Vandenbroecke, deputy director Guy Hennequin, Corinne Forrestier and many others deserving of recognition – especially the chef – will be back in September with another Salon.

Sadly, some well-remembered faces will not be there.

Ward O’Neill is an Australian illustrator, caricaturist and cartoonist