Most people know of the Danish cartoons affair, in which a series of cartoons that aimed to satiririse Muslim terrorists and militant Islam provoked riots in parts of the Middle East and Africa, leading to more than 100 deaths, after their 2005 publication by Danish newspapers.
Far less well-known in Australia is that the affair spread to France where, in a case with obvious ramifications for free speech, the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo was taken to court in 2006 by the Great Mosque of Paris, the World Muslim League and the Union of Islamic Organisations of France – and charged with blasphemy. The extraordinary episode is the subject of a fascinating documentary, It's Hard Being Loved by Jerks – the Trial (C'est dur d'etre aime par des cons – le proces) screening in this year's Alliance Francaise French Film Festival.
Curiously two mainstream newspapers, France Soir and L'Express, also re-published the 12 Danish cartoons in solidarity with the Danish journalists yet only the editors of the leftist satire mag, with its traditionally scurrilous reputation, received the dubious honour of having to stand trial.
Daniel Leconte, the film's director, is unapologetic about his film's openly taking the side of the magazine when I meet him for a chat in Paris. “I am with the struggle of Charlie Hebdo, of course, to resist this kind of oppression. I don't want to tell stories like I am an objective journalist, it's not true. I'm not in journalism, I'm a director.”
On the other hand, he says, “I have to get all the points of view, even the point of view of the Islamists. But in that case it was not so easy to do it, because they decided just to present one witness in the trial, and this was a Christian priest. But I tried to present the opinion and the arguments of the lawyers of the Islamists and all the arguments of the plaintiffs. The film works on the contradiction [between opposing viewpoints] – that's the engine of the film.”
Forthright criticism or satire of militant Islam has been generally muted on the Australian left out of an apparent fear of appearing to be seen as racist or non-PC. The French case exerts fascination for revealing an entirely different approach to the issue of militant Islam and freedom of speech coming from a magazine associated with the French left.
In France, where the revolutionary ideals of liberty, egality and fraternity still play a central role in the national belief system, Charlie Hebdo was eager to assert its right to free speech and not only re-publish the Danish cartoons but add a front cover drawn by one of France's leading caricaturists, the veteran Cabu, aka Jean Cabut. His cartoon contentiously depicted Mohammad, with eyes covered, crying out, “It's hard being loved by jerks” (thus giving the film its title).
In terms of traditional left-right politics the issue can hardly be described as cut and dried. Then French President Jacques Chirac had opined that "anything that can hurt the convictions of someone else, in particular religious convictions, should be avoided." Yet one of the major events of the trial was the last-minute arrival of a letter defending the magazine from Nicolas Sarkozy, then presidential candidate and as Chirac's interior minister, responsible for religious affairs. “I prefer an excess of caricatures to an absence of caricatures,” wrote the future president.
Notwithstanding Sarkozy's intervention, the French right is generally as much to blame as most of the left for being cowed by Islamic extremism, says Leconte. The common attitude on both sides of the political divide “is to be frightened by the terrorism, and they prefer just to pull away from these questions as much as possible”.
Given that Muslims of all stripes consider pictorial representations of Mohammad to be highly offensive, were Cabu's caricature and some of the Danish cartoons unnecessarily offensive to moderate Muslims and not just the extremists? Leconte's view is that Mohammad's covering his eyes softened the image, but in any case, “there are two solutions to win power in the camp of the moderates. Not to aggress them, and you have the other attitude which is to say it is our values and our traditions, and if you want to be a French or European citizen, you have to respect those attitudes. We had four witnesses during the trial who were Muslims who said 'help us – criticise the Koran, criticise religion, if you do that you help us in our own battle in our home camp'.”
The trial ended with the charges against Charlie Hebdo being dismissed. The filmmaker sees this leaving an important legacy for free speech in France. Leconte has been following the issue for a long time. He says that as a TV producer he was the first person to present Salman Rushdie on a live program after the Iranian fatwa against the author. ”The work of [then Iranian leader Ayatollah] Khomenei and the Islamists in western societies was very negative for a long time,” he says, adding that “we didn't pay enough attention to that psychological war from people who wanted to defeat our values and our world.”