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My ‘Charlie Hebdo’

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Patrick Fouque/Getty Images
The cartoonists Georges Wolinski and Cabu at the offices of Charlie Hebdo, Paris, May 23, 2012

The following statement, addressed to readers of the French magazine Libération, is by Philippe Lançon, a survivor of the January 7 Charlie Hebdo massacre who is a writer for both publications. Published in Libération on January 13, it offers a rare account of the tragedy from the perspective of one of the magazine’s own staff.


Dear Friends of Charlie Hebdo and Libération,

Right now I have nothing left but three fingers wrapped in Band-Aids, a heavily bandaged jaw, and just a few ounces of strength, a few minutes in which to express to you all my affection and thank you for your friendship and your support. This is all I wanted to say to you: if there is one thing that this attack reminded me about, or even taught me in the first place, it’s why I practice this profession at these two papers—out of a spirit of freedom and the sheer fun of expressing it, whether in the form of news or caricature, in good company, and in every way possible, however unsuccessful, without feeling the slightest need to judge the result.

That’s what I was thinking in the horribly silent minute that came after the departure of the killers with the black legs—that’s all I saw of them, as I lay stretched out among my dead companions, half under the conference table at the back of the newsroom; that’s what I was thinking as I looked at the body closest to me, the body of my friend and tablemate at that day’s editorial meeting, Bernard Maris, who never let his job get in the way of his curiosity and his enthusiasms. He had just been talking about Michel Houellebecq’s new novel, Submission, which we both loved, and I had just raked him over the coals for what he’d written about the treatment Libération had given it. Then we’d reconciled over the passages of Submission that, of course, had made us both laugh. How to describe Bernard: an open intelligence and a wonderful, deeply youthful smile.

Cabu was grumbling: he’d heard Houellebecq say the Republic was dead and he was having none of it. Cabu was a brilliant and still spry apostle of the old left. And we were all there because we were free, or because we wanted to be as free as possible, because we wanted to laugh and face off over everything, about everything, a small Homeric band feasting on red meat, and that is exactly what the men in black, those sinister ninjas, were out to kill. I thought about Bernard, Cabu, and the others in my narrow field of view, all dead now, and I wondered, with no idea of how seriously I was hurt, what determined life or death; Charlie Hebdo’s newsroom is certainly the last place that you’d expect to hear anyone say that some had survived by a miracle, or that fate had decreed that others must die. The only difference between us, as the old Charlie Hebdo veteran Jean-Patrick Manchette would have said, was a couple of inches’ variation in the paths of the bullets and our respective locations when the black-legged men came in. I lay there and played dead, wondering whether I already was or might be soon.

I’ve been a reporter at Libération for twenty-one years. I’m proud of it, I love the people who work there and who used to work there. I became a columnist for Charlie Hebdo in 2003 because Philippe Val made me this offer: “Do whatever you want, try everything and anything, invent things, break taboos!” What a mission (unavoidably never finished), and it was mine because Serge July accepted me. I’ve certainly never had any reason to complain. Lately both papers had been struggling, but at Charlie Hebdo the Wednesday morning editorial meetings had never been so lively, joyful, aggressive, and exciting. There was an extraordinary tradition of trash talking that would escalate until suddenly punctured by a joke, usually by Charb, Luz, or Wolinski. Then everyone would continue, laughing. It was all about the joy of pouring out all kinds of bullshit, under the friendly onslaught of everyone else’s bullshit, for the sheer pleasure of arguing and the certainty that something would come of it, an idea, a phrase, or of course, a cartoon. The memories of those moments carried me to each editorial meeting certain that I’d find more wit, broad humor, and sheer vulgarity than I possess. You never know, at Charlie Hebdo, what topic is going to sprout on the table among the brioches and cakes.

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Bertrand Rindoff Petroff/Getty Images
Philippe Lançon, February 20, 2013

It so happens that at that last meeting the subject of debate was none other than French jihadists. Tignous was by no means defending them but, true kid of the banlieues and survivor of poverty that he was, he wondered just what France had actually done to avoid creating these furious monsters, and launched into a magnificent rant on behalf of these latter-day misérables. It was as if suddenly his voice was reaching us from the time of the Paris Commune. Bernard Maris retorted that France had done plenty, had lavished tons of cash. The volume increased—at Charlie Hebdo this subject is all the more sensitive because everyone is horrified at the thought of being seen as racist or cynical—until finally someone tossed out: “What if, just to take the edge off, we talked about the looming environmental catastrophe?” Wolinski and Cabu were sketching, as always—Wolinski busy in his notebook making true-false stories that gave a comical, absurd sense to everything he saw and heard, giving them the form of fantasies made real. I think he cherished the takedown as a proof of life. He also revered the great draftsmen, the great painters. I loved leaving with him at around 11:30 am. He’d talk to me about women, of course. He loved them so!

I was on my way out when the killers came in. I had just finished showing Cabu, who was a great fan of jazz and loved to do sketches on the subject, Francis Wolff’s splendid book of photographs of musicians recording for Blue Note, published by Flammarion; I was planning to write a piece about it in Libération. Of course, he’d already seen it.

While the firemen were carrying me on a wheeled office chair out of the conference room, I found myself floating over the bodies of my dead colleagues, Bernard, Tignous, Cabu, Georges, bodies that my rescuers were stepping over or around, and suddenly, my God, they were no longer laughing. We must all be able to laugh again, understand again, more and better than ever before, for their sake, at Libération and at Charlie Hebdo, far from the powerful and their excesses. It will take some time and will require some therapy before I’ll be able to laugh; the jaw is more fragile than the heart, but I’ll get there, and when I do I’ll be with you, my colleagues, my comrades, my readers and re-readers, my friends.

—Translated from the French by Antony Shugaar