Parisians line up for Charlie Hebdo – and stand up for free speech

Parisians queued up before dawn for the first copies of Charlie Hebdo since last week's terrorist attack. Satire has a long, rich history in France, but some say the cover showing the prophet Muhammad is a provocation.

Bertrand Combaldieu/AP
A woman walks past a newsstand with a sign stating 'Charlie Hebdo sold out' at the Ville d'Avray train station, west of Paris, Wednesday, Jan. 14, 2015. Charlie Hebdo's defiant new issue sold out before dawn around Paris on Wednesday, with scuffles at kiosks over dwindling copies of the paper fronting the prophet Muhammad.

If on Sunday the French marched in grief and outrage over one of the most shocking terrorist attacks in their history, on Wednesday they stood, firmly and patiently, in defense of freedom of expression.

The queues for the first edition of Charlie Hebdo published since Islamic terrorists killed several top editors of the weekly satirical magazine stretched down Parisian sidewalks. Five million copies are to be printed, some 80 times more than their regular print run of 60,000. By 10:30 a.m., the magazine was sold out across the capital.

Today’s front cover: a weeping prophet Muhammad holding a sign saying "I Am Charlie" and standing under the headline "All is Forgiven."

Like the nearly 4 million citizens who marched over the weekend with #JeSuisCharlie placards, the largest protest in French history, many of those braving hour-long, pre-dawn queues had rarely or never purchased the publication. Most ended up facing an empty-handed vendor. But the weekly, which lampoons religion and politicians of all stripes and is part of a long French tradition of raucous satire, has become a rallying cry for liberty of thought and expression, even among those who find its style deeply offensive.

“Satire is extraordinarily rooted in our culture. At one point in history, you risked being sent to the Bastille [prison] for caricatures,” says Isabelle Veyrat-Masson, a media specialist at the Paris-based CNRS. “This didn’t stop caricatures from multiplying, even when threats were made…. Satirical caricatures are something that will never disappear.”

France’s rich history of satire stretches back centuries, with monarchs a regular target. Louis XIII, who ruled from 1610-1643, was the subject of many caricatures, and the reign of Louis XVI – which preceded the French revolution – came in for merciless ridicule. Marie-Antoinette was often shown in humiliating sexual positions that circulated across Paris, as was King Louis-Philippe at the pen of Honoré Daumier.

Charlie Hebdo, which brands itself an “irresponsible newspaper” on its front cover, began as Hara Kiri in 1960. Banned in 1969 by the censors for its outrageously irreverent coverage of Charles de Gaulle’s death, the magazine changed its name to Charlie Hebdo (in honor of Peanuts’ Charlie Brown) and launched itself onto a path of caustic, often vulgar, and always offensive satire ridiculing everyone from popes to French far-right leader Marine Le Pen to African sex slaves.

Islam has recently been one of the magazine’s artists’ favorite topics, and they understood the risks they were running. The publication was firebombed in 2011 after it invited the prophet to be the week’s “guest editor.” The paper’s editor, Stephane Charbonnier, gunned down last week, was under permanent police protection.

Importance of 'making fun'?

Dominique Morillon, who arrived at a newspaper kiosk on the Avenue d’Ítalie at 6 a.m. to ensure her spot at the head of the queue, says that while Charlie Hebdo was a regular fixture on her reading list as a youth, in recent years she just flicked through it. She’s here today to “assure it stays alive,” Ms. Morillon says. "There was the funny side, and then there was the spirit behind the magazine. It's important to keep the possibility of being impertinent, of making fun. It has been in our culture for such a long time we cannot let it disappear now."

On this corner, the news vendor, perhaps the most coveted position in France this morning, says the 74 copies he received sold out in 10 minutes.  “I've never had a queue like this, ever. My sales have been up every day since last Thursday,” says Pascal, who declined to give his last name. “But I told my wife, I'm not happy to be making more money. I'm in mourning.”

The day before the paper hit the stands, Charlie Hebdo staff gave a press conference explaining the front page, which they say was made “with joy and pain.”  The choice of cover took days to decide, they say. Surviving cartoonist Renald Luzier, whose pen name is Luz, added: "If any good came out of this horrible event, it's that it has been a long time since people took to the streets of Paris to express themselves, and it's been too long that too few magazines like ours exist in France."

Outside of the Charlie Hebdo offices this morning, exactly a week since terrorists burst through their doors and headed right into an editorial meeting, a mass of flowers, pencils, letters, old Charlie Hebdo covers, and half-drunk bottles of wine stretched across the street. Eric Nahon, who lives in the neighborhood, has come every day for the past week for a quiet moment after he drops his twins off at their nearby daycare center. “To think, and to remember,” says Mr. Nahon, a writer and professor of journalism.

He says he has taken a photo of this site each day, and intends to continue doing so to see how it evolves, and above all, “to see how long it takes us to get back to normal.” He failed in his quest to buy a paper today. Instead he picked up Le Canard Enchainé, the satirical weekly he most often purchases.

A provocation?

Despite its vital place in French history and culture, satire generates many dissenters in France who find the content blasphemous, especially in a country with such complicated relations between Muslims and the state.

“No one should be killed for expression of his ideas, but I am not Charlie. I am not with the editorial team. They do not deserve this, but they did go very far, the history of what they showed in their magazine was very shocking,” says Andre Dewilde, who was present at Sunday’s unity rally in Paris. “I’m not saying they deserved this dramatic end, but I will never put this thing that many people are putting here [on their chests] ‘I am Charlie.’ No, I am not.”

The Muslim world braced for reaction to the paper’s depiction of the prophet on Wednesday’s cover, as Al Qaeda in Yemen claimed responsibility for the terrorist attack this morning. Egypt's grand mufti called the editorial decision a provocation. “This edition will cause a new wave of hatred in French and Western society in general, and what the magazine is doing does not serve coexistence or a dialogue between civilizations,” the office of Grand Mufti Shawqi Allam, said in a statement.

“This is an unwarranted provocation against the feelings of ... Muslims around the world.”

· Staff writer Peter Ford contributed from Paris

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