Charlie Hebdo is a strange combination—a left wing paper that’s become notorious for its racist attacks on Muslims.
Its murdered editor, cartoonist Stephane “Charb” Charbonnier, considered himself a progressive, anti-establishment figure.
Yet the paper is steeped in a “republican” tradition that sees the state as progressive and everything from minority languages to religion as its enemy.
So it was disarmed when the racist right began focusing on cultural distinctions such as religion, instead of overt biological racism.
Charlie ridicules all religions, but contains far more Islamophobic content than just the images of the Prophet Muhammad.
It has repeated the far right’s claim that Muhammad was a child abuser. It has run lurid strips mocking female “sex jihadists”.
Charlie ran a fawning interview with Dutch cartoonist Gregorius Nekschot in 2008. He was facing a storm of criticism for drawings such as a “Monument to the slavery of the white taxpayer”, which showed a chained white man straining under the weight of a black benefit claimant.
Some of Charlie’s notorious images were ill-advised attempts at irony. It attacked the fascist Front National for comparing black minister Christiane Taubira to a monkey—by drawing her as a monkey.
A caricature of pregnant “Boko Haram sex slaves” demanding child welfare was meant to skewer the right. But such jokes end up reinforcing racist stereotypes.
And they fit alongside an entirely non-ironic racism that has driven away many old left wing readers and attracted new right wing ones.
It continues to lampoon the government, the rich and the Front National. And nothing it has printed could justify last week’s murders. But the violence can’t erase the part it has played in the legitimisation of racism in France.