Beyond the Louvre: the French art of the political cartoon

Marianna Hunt

Home to world-famous art galleries such as the Louvre and the Musée d'Orsay, the real place to discover the art on everyone's lips in France is in the pages of its political cartoons and satirical magazines.

French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, takes a "no holds barred" approach to its attacks on politics and society. From right-wing extremists, to the radical left, even entire religions - no sphere is sacred for this anti-institutional, anti-authoritarian magazine. Mocking caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad have appeared regularly in editions and are widely considered the catalyst of an attack on the magazine by Islamist gunmen in which four cartoonists were killed. Nevertheless, the attacks did not dampen the magazine's provocative tilt and recent editions have depicted Muhammad being beheaded by a member of the Islamic State.

Though cartoons enjoy similar influence and popularity in many other countries (the manga craze in Japan for instance), French cartoons are differentiated by their overtly political nature. Moreover, Charlie Hebdo is not a lone exception in this field. After the Charlie Hebdo attacks, professor at the University of Glasgow and expert on French cartooning, Laurence Grove declared: “The attack today was really on a national institution”.

Among  the magazine's many, similar rivals, the most well-known is Le Canard Enchaîné, another example of this quintessentially French blend of art, politics, and satire. The provocative nature of these publications have earned them the nickname journaux irresponsables (the irresponsible newspapers).

The phenomenon of using cartoon as a means of political commentary and protest is by no means a new one in French society. In the build-up to the French Revolution of 1789, political cartoons regularly mocked the monarchy. After the revolution, artists even turned against their former idols. This image shows a two-faced monument to Napoleon built upon a pile of skulls and inert bodies. The statue resembles that of the doubled headed Roman god who presided over the beginning and end of wars. This reference to Napoleon's persistent waging of war throughout Europe and the skulls which uphold the memorial suggests that this political leader's legacy was built upon the death and suffering of others - debasing the traditional Napoleonic legend. 

The tradition of this art form as an ideological weapon continued in the 20th century when, in the post-war period, both radically conservative Catholic groups and left-wing Communists attempted to use cartoons as a propaganda means to win over the young people of France.

It seems fitting then that, in the aftermath of the November shootings in Paris, the reaction, both in France and world-wide, was to take up pen and ink and turn the internet into a gallery of cartoons and sketches showing support for the victims.  The Islamic State of Iraq claimed the attacks were a retaliation against the French government's foreign policy and decision to launch air-strikes in Syria - making the political aspect of the attacks unmistakeable. Eiffel Towers made of tears, tricolour flags draped over corpses, and the Statue of Liberty rushing to the rescue of France, were just a number of the artistic commemorations to the deadliest attack on France since World War II. French graphic designer, Jean Jullien's 'Peace for Paris' illustration became a world-wide symbol of unity in the wake of the event. Jullien's rough and simple brushstrokes, illustrating the Eiffel Tower inside a peace sign, were printed on t-shirts and flags, splattered across the press front pages, and shared across the internet by everyday social media and the world's celebrities alike. In total the image was retweeted more than 42,000 times.

The case of French political cartoons illustrates, quite literally, the thorny aspects of freedom of expression and its capacity to be both the fuel of hatred and the instrument of peace. Clearly this "children's" medium, is not one to be treated lightly after all. 

‘Liberté, égalité, fraternité’? Paris’ Tumultuous Journey

Paris: City of Light, City of Love

The titles for Paris developed in our vernacular draw on the reputation enjoyed by the French capital as a melting-pot of culture, romance and beauty, for which the association of enlightenment in both the spiritual and tangible senses is entirely justified. However, as one looks more closely at this glittering European diamond, the cracks beneath the lustre begin to emerge. Shaken by indefensible terrorist attacks as recently as January 2015 and November 2015, the need for Parisian solidarity, freedom and equality is more important now than ever before, and yet, whilst peaceful, anti-terrorist demonstrations are evidence that such an attitude does exist, latent inequalities in terms of employment, housing and economic potential continue to lurk underneath the surface. So, what is the truth about Paris?

The Centre of Europe

As the capital of France since as early as 508 AD, Paris has had a turbulent coming-of-age. The focal point of its country’s own bloody revolution, it has alternately been both a shelter for conservative elements such as exiled Russian aristocrats in the early twentieth century, and a hub of forward-thinking political thought and intellectualism, currently boasting Anne Hidalgo as its mayor: a female politician with socialist views. It has therefore played out its role as the centre of France - and one of the most important centres of Europe - in a truly diverse manner. Its 12.3 million citizens’ flare for cultural innovation can be seen in its biannual Fashion Weeks, its art museums (the Louvre is the most visited art museum in the world) and renowned cuisine. In addition to this, the city is the financial heart of France, producing 30% of its total GDP. The significance that Paris holds is evinced by its twentieth century track record: a war front in World War One, an occupied victim in World War Two, and a key player in the anti-colonial struggle of the Algerian war for independence during the 1950s and 1960s.

A Diamond in the Rough

However, despite Paris’ position as an enlightened and economic centre, discontent is still rife among its socially conscious populace. A quick internet search for demonstrations in Paris will reveal multiple hits in the last month alone, with marchers pushing for change in various ways: supporting trade unions, calling for a greater response to climate change, attacking austerity measures and so on. These protests address both the bigger picture and the local situation in a tradition stemming from 1789’s major republican revolution. To mirror East-European demonstrations against the powers that be – albeit very different ones – in 1968, Parisian students and blue-collar workers also took to the streets to protest against capitalism and consumerism, resulting in a two-week general strike that nearly brought France to its knees. Indeed, the almost polar distribution of different social classes within Paris - the affluent centred around the west and the lower middle and working classes in the north - could help to explain these consistent rebellions against the status quo. For whilst the city of Paris is itself a gem, it is immediately encircled by an area unequal to its beauty: riskily constructed, unevenly distributed and sporadically deserted social housing in the ‘quartiers sensibles’ (sensitive quarters), wealth inequality that sees a quarter of the city’s populace living below the poverty line, rising unemployment, and homelessness statistics comprising 43% of the country’s total homeless population. Like many European capitals, Paris is a hotbed of inequality and social tension.

The Future

But unlike the population of many other European capitals, the Parisian population appears determined to do something about it, and its government – possibly partially coerced by popular movements – is taking steps to create a more unified city. An initiative started by ex-President Nicolas Sarkozy involves the creation of a new administrative body, aimed at strengthening ties between the city and its surrounding areas. The so-called Metropolis of Greater Paris formally came into existence on 1st January 2016 and is made up of 210 officials from the elected committees of member communes. Its focus will be to deal with problems and inequalities in housing, urban planning and the environment, and it is hoped that it will help to solidify the Paris area into a unified and thus even more influential entity. If such initiatives keep being devised, it remains hopeful that Paris will continue to grow and resist those who wish to smash the diamond.

Terror Attacks in Beirut, Baghdad and Paris

This weekend, terrorist attacks shocked the world as first Beirut and Baghdad then Paris as well were all struck by mass killings, all of which have been claimed by Da'esh, the organisation calling itself Islamic State. While much of the world has expressed solidarity with the victims, controversy is already growing over how the media treats terror attacks in the West compared with the Middle East, and there are fears of growing mistrust and resentment of refugees from the region, already seen amongst Republican candidates for President of the US.

Do the attacks mean the West should do more to fight Islamist terrorism - or is a major change in approach more necessary than ever? And does the reaction to the events say more about how we view the world than the human tragedy itself? Whatever your view, send it in - via Twitter, Facebook or our website. The contributors best insights will be invited to explore their views further for our journal Sir!