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Charlie Hebdo: French people — and their leaders — have long taken their satire seriously

Daumier's devastating caricature of an otiose Louis Philippe earned him the king's enmity, and lasting fame.
Daumier's devastating caricature of an otiose Louis Philippe earned him the king's enmity, and lasting fame.

Long before the Charlie Hebdo terror attacks, Paris was a place where satire — especially satirical cartoons — has been taken very seriously, both by its people and their leaders.

In 1726, Voltaire, the author of the satirical novella "Candide," who had already been sent to the Bastille and exiled from Paris three times for his writings, was beaten by thugs hired by Chevalier de Rohan, a nobleman he’d mocked. The great writer had changed his name from Arouet to Voltaire, prompting Rohan to ask him, "Monsieur de Voltaire, Monsieur Arouet, exactly what is your name?" To which he’d replied, "I myself do not bear a great name, but I know how to honor the one I carry."

(Caption: Voltaire, at 70)

In some versions of the story, Rohan tells his toughs not to strike Voltaire’s head, “as something good may yet come out of it,” but Rohan wasn’t that clever.

In 1832, Honoré Daumier, “the Michelangelo of caricature,” was fined and jailed for a caricature of King Louis Philippe. As a young man, Daumier began working at La Caricature, a satirical magazine run by Charles Philipon and his brother-in-law Gabriel Aubert.

Daumier quickly developed a powerful, personal drawing style, which he used to ridicule the follies of the bourgeoisie and the corruption and ineptitude of the restored Bourbon monarchy.

At the time, King Louis Philippe received more than 18 million francs a year, paid with taxes levied on the citizens of France. Daumier drew the indolent “Citizen King” as Gargantua, a giant being fed great sacks of money that the tattered poor of Paris are compelled to fill.

As part of their escalating campaign against the press, the Paris police seized all the copies they could find of “Gargantua” and the original lithograph stone. When Philipon published an article in the La Caricature ridiculing the decision to censor Daumier’s picture, he, Aubert, and Daumier were tried, convicted, fined 500 francs — plus legal fees — and sentenced to six months in prison. That didn’t stop the satirists. It didn’t even slow them up: by 1834, the offices of La Caricature had been raided 27 times.

Two years later, Daumier produced the lithograph, “Rue Transnonain, 15 April 1834,” depicting the butchered victims of a massacre in that street during the riots of 1834.

“Rue Transnonain" was drawn for a special publication created to promote freedom of the press. Once again, the police seized all the copies they could find and the litho stones.

But it was pointless, as are all attacks on cartoonists, satirists, and other creators. While artists are flesh and blood and can be beaten, imprisoned and even murdered, their work cannot. So, centuries later, Rohan is largely forgotten; Louis Philippe is a minor figure in French history courses. But Voltaire and Daumier are remembered and honored. And “Garganuta” and “Rue Transnonain” are proudly displayed in the collections of major museums.