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Culture

Gérard Biard: 'We had to show that Charlie Hebdo' is not dead'

Nearly six months ago, Islamist terrorists almost wiped out the entire staff of the French satirical magazine "Charlie Hebdo." Editor-in-chief Gérard Biard talks about the aftermath in an interview with DW.

Editor-in-chief Gérard Biard tries hard to hide his tension. He is subject to the toughest possible security measures in France, yet he seems to be quite relaxed during one of the rare interviews he gives following the terrorist attack. He told DW about his life since January 7.

DW: Can you describe to us how you felt about the attack?

Gérard Biard: When the attack took place, I happened to be on vacation in London. A staff member called me and told me about the casualties; it was all very confusing. From then on, the phone did not stop ringing. Slowly, I came to realize that something terrible had happened, but of course, I was not able to reach anyone directly at the scene. I then went to the French embassy where I learned of the full extent of the tragedy. The ambassador and the security people told what had happened, who had been killed and injured.

On that same day I returned to Paris. It was all so unreal then; you just hadn't thought that such a terrible thing could have happened. We may be journalists, but we are not war reporters, and we live in a democracy. We work in an office, and when we get up in the morning, we do not think that we are risking our lives - even though we have been threatened before.

Immediately after the attack, you released another edition. What prompted you to carry on?

When we met again on January 8, the day after the attack, the editorial board unanimously decided to publish a new edition for the following week. So that's what we did. After that edition was out, there were two opposing trends within the editorial staff of "Charlie Hebdo": Some went for carrying on as before by publishing a weekly magazine. I belonged to that group. The others preferred a five to six months break - and Luz (Eds.: designer Renald Luzier) belonged to that group. We then worked out a compromise, meaning that we wouldn't publish any edition for the next five weeks, but I think that didn't go far enough in Luz's view. He wanted to physically pull himself out from the whole affair.

Why did you continue?

I felt an urge to work. I had to do what I've always done. I felt a personal need for that. And it was also necessary for keeping up the magazine. We had to show that "Charlie Hebdo" is not dead.

Did you want to continue with the same journalistic orientation of the magazine, or did you want to change anything?

We have maintained the same journalistic orientation. We have changed neither the tone nor our views. We have remained a satirical and critical weekly magazine with reports, analysis and commentaries - and, of course, with satirical drawings. We still focus mainly on French policy and social issues, we are still anti-clerical, we are atheists fighting against totalitarianism

Gérard Biard, Copyright: DW

Gérard Biard

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Have you been able to deal with Islamist extremism in a humorous way, at times also in a provocative way?

I reject the notion of provocation. We are commentators, not provocateurs. We are far less violent than funny. We are aware of the fact that our drawings and texts on Islam may lead to terrorist acts - but should we really give in to that by ceasing to publish our magazine? I do not think so! That's almost like having become the victim of mafia blackmail, and giving in to that - well, then the blackmail will never stop.

After such a terrible tragedy has occurred, don't you think something must change? Should things really remain the same as before?

The burden of loss weighs heavily on us all. Even more so on the cartoonists, because each time they take a pencil into their hands, they remember what happened. And that's probably why Luz has stopped working. He was no longer able to start drawing freely when he grabbed a pencil. With me, it's different: I write, as I have always written.

It is said that there was a division among the staff, two different trends, two different camps. Where are the lines between these two camps?

In every editorial team in the world, there are fights and conflicts. "Charlie Hebdo" has always lived up to that principle. We are an editorial staff with a strong identity, a magazine made by artists, a magazine made by egoists. If you had placed a camera or a microphone in the middle of an editorial meeting of "Charlie Hebdo," be it today or 10 years ago, the audience would have said: That's not possible, the hatred, the bickering. The only thing that has changed is that we have become an object of media interest. I have the strong impression that the media would like to shoot a reality TV show about us, a kind of "Big Brother": Who sleeps with whom, who comes in new, who leaves the house.

How can you find new cartoonists after four of them have been killed in the attack?

We receive an immense number of drawings. But we cannot publish most of them. The stakes are simply too high. There had been talents working for this magazine that cannot be replaced. And we are not willing to drop to a lower level. That would be unbearable.

The first edition of Charlie Hebdo following the terrorist attack, Copyright: picture-alliance/Charlie Hebdo/Handout

The first edition of "Charlie Hebdo" following the terrorist attack

The magazine has made a lot of money after the attack. If you were in a position to decide by yourself how to spend all that money?

To continue as before. "Charlie Hebdo" has always been an independent magazine, we never had foreign shareholders. Those who have produced the magazine also own it. There has never been any advertising; we lived off our sales and our subscribers. Back then, we tended to lose some money in the production process, whereas nowadays we even make some money - although we do know that this will not last forever. That's why it is now time to think about what we will do in order so that our magazine can survive in the long run.

How are you coping with the security measures that were introduced after the attack? How have they changed your life?

Life has changed. What I miss are improvisation and spontaneity: "Oh, it's a beautiful day, I want to go for a walk outside." Now, I have to plan everything. I am free to do everything I want to, but I have to plan it - that's what restricts my movements quite a bit.

Gérard Biard is chief editor of the French satirical magazine "Charlie Hebdo." The interview, published here in excerpts, was conducted by Susanna Dörhage.

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