Another fine mess for the bête noire of French satire

Charlie Hebdo magazine has long been known for its scurrility. But its latest bad taste prank has had explosive consequences

Paris

Charlie Hebdo is a cantankerous and struggling satirical weekly that has never been popular with French politicians. Until now. Yesterday it came to symbolise "Republican values" and resistance to "Islamic imperialism" after its Paris offices were gutted by a petrol bomb.

The small, two-storey offices were destroyed when a molotov cocktail was thrown through a ground-floor window in the early hours. No one was injured. Two men were seen running away. The attack came too late to stop publication of this week's edition, which had declared itself "guest-edited" by the prophet Mohammed. The front cover featured a cartoon of a grinning, turbaned man with the speech bubble: "A hundred lashes if you don't die of laughter."

Soon after the attack the magazine's website was hijacked and replaced by an image of Mecca and a slogan in English saying: "There is no god but Allah." Politicians from left, right and centre – usually no fans of the scurrilous magazine – condemned the attack as an assault on "freedom of expression" and the "inalienable" values of the West.

The Socialist mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoë, described the petrol-bombing as a "demonstration of hatred and intolerance". Mohammed Moussaoui, president of the Council for the Muslim Faith in France, said he detested the fiercely secular magazine's "mocking tone towards Islam" but opposed "all acts and all forms of violence".

The hard-line Interior Minister, Claude Guéant, a frequent target for the magazine's left-wing barbs, declared war on the Islamist "imperialists" who "believe they can impose their world view on the French republic". Visiting the magazine's charred offices on the Boulevard Davout, Mr Guéant said thatCharlie Hebdo "expressed through its very existence and way of being the liberty of the press".

The minister did not mention that Charlie Hebdo was created by the staff of another magazine, Hara-Kiri, banned by one of his centre-right predecessors in 1970 for "offending public taste" by publishing a front page mocking the death of President Charles de Gaulle.

Banning a publication is one thing; petrol-bombing its offices is another. Politicians of all persuasions expressed angry determination yesterday to defend French values from "Islamist" attacks. But the tide of anger obscured the irony of the situation. A provocation by the leftist Charlie Hebdo had provided renewed justification for the frequent mocking of Islam by parts of the French centre-right and the far-right. The rector of the Paris mosque, Dalil Boubakeur, condemned the attack but said it should be seen in the context of a "disturbing European climate of Islamophobia".

Although Mr Guéant said that the petrol-bombing should be considered an "attentat" or "terrorist attack", police said that they were investigating a case of arson. No group or individual claimed responsibility. Anti-racist groups suggested that it might have been the work of islamist extremists or that of "provocateurs" on the extreme right. The editor of Charlie Hebdo, the cartoonist Stéphane Charbonnier, known as Charb, blamed "radical stupid people who don't know what Islam is".

"I think they are themselves unbelievers... idiots who betray their own religion," he said. "In any case [it is out of the question] that we will give ground to the Islamists. We will continue."

Charlie Hebdo is a garish, scatological, cartoon-dominated publication that mocks religious faith of all kinds and defends women's rights and a leftist viewpoint. In 2005 it reprinted the 12 satirical images of the prophet Mohammed drawn by the Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard, which had provoked violent protests across the Islamic world. Publishing any image of the prophet is banned under most interpretations of Islamic law. Moderate muslim groups in France brought a prosecution against Charlie Hebdo's editor at the time for "insulting muslims". He was acquitted in 2007.

The publication, which is frequently beset by bitter internal quarrels, has been losing circulation in recent years. After selling 200,000 copies in the late 1990s, Charlie Hebdo now claims a weekly sale of around 45,000. The whole of yesterday's print-run of 75,000 was snapped up in a few hours, though.

This week's edition had been rebranded "Charia Hebdo" to protest against the rise of Islamists in Tunisia and Libya. ("Charia" is the French spelling of Sharia, the moral code or religious law of Islam).

Mr Charbonnier said the intention was to mock the "moderate" claims of the Islamist party which topped the poll in the Tunisian elections last weekend. "We wanted to show what Sharia Soft might look like," he said.

The magazine carried an editorial signed "Mohamed Rassoul Allah". The "guest editor" was shown in a white turban and beard, puffing on a pipe over a caption saying: "There is no god but God, otherwise all hell lets loose."

The facing page, entitled "Charia Madame", carried a medley of cartoons showing women in full-length veils. One showed a burqa decorated with photographs of naked women, labelled "the 70 virgins model". Another was a "fashion special for beaten women".

The cartoon of Mohammed re-appeared on every page. On page 4, above a series of articles and cartoons on French politics, the Mohammed figure says: "If we had a primary for prophets, as in the Parti Socialiste, I would have made your Jesus swallow his crown of thorns in the first round."

The level of humour and cartooning in Charlie Hebdo is widely regarded as crass and distasteful in France, even by left-wingers. The magazine is much less successful, and effective, than its rival weekly, Le Canard Enchaîné.

All the same, the brutal nature of yesterday's attack generated a wave of sympathy. Several French publications offered to give temporary editorial office space to Charlie Hebdo's small team of cartoonists and writers.

The magazine accepted an offer from the centre-left daily Libération. As a protest against the attack, members of staff at Charlie Hebdo held a "public editorial meeting" yesterday afternoon in a theatre just off the Avenue des Champs Elysées.

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