A controversial Charlie Hebdo cartoon depicting Christiane Taubira, France’s minister of justice, has come up often in debates this past week about whether PEN America is right to want to award the French newspaper an award for courage in free expression. The cartoon deploys racist imagery in an attempt to send an antiracist message—you can see it and read more about it on the Understanding Charlie Hebdo website—and it was drawn by Charb, the newspaper’s late editor-in-chief.
Taubira attended Charb’s funeral, but it so happens that at the funeral of one of Charb’s colleagues, Bernard Verlhac, known as Tignous, Taubira not only attended but delivered a eulogy, at the invitation of the mother of Tignous’s children. In the interest of adding to the evidence about context available to English-speaking readers, I’m posting here my rough translation of Taubira’s words, which she delivered while standing beside Tignous’s coffin, which friends and colleagues had decorated with cartoons. [In the text below, notes inside brackets and in italics are my glosses.]
Our emotions are braided together. . . . I want to express to you, madam, my immense gratitude for the invitation to share this moment with you, with all of you.
We know Tignous’s affinity for the world of the judiciary. Recently, in an example of his generosity, he offered to one of my colleagues a drawing whose unconventional and polished wit shows the caustic and lucid gaze that he cast on the self-contained world of the prison. Representing prison overpopulation, he had some detainees say, “Evict us, it’s the winter moratorium.” [In France, renters can’t be evicted between November and March, a period known as “la trêve hivernale,” even if they’re behind on their rent.]
Since 2010, he has been going around to penitentiaries—he was doing this with Dominique Paganelli—and he had a plan to do reporting on the theme of human relationships while in detention. All relationships. He envisaged publishing a comic book about them. ([Aside to Tignous’s family.] This project must not remain unfinished. With your permission, the justice ministry will contribute to it, if necessary.) Tignous himself used to explain that he started drawing during a trial that he was involved in. Then, for Charlie Hebdo, he covered some trials. The trial of a party who liked to implicate journalists and bring them to court, an important trial for French society, a trial about Scientology. And of course the sensational trial of Yvan Colonna, which he published an album about, a trial where he made it possible for us to understand questions that are essential for our society. He attended 34 days of courtroom sessions. He received this prize that you mentioned just now.
He belongs to the high and great lineage of courtroom artists, because the ban on photography in courtrooms has made necessary the visual testimony that has transmitted to us images of great trials, such as the images of Renouard, for the Dreyfus trial, of Captain Dreyfus. Or also the trial of Émile Zola after the publication of his sensational “J’accuse.”
Tignous is a professional. Scrupulous. Rigorous. Impertinent, of course. Funny, obviously. He belonged to the Association of the Judiciary Press, which I went to pay my respects to recently, in their headquarters at the Superior Court building. It’s a hive. One senses that it’s a hive, even if on that day they were all sitting there calm, grave, sad, but so dignified in that sadness.
Tignous had that magic pencil of his with which he aimed to transmit to us the emotions of a trial. He succeeded. Succeeded in capturing the creaking sound when a trial topples over. He succeeded in transmitting to us these dramas, with their unforeseen twists, with their unforeseeable ones, with their unimaginable ones. He constantly sought the good drawing, the one that transmits truly but also leads to reflection. He said it himself: the drawing that makes people laugh but not only that; the drawing that makes people think but not only that; the drawing, too, that makes people ashamed of having laughed over a solemn fact or situation. This captures all the subtlety that he put into this work, this mission, above all this art, of saying so much through a drawing.
Of course when one is the cartoonist one can choose the cartoon. He had some great forerunners in political cartooning, such as Daumier, who mocked princes, power—Louis Phillippe, in those days. And Daumier paid for the liberties he took, because he was jailed. Censorship made no compromises. One doesn’t mock power. Tignous had the same itch for taking liberties, this itch mixed up with politics and justice. He knew how to sketch the way that politics arrives, in its misplaced way, to mix itself up in justice. I’m thinking of that very beautiful drawing of his concerning that declaration by a former president of the republic about a proposed elimination of the position of judge of inquiry from the judicial system. Tignous showed this president declaring, since he had decided to eliminate the judges of inquiry: “Henceforth, it’ll be me who does the inquiries.” And this drawing provoked a lot of laughter, circulated a great deal, and contributed, I’m convinced—and I was there at the time, I was a member of Parliament, but today I still remain convinced—that this drawing contributed to the very strong mobilization of the judiciary that compelled a retreat on the part of this false act of breaking faith. [In 2009, Nicolas Sarkozy, then the French president, proposed eliminating the position of “juge d’instruction,” whose function is to investigate cases before they are brought to trial, roughly analogous to the function of the grand jury in America. Literally, the words of Sarkozy in Tignous’s cartoon were “Henceforth, it’ll be me who gives the instructions.”]
Tignous made commitments. Deep ones. For him a commitment was not a vain word, it was not a pose. And so he took part in, he was associated with Cartooning for Peace, which was created by Plantu and Khofi Annan in 2006. This beautiful project of cartoons for peace, which consisted of mixing together perceptions, beliefs, cultures, but also of bringing solidarity, protection, support, assistance to women and men who cartooned in intolerant countries, to women and men who dared to express themselves through drawing, the universal lanaguage, in these difficult contexts. And Cartooning for Peace put together, drew up a table of taboos in the world. And captured some fairly remarkable taboos. Such as, for example, the ban on drawing anti-church cartoons in Russia. But these taboos revealed to us, as they were sketched by these cartoonists, revealed to us the fault lines of certain societies. Anti-church, in Russia: taboo. Representations of death, in Sweden: taboo. In Morocco it’s more prudent not to try to depict the king. And they asked, these humorists, these artists, these satirical cartoonists, they asked: but France, the country of Voltaire and of irreverence, is it a country where any taboos exist? Do taboos exist? Well, yes, according to them, it’s better to avoid drawing and caricaturing the CGT trade union for printers, for daily newspapers. [Laughter.] But otherwise no, no taboos. One can draw anything. Even a prophet. Because in France, in the France of Voltaire and of irreverence, one has the right to make fun of religions. A right. Yes, because a right, that’s what democracy is about. Democracy is the rule of law, according to the philosopher Alain.
Today is a day of good-bye. It’s a day of good-bye for Bernard Maris, for Elsa Cayat, for Wolinski. Yesterday was a day of good-bye for Cabu, and up to the twentieth . . . And today it’s good-bye to Tignous. Tignous and his from now on inseparable comrades. Journalists, cartoonists, economist, psychoanalyst, proofreader, guards—they were the sentinels, the watchmen, the lookouts even, who kept watch over democracy to make sure it didn’t fall asleep. Constantly, relentlessly denouncing intolerance, discrimination, simplification. Uncompromising. Armed only with their intelligence, with their sharp eyes, with this art of making it possible to see. Armed with only their pencils. Inseparable. United in irreverence, in a gentle cruelty. They brought about the awakening of three generations. The awakening of the consciences of three generations. They taught us, sometimes without our knowing it, about the virtues of freedom of thought and speech. They nurtured our capacity for indignation. And they led us sometimes into the dizzy pleasure of forbidden laughter. They were journalists, cartoonists—”wise-asses,” I’ll take the risk of saying, in order to be true to them. Tignous, Cabu, Charb, Wolinski, Honoré. And those who contributed. Bernard Maris, Elsa Cayat, Mustapha Ourrad, Michel Renaud, Frédéric Boisseau. They were police: Clarissa Jean-Philippe, Ahmed Merabet, Franck Brinsolaro. They were Jews: Philippe Braham, Yohan Cohen, François-Michel Saada, Yoav Hattab. They were the faces of France, hatefully assassinated for that. For what they were. The violence of these murders, of these assassinations, the barbarity of these crimes, the numbing, the stupefying horror, let us recognize it, has smashed our everyday sense of security, our routine, and, let us admit it, our drowsiness about these values, which we thought we had inherited from the Enlightenment, but about which we had forgotten that they carried with them the necessity of vigilance. And at the end of these horrible crimes, we can see that something was in the process of going lax in us. And this alarm reminds of our ambitions—which have been too long silent, too easily abandoned—for social justice, equality, education, and attention to others. We must find again that humanity and that uncompromising outlook that characterized Tignous.
To you, his four children, Marie, Jeanne, Solal, Saralou. To you, Chloé. To his family, to his friends, to those from Charlie. His day-to-day way of being in the world carried with it a number of lessons. Lessons that are perhaps summed up by these words of Paul Éluard: “The light is about to go out everywhere, but spring is here, which hasn’t ever finished.” On Sunday, four million people marched. People said it was a day without words, this January 11, because there weren’t any speeches. There were however words written on signs. There were pencils held up, promising so many drawings, and so many words. Above all, with everyone, at every step, there were of course these words from Paul Éluard, again, which spoke to the comrades of Tignous, to Tignous himself, in order to tell them, “You were dreaming of being free, and I continue you.” You were dreaming of being free, and I continue you.
UPDATE, 10 May 2015: @Freak_Theory and Robert McLiam Wilson (@Parisbob2001) have fixed some of the errors in my translation and figured out how to upload the text as subtitles. Their subtitled version is now available on Youtube, and I’ve taken the liberty of incorporating here some of the corrections they made.