Black Marianne: A freedom too far for France?

After the Charlie Hebdo attacks, and the groundswell of affirmation for freedom of expression in France, you might have thought that all was well in the land of Liberty, Egality, Fraternity. At least as far as what the state is prepared to allow in the name of artistic expression.

Not so in the small town of Fremainville, in Northern France, whose mayor has removed the statue of a black Marianne from outside the town hall. Here is the statue in question.

260115-marianne-noire-620Beautiful, isn’t she? Marianne is a national symbol of the French Republic, an allegory of liberty and reason, and a portrayal of the Goddess of Liberty. You will be shocked to learn that most Mariannes are white.

And it appears the mayor, Marcel Allègre, wants to keep it that way. He claims that a black Marianne is a “Marianne of liberty, but not a Marianne of the French Republic. She undoubtedly represented something, but not the French Republic.”

So, absolute freedom of expression where the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists are concerned, but you can’t allow a black Marianne to represent the French Republic? The cognitive dissonance is staggering.

If the French are serious about freedom of expression, then I suggest the government overrules this stupid, racist mayor, and puts the statue back in place. Furthermore, I suggest they commission more Mariannes, representing all the ethnic minorities.

Including a few Muslim Mariannes, complete with headscarf.

Est ce que Je Suis Charlie?

The attack by Islamic terrorists on the Charlie Hebdo offices and the death of twelve people is appalling enough, even without the implied attack on a free press and freedom of expression. We are naturally outraged, and the impulse to join together in solidarity under the ‘Je Suis Charlie’ banner is almost overwhelming.

But I’m resisting the temptation, and I’m not very happy, because it’s an uncomfortable position to be in. Here’s why. First take a look at the Charlie Hebdo Mohammed cartoons, with English translations.

Some of these cartoons are vile, for example this one.

iTumRdEJePilN-e1348078503609Compare it to this antisemitic cartoon from the Nazi newspaper, Der Sturmer.

der_sturmerBoth cartoons vilify an entire religion and by implication all its followers. Now you might say that satire is meant to be offensive, and of course it is. The great tradition of British cartoon satire held nothing back, and Steve Bell is its torch bearer. Here’s an example of his work.

Steve Bell cartoon, 28.06.2012The image of George Osborne is personalised, as with Muhammed, but it’s not implicating every Tory voter as scum of the earth. Or presenting a stereotype, as in the Der Sturmer cartoon, inviting the reader to tar all Tory voters with the same brush.

The point is that if freedom of expression is sacrosanct, then some of those expressions will inevitably be racist, zenophobic, antisemitic, Islamophobic. You have to ask who produced them and why. So the ‘Je Suis Charlie’ meme is fine when you’re defending an abstract right, but the Devil’s in the details. It’s such a big tent that any racist, zenophobe and Islamophobe can happily crowd in, along with the people who genuinely care about freedom of expression.

And I’m choosy about the people I associate with.

You Don’t Know What You’re Doin’!

A surreal Merrie Melodies cartoon from 1931, featuring Piggy and his girlfriend, Fluffy, structured round a brilliant, toe-tapping jazz song. They were only in two cartoons, the other being Hittin’ the Trail for Hallelujah Land, which is no longer available because of the racist portrayal of Uncle Tom.

A great shame because I’m much taken by Piggy and Fluffy – they could have been the Rolling Stones to Mickey and Minnie’s Beatles – more anarchic, subversive, and rough round the edges, therefore much more interesting. I love the wobbly, bouncy animation style, for which there should be a portmanteau word – wouncy, bobbly?  I bet the Hays Office hated it, particularly since it was made during Prohibition.

So here’s one in the eye for the Hays Code and Prohibition: You Don’t Know What You’re Doin’!

Is Satire A Dying Art?


Please visit, from where I stole this image.

I just watched a David Frost documentary about television satire in Britain and America. Frost is of course an alumni of the first British satire programme, That Was The Week That Was (TW3), which ran from 1962-3 in the UK and from 1964-5 in the US. In both cases it survived for just two seasons before a nervous establishment shut it down.

I’ve always thought good satire should go for the jugular, in a moment that’s shocking, funny, and true, all at the same time. That was certainly true of TW3 and the splendidly splenetic Spitting Image, which brought a Frankensteinian element to satire. After that it seems to have lost its bite in the UK, though Saturday Night Live is still going strong in the US.  Tina Fey is Sarah Palin, and more people probably formed an opinion about her based on Fey’s interpretation than from exposure to Palin. With the later addition of The Daily Show and Bill Maher, satire is in good shape in the US.

Here I’m not so sure. For example, would this song and dance routine from the final episode of TW3 in 1963 make it onto the screens today? It’s inspired by the murder of a white civil rights worker in Mississippee.

We’d be embarrassed both by what is coyly referred to as the N-word, and the black-faced minstrels, as much as the explicit lyrics. In fact, the BBC broadcast The Black and White Minstrel Show from 1958-1978. Here’s Part 1 of the last show.

And Part 2. Go on, you know you want to click on it.

Public figures were pilloried unmercifully in the 18th and early 19th centuries. The gentleman below, in this cartoon by James Gillray, is the Prince of W(h)ales.

James Gillray's A Voluptuary Under the Horrors of Digestion (1792)

This tradition of robust satire temporarily found a home on television. Now it’s returned to its original home in political cartoons in newspapers. Steve Bell of the Guardian is the foremost exponent of going for the jugular. Rather than maunder on forever, I’ll finish this post with one of his favourite targets.

Pope Tony