Why the French army is not laughing at controversial Charlie Hebdo cartoons

French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo was under fire after it published a series of cartoons over the death of 13 French soldiers in Mali. Although the army’s chief of staff expressed his “indignation”, his strong response could simply translate as perceived ingratitude towards the army. Or resentment for smearing its recruitment campaign.

Hundreds of people lined up in Paris on Monday to pay tribute to the 13 French soldiers killed while battling jihadist militants in Mali exactly one week before. But controversy erupted over the weekend as the French army’s chief of staff, Thierry Burkhard, sent the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo an open letter following a series of cartoons mocking the army’s recent recruitment campaign and the soldiers’ deaths.

Burkhard tweeted his letter on Friday, where he expressed “deep incomprehension” and "indignation”, claiming the “families’ mourning has been soiled by the extremely outrageous cartoons” published by Charlie Hebdo.

One drawing published Thursday put a skull instead of a face before the slogan “I protect my country, I progress in my life”, in a dark take on an army ad campaign seen in many Parisian metro stations.


Charlie Hebdo’s editor Riss defended the magazine’s “satirical spirit” on Sunday in an open letter to General Burkhard. “Our newspaper has to stay loyal to its satirical, sometimes provocative spirit,” he wrote, adding that "Nevertheless, I would like to say that we are aware of the importance of the work done by French soldiers to fight against terrorism." Riss also offered his "condolences to the families" of the soldiers.

‘Charlie Hebdo targeted the army’s recruitment campaign’

“This is Charlie Hebdo, who has always said they will never refrain from targeting anything”, defense expert and researcher at the French Institute of International Relations’ Centre of Security Studies, Elie Tenenbaum, told FRANCE 24. According to Tenenbaum, the army’s reaction was “surely something emotional, rather than rational”.

Tenenbaum said that Charlie Hebdo had hit a sore spot. “Charlie Hebdo targeted the army’s communication, specifically its recruitment campaign,” he said. “And recruiting has been at the core of the army’s public relations operations, as it has recruitment objectives.”

The French satirical magazine has a long tradition of anti-militarism as well as regularly mocking organised religion, generating public outrage, death threats and, most notably, the terrorist attacks against its offices on January 15, 2015, when two gunmen who claimed allegiance to al-Qaeda killed 12 people, including many of the weekly’s star cartoonists.

‘Ingratitude’

“The army and its soldiers might have also felt some kind of ingratitude from the magazine,” Tenenbaum said.“Because antiterrorist operations such as Barkhane in Mali started after terrorist attacks like the one against Charlie Hebdo, in order to protect freedom of speech.”

According to French President Emmanuel Macron’s entourage, one soldier’s family decided to press charges against Charlie Hebdo, daily Le Monde reported.

But Charlie Hebdo wasn’t the only one criticising the army and its operations.

On the eve of the death of the 13 soldiers, other voices raised doubts on the usefulness of the French-led Barkhane anti-terrorist operation in the Sahel region, starting with far-left party La France Insoumise. On November 26, MPs led by party head Jean-Luc Mélenchon published a press release asking Macron and his government to “start a serious and reasonable debate on how to engage in a way out of a war that is understood neither by our compatriots nor even by the Malians themselves”.

The same day, French Prime Minister Édouard Philippe replied that “the sole military dimension does not grant a final victory, but it is indispensable”.

To this day, La France Insoumise is the only party to openly call for the Barkhane troops to be brought home.

Does the army have a public image problem?

“The army does not have any problem with its public image – it is largely positive - and France satisfactorily supports the Barkhane operation,” Tenenbaum said.

Indeed, an Ifop poll published on Monday showed that 58 percent of respondents approve the Sahelian operation, a number that has hardly changed from the 59 percent from a previous poll in March 2013.

The death of 13 soldiers has done little to change this support. “The loss of human lives does not change the public perception for these operations: what's important is if they reach their security goals,” Tenenbaum said.

This could nevertheless change, since this perception is not shared by people in Mali, where most Barkhane troops are located. "Malian opinion has been slowly changing, and people are thinking more and more that the Barkhane operation might not be able to reach its goals,” Tenenbaum warned.

As if sensing a tide-change in public opinion, Macron promised a thorough review of the Barkhane operation.

"All options are on the table," the French president vowed last week, as the death toll among French soldiers in the Sahel reached 44, since the intervention began in 2013.