On Tuesday, March 25 Mark McKinney, a professor of French at Miami University in Ohio, delivered a lecture titled “Antiracist Comics by Charlie Hebdo’s Luz” in the Scheuer Room. This talk, his second at Swarthmore, addressed the specific satirical methods used by Luz in his strip called “Les Mégret gèrent la ville” (“The Mégrets Run the Town”), published as a book in 1998.
To quote Assistant Professor of French and Francophone Studies Alexandra Gueydan-Turek’s introduction, McKinney is the “foremost specialist of graphic novels and comic books in Francophone culture in the postcolonial framework” in the U.S. His work mostly investigates the representations of colonial violence in French bande dessinée (comics), focusing on Algeria and Indochina.
“Les Mégret gèrent la ville” mocks the then-mayor of the French town of Vitrolles, Catherine Mégret, and her husband Bruno Mégret, for their affiliation with France’s most prominent far-right party, le Front National. Bruno Mégret, party leader Jean-Marie Le Pen’s right-hand man, was a prominent political figure targeted by Charlie Hebdo’s left-wing discourse, and his wife’s mayorship became a focus of critique: to show that the FN was unable to govern a town. In this way, the local setting allowed for broader critique of the party’s policies.
McKinney’s argument that Charlie Hebdo’s satire is lost in translation due to the absence of the cultural context necessary to its understanding comes amidst a flurry of foreign criticism of the paper for its supposedly hateful commentary. Charlie Hebdo is no stranger to causing offense back in France: it has regularly been sued on the grounds of its content, including by the Mégrets. Given that Catherine Mégret had previously been tried on the grounds of “complicity in the provocation of racial hate,” the case fell through.
McKinney analyzed the comics according to three general satirical features. He started with the satirical and pedagogical function of the strip, showing how the demonstration of inconsistencies within FN discourse are laid out in the comic to teach against its policy. He also investigated the strategic use of political retorts against FN discourse and policy within the comics, and French pop culture as a resource for anti-colonial and racist contestation within the comics.
An example of the complex interconnections McKinney described came when he discussed the meanings of representing Bruno Mégret as an anthropomorphic rat. As well as echoing Nazi imagery, Mickey Mouse, and Camus’s use of allegory in “The Plague,” the imagery is a reference to the neocolonialist semantics of the expression “p’tit rat” (“lil’ rat”), a slur to refer to Arab people. The conflation between the immigrant and the far-right politician, as well as being a joke in itself, also references that Bruno is not a native to Vitrolles, and is in such an immigrant in his own country. In other words, the crude, offensive imagery taps into a complex well of cultural associations.
Another telling example from the talk was that of a strip where the Mégrets maniacally rename their household products from foreign names to those of far-right extremist thinkers. This is in reference to Catherine’s renaming of streets of Vitrolles named after non-French natives in a similar fashion, in order to rid the country of anything that isn’t natively French. Even before the punchline, a joke appears as the Mégrets, through their endeavors, hide branding which reflects France’s colonial past (“Banania,” a cocoa brand which infantilizes black men). In thus, Luz relied on French popular consciousness and its inherent racism to subvert the anti-immigration policies of the Mégrets.
The talk was concluded by showcasing comics inspired by this series, such as the nearly eponymous “Les Sarkozy gèrent la France.” To sum up the talk, McKinney stated that all of these drawings aim to “mock, teach, and teach the mockery.” Clearly, his argument demonstrated the need to understand cultural contexts within which satire is produced; its very nature requires the reproduction of images and beliefs it is trying to subvert.
To some attendees, the topic at hand was too narrow for the talk to appear useful: although the Mégrets were key political figures at the time, the removal of much of the audience from the locus of discussion made it difficult at times to grasp fully the implicit relevance of the contemporary context, and the ways in which the tools he used may be generalizable to comics being produced now. Although his conclusion hinted at these possibilities, they remained unclear as the talk wrapped up.
Although the Q&A session that followed the talk began with a personal attack on McKinney for the polemical nature of the subject matter, subsequent questions aimed to explicitly draw out the potential breadth of his argument and try to push on the unease stemming from the difficult relationship between intention and reception with regards to Charlie Hebdo’s satire.
Students also enquired about the how a changing audience would influence the ways in which we should perceive and discuss these comments, namely in light of recent Islamophobic claims against the paper. Although satire has been an integral part of French journalistic and political discourse since the revolution, to attack Islamic leaders now is different from attacking Christianity in the 18th century: it comes down to the distinction between punching up and punching down. Students also brought up that staff diversity of the publication shouldn’t excuse its actions, and the difficulty of walking the line between the reproduction of offensive stereotypes which subvert and reinforce them. Although McKinney recognised these difficulties associated with satire in the contemporary context, it seemed clear that he wished to stay clear of a polemical discussion of recent events within his talk. Although I would have prefered to hear a more fleshed-out stance, I understand the difficulties doing so (especially in light of the recent polemic surrounding Charlie Hebdo reporter Zineb El Razhoui’s appearance at UChicago this month).
In my opinion, many students, including myself, expected something different from McKinney’s talk: something more general, regarding a topic plucked directly from current discourse, conducting an analysis which would nuance our understanding of the metadiscourse surrounding Charlie Hebdo. Regardless, McKinney was invited neither as a staunch defender of the paper, nor as an upholder of liberal values: he came as an academic, and provided us with an extremely detailed analysis of a specific series of satirical comics. I agreed with his thesis: these comics are untranslatable. It was illustrated by McKinney’s at times sheepish tone having to translate series of racial slurs which, although perfectly publishable in a Francophone context, are unimaginable here. Although the lecture at times contextualised its analysis unclearly and did not take all the stances it could have, it provided deep and meaningful insight into the mechanics of the oft quoted but little understood practice of satire.