Le Monde: “freedom of the press is a vital element of our democracy”. Credit: Pascal Le Segretain/Getty

January 22, 2021   5 mins

The freedom of a satirical cartoonist to satirise has limits even in France, it appears. The best-known, and best, French daily newspaper, Le Monde, this week bowed to some of its readers — and infuriated others — by apologising for a website cartoon which, it said, “could be interpreted” as an insult to transgender people and a “minimisation” of incest.

As a result, the cartoonist, Xavier Gorce, severed his 19-year relationship with the newspaper. “Freedom is not negotiable,” he tweeted. “I hope that the ‘woke’ culture that is now present in part of the Left-wing Anglo-Saxon press is not spilling over into the media in France.”

Gorce has not been the only person to contrast Le Monde’s near instant apology for his drawing and the newspaper’s passionate support for the moral and legal right of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo to publish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed which offended many Muslims.

The incident is complicated. Le Monde did not remove the cartoon from its website and did not fire Mr Gorce. He left on a point of principle. The newspaper insists that its commitment to the freedom of the press and to publishing “challenging” cartoons remain intact. Editor Jérôme Fenoglio said on Wednesday that Le Monde had simply “recognised an error” in publishing a drawing which had upset many of its readers.

Many critics on-line say that their objections to the cartoon have nothing to do with “wokeness”. They say that they see no circumstances in which incest should be the subject for a joke or for a satirical cartoon.

Charlie Hebdo’s Mohammed cartoons were intended as mockery of Islamist extremism — not a mockery of Muslims or of Islam itself. Equally, Gorce insists that this week’s drawing was not an attack on transgender people or a minimisation of incest.

Gorce is one of the most talented and most controversial cartoonists in a country which is rich in cartooning talent. His series, Les Indégivrables (“the unthawables”), uses stylised sketches of penguins to act out the moral dilemmas and idiocies of current events.

In his cartoon for the Le Monde website, Gorce showed a small penguin asking a bigger penguin: “If I was to be abused by the adopted half-brother of the partner of my transgender father who is now my mother, would that be incest?”

The drawing was, he says, a wry comment on the tangled moral arguments used by some well-known French politicians and commentators to justify or explain their long silence in a long-buried incest scandal. Last month the well-known French academic and political commentator, Olivier Duhamel, was accused in a book by his step-daughter of abusing his 14-year-old stepson in the 1980s.

Is the abuse of a stepson truly incest, some commentators asked. The philosopher Alain Finkielkraut suggested on a TV panel that sex with an adolescent of 14 might, in some circumstances, be considered consensual. Gorce’s drawing was interpreted by many people nonetheless as an attempt to link transgender people with sexual abuse. It provoked an explosion of anger in reader comments on the Le Monde site and of an avalanche of insults on social media.

Rokhaya Diallo, a leading feminist writer and film-maker, said that the cartoon was “a foul joke on incest and paedo-criminality which, in passing, casts opprobrium on transgender women”. A typical example of the thousands of tweets on the subject suggested: “Your brain must be soaked in piss if you think that defending sexually harassed children is a minority woke thing. Do you still have the excuse for a soul or are you going to defend pigs for infinity. ”

Within hours of the publication of the cartoon, Le Monde put out a statement saying that it “should never have been published” and offering “excuses” to readers who had been “shocked”.

Caroline Monnot, the newspaper’s Directrice de la rédaction (managing editor) said: “This drawing can indeed by interpreted as a minimisation of the seriousness  of incestuous acts and makes inappropriate reference both to the victims and to transgender people.”

Mr Gorce rejects this reading of his cartoon as absurd. “It was an ironical comment (on those who asked) if this was truly incest (if a step-father was involved) as if that in some way reduced the offence,” he told the magazine Le Point. “I was pointing out that modern family structures might muddle the concept of incest… but paedocriminality remains indisputably a crime.”

“Laughter is a defence. It is a critical commentary. It’s never a mockery or humiliation.”

Fluidity of gender is one thing. Fluidity of commitment to press freedom on the part of a great newspaper like Le Monde is another. If it’s permissible in the name of free speech to offend Muslims (even though that was not the intention of the Charlie cartoons) is it not permissible to offend transgender people (even though that was not Gore’s intention)? Is incest — long a taboo subject in France, as elsewhere — completely off-limits for satire or humour?

The French commentariat has been deeply divided on the subject. Caroline Fourrest is a columnist and film-maker who has often eloquently attacked the US media for misunderstanding France’s commitments to secularity and freedom of speech. Fourrest has been equally eloquent this week in defending Mr Gorce and his politically incorrect penguins.

“It is perfectly reasonable not to like this drawing,” she tweeted. “But there is no reason for a torrent of insults…. We live in an epoch in which everything has become a cause for instance offence… This will end up by persuading us that nothing is terrible because we are told that everything is terrible.”

Mr Gorce, who considers himself Left-wing, has often bruised leftist or anti-establishment sensibilities in the past. During the 2018-19 gilets jaunes rebellion in rural and suburban France, he drew a group of penguins wearing yellow vests who announced: “We are asking for stuff but don’t try to trick us by asking what.”

In his interview with Le Point (for which he also works), Gorce said: “There are people who don’t want to understand anything but prefer to devote themselves entirely to their own indignation… They have an ideological agenda and want to stir up the masses rather than laugh or think because they think that will advance their cause.

“It’s not an exaggeration to say that this has become a kind of  inquisition… A religious tribunal which decides whether things are decent or not. I thought we had got rid of that thanks to our secular state… which guarantees freedom of conscience and freedom of expression.”

Le Monde’s editor, Jérôme Fenoglio, replied in a statement that the newspaper believed that “freedom of the press is a vital element of our democracy” and “indivisible”. However, freedom also meant “responsibility”, and this included recognising the newspaper’s “error” in publishing a drawing “which could be read as a minimisation of the gravity of incest, at a time when society is just facing up to its extent”.

Sources within Le Monde say that its staff have been deeply divided on the apology. Some say that the cartoon was clumsy at best and open to misinterpretation; others that, seen in the context of Gorce’s other work, it was obvious that the cartoon intended to mock the contorted arguments of France’s great and good, not to mock transgender people or victims of incest.

My own view? The incident is complicated. I found the cartoon subtle and funny. I can see why others misinterpreted it. But I believe that Le Monde made a mistake.

After 12 people were killed in the Islamist terrorist attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices in January 2015, Le Monde wrote in an editorial: “They died for our freedom. They died for a few cartoons. Through them, the target was free speech… The killers were aiming at the freedom to inform and to be informed, to debate, criticise, understand, persuade, the free spirit, the necessary and vital audacity of freedom.”

The newspaper — and France as a whole — was  absolutely right to defend the Hebdo Mohammed cartoons, even though some of them were unfunny and poorly drawn. Le Monde should also have defended Gorce’s penguins, which are usually wise and witty and beautifully drawn in a minimalist way. If the joke failed on this occasion, the paper should at least have given Xavier Gorce an opportunity to explain himself.

Freedom, especially in satire, means freedom to push the boundaries of taste. To quote Le Monde’s own 2015 Charlie Hebdo editorial back at them, Gorce’s penguins embody “the free spirit, the necessary and vital audacity of freedom”.


John Lichfield was Paris correspondent of The Independent for 20 years. Half-English and half-Belgian, he was born in Stoke-on-Trent and lives in Normandy.