On banning discussion of Charlie Hebdo at academic conferences

Friend and colleague Jane Weston Vauclair wrote her dissertation on the politics and aesthetics of Hara-Kiri and Charlie Hebdo some years ago. While she has continued her research, she has also become a freelance translator and teacher at various schools in Paris. Since the events of January, she has been asked to speak at various universities and conferences on the meaning of Charlie Hebdo in French society and culture, including the conference Voyages: The Sixth International Graphic Novel and Comics Conference / Ninth International Bande Dessinée Conference, in which the extended CFP explicitly asked for papers on Charlie Hebdo.

In the intervening time, Paul Docherty, Director of British Council France, has told the conference organizers that the Charlie panels cannot be held on site in concert with the other panels, citing the safety of primary school children learning English in adjoining rooms.

I will let Jane speak for herself in response; if anyone has thoughts or ideas for how to open the discussion on banning Charlie Hebdo and related censorship topics, feel free to contact her at janemweston@gmail.com.

This topic will also be raised at the Charlie Hebdo conference in Belfast this coming week, which, you may recall, was nearly cancelled, citing security reasons as well.

Dear all,

I am a Paris-based translator, academic and English language coach of British nationality who has lived in Paris for the past ten years. I hold a PhD in French Studies from Bristol University and my research examines the aesthetics and politics of humour in the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and Hara-Kiri.

I am currently preparing a paper for the Belfast conference to be held on contemporary perspectives on citizenship at Queens University. As many of you are, I’m sure aware, this was a conference that has had to be reinstated, having been cancelled owing to security concerns. My paper at Belfast will be looking at the tensions between the global and the local, and between the ethics of responsibility and the ethics of conviction since the events of January in Paris.

These issues have, however, struck even closer to home than I had previously thought possible, having recently been asked if I would prepare to change the topic of an upcoming paper on Charlie Hebdo that I had due to deliver at a conference on bande dessinée and cartooning to be hosted by the University of London in Paris at the end of June. As many of you know, ULIP at Invalides, close to the Assemblée Nationale. The reason for this issue, as far as I have been given to understand, is that the British Council shares the premises with ULIP and that its director, Mr Paul Docherty, does not feel he is in a position to accept the 2 panels on Charlie Hebdo out of concern for the safety of the young learners in the building. As such, he has seen to it that the panels on Charlie Hebdo have been removed from the programme.

I have been in contact with Mr Docherty and he has confirmed this position, stating:

“You are absolutely right that this has not been an easy decision to make and that it has unwelcome consequences. However I can only reiterate what I said before – we have no issue with the conference or its content, it is not our place to comment on that, but we do have a concern with the location for the event for the reasons that you have given in your reply. I am sure that the organisers of the event from Glasgow would not choose to hold the event at a primary school on the Byres Road. Equally the University of London would, I am sure, not choose to run the conference in space shared with the University crèche or in a school in Bloomsbury. As you know, the British Council in Paris is effectively a school catering to young learners as well as adults and the building we share with ULIP is fully integrated. It is for that reason, and that reason alone, that I have taken the position I have.”

The conference organisers have offered to try and find an alternative venue for the Charlie Hebdo papers, as such mitigating censorship down to marginalisation, working as best they can with the fallout from the suppression of the panels, which reflects their absolute desire for panels to go ahead. But this still troubles me immensely. Mr Docherty seems to be saying that there is nothing else he can do than ban the panels from happening alongside the other papers, for the sake of the safety of the children on the premises. It does concern me, I must admit, that he is prepared to use these children and their families to justify decisions likely contrary to their values, i.e., censorship and freedom of speech in a city still very much marked by the events of January.

Moreover, despite what Mr Docherty is claiming, cancelling the panels is not the only option, in my opinion. Hosting any event carries risks—that doesn’t mean that we simply stop hosting events. Rather, we take steps to mitigate risks, for example, we increase the security presence/procedures at the event. In this case, there is a choice between mitigating risks in a way that tramples on our values of free expression, or mitigating risks in a way that does not trample on those values.

I would very much welcome your views on this, as academics on Francofil. For my part, adding these panels to the main body of the conference had struck me as a sensible, measured thing to do for this conference. The panels were not the centrepiece of the conference. To include the panels had struck me as a way to mark respect for the victims and solidarity with the values of freedom of speech and the work of the cartoonist victims. A small, discreet, but crucial act of respect. Truly, I don’t believe these panels should hijack the conference (although I appreciate that the very act of banning them certainly militates for that).

But I don’t want the panels to be quarantined and stigmatised by moving them away from the others; I don’t want to feel any more discriminated against in the topic of the talk than I already have; I don’t want my talk to be stigmatised as a burden through an institution which claims to have debate and the free exchange of ideas as part of its DNA (quoting Paul Docherty’s own email to me). I’m happy for my talk to be part of one of 3 parallel panels at the time and place when it was originally scheduled: I want the panels to happen alongside the rest of the conference and I really do still believe that the original location is a very fitting one.

Equally, as I have said to Mr Docherty in one of my emails:

“I am sure that you feel that your decision is in the best interest of the students to whom you have a duty of care at the British Council. I can moreover imagine that the decision was not an easy one – it was surely rather difficult to have to choose to exert de facto academic censorship, not least so soon after the events of January when freedom of expression was the central value defended as the very thing that should not become the victim of the terrorists’ actions, what with the terrible loss that would be to the kind of society we all aspire to live in: one which indeed values dialogue and exchange, perhaps especially in the face of a certain degree of fear.

I suppose you were aware of how this could well come across to the academics affected by the situation, to the members of the public who are becoming aware of the situation, and of the distress it might cause those who had worked so hard to organise the conference and these two panels in response to the urge to engage productively, critically and responsibly with the important questions emerging from the events of January, as is their job to do, including out of respect for the journalists and cartoonists who died and whose stature in the world of French culture can hardly be overplayed, despite the undeniably controversial aspects of various parts of their work.

I suppose you were aware that there could be no perfect solution in such a difficult situation, but decided to err on the side of caution. I would respectfully put it to you, however, that your decision has come as a considerable shock and indeed conveyed a sense of great defeat. While it is true that now, the children of the British council will be incrementally safer than they would have been should my talk and those of the others on the Charlie Hebdo panels have happened, as one academic not involved in the conference has commented to me: “Apparently extreme religious groups threaten violence for a reason–it works”.

That makes me both sad and angry. If the panels are indeed blocked, I would have to agree with him. And by blocked, I mean if they are unable to be delivered on an equal footing with the rest of the conference without stigmatisation or marginalisation on site with the other papers, as originally planned. The threat of violence, if this transpires, will have worked and academic discussion will have been silenced through the very institutions that, perhaps naively or idealistically, I had truly trusted to come through for us, showing courage and leadership I could be proud of. Is there really no way that these panels could go ahead in a dignified, respectful fashion, as they had originally programmed?”

Again, I would very much welcome your thoughts and thank you for your attention. The conference participants are all aware of the situation and I have very much appreciated the extent to which they have expressed their solidarity and understanding of the stance I am taking. I do feel that it is part of the responsibility I have as a British citizen in Paris with a PhD on the topic that I have.

Best regards,
Jane Weston Vauclair

Jane Weston Vauclair
Traduction – coaching linguistique