François Cavanna’s grim prediction

François Cavanna’s grim prediction

In a call to arms to atheists, François Cavanna, above, founder of Charlie Hebdo who died a year ago aged 90, once ordered non-believers not to be ‘too discreet, too timid, too resigned!’

More than 20 years ago he warned that, if atheists stood idly by, complacent in the face of increasing Islamic fundamentalism, other religions would be inspired to aggressively spread their intolerance and fanaticism.

And he predicted that Christian and Jewish zealots would open the gates to ultra-nationalist groups and allow them to gain power.

This is by no means improbable, given the accelerating state of decay in our democracies. The 21st century will be a century of persecution and bonfires …

What did we know about Cavanna?

Regrettably, very little. When France’s most inspirational atheist – a prolific writer, satirist and cartoonist – died on January 29, 2014, his passing merited hardly a mention in the world’s mainstream English-speaking media, a fact that both astonished and infuriated Freethinker subscriber Nelly Moia, who lives in Luxembourg and is an enormous admirer of Cavanna and his work.

A while back, Moia was kind enough to send me a special edition of Charlie Hebdo, the satirical journal founded by Cavanna. Beautifully illustrated with photographs and some extraordinarily irreverent and “blasphemous” cartoons, the 80-page magazine is a paean to Cavanna’s life and work, and it pained me that I could not get the best out of the publication because I do not read or speak French.

Now, while Cavanna’s name may mean little or nothing to most English speakers, today Charlie Hebdo is an internationally known brand as a result of the massacre of its team in Paris by Islamic terrorists on January 7, 2015 and before that the firebombing of its offices by Muslim fanatics.

The destruction of the publication’s headquarters in Boulevard Davout in the city’s 20th arrondissement in 2011 was their response to an announcement that latest issue would feature the “prophet” Mohammed as “Editor in Chief ”.

Despite this outrage, the magazine did appear. The front cover showed an image by cartoonist Renald Luzier ala ‘Luz’, saying “100 lashes if you are not dying of laughter”, and the back page depicted the “prophet” wearing a red nose and declaring “Yes, Islam is compatible with humour”.

Charlie Hebdo contributor 'Luz' escaped the same fate of 10 of his colleagues because he overslept on the morning of the terrorist attack.

Charlie Hebdo contributor ‘Luz’ escaped the same fate of 10 of his colleagues because he overslept on the morning of the terrorist attack.

Charlie Hebdo was already in Islam’s bad books. In 2007, it grabbed headlines in France after two French Muslim organisations, the Great Mosque of Paris and the Union of Islamic Organisations of France, initiated a criminal action against Charlie Hebdo for:

Public insults against a group of people because they belong to a religion.

This was in response to the magazine’s reprinting cartoons of the “prophet” which had originally appeared in a Danish newspaper in 2005 and provoked protests by Muslims worldwide.

The publication’s then executive editor Philippe Val was, however, acquitted and hailed the outcome as a victory for freedom of expression. He said at the time:

If we no longer have the right to ridicule those who inflict terror on us, that’s a problem.

The journal started life in 1960 when Georges Bernier and François Cavanna launched a monthly magazine entitled Hara-Kiri, which quickly became branded as “dumb and nasty” (“bête et méchant”).

The editorial team gleefully seized on this phrase and made it its official slogan. The publication was banned in 1961.

In 1966, however, it reappeared and in 1969 Hara-Kiri Hebdo, later renamed L’Hebdo Hara-Kiri, was launched after the team decided to produce a weekly magazine in addition to its monthly issue.

Things again turned sour following the death of French President Charles De Gaulle, who died in 1970 in his small hometown of Colombey, ten days before a fire in a club caused the death of 146 people.

The publication released a cover that spoofed the mainstream press coverage of the tragedy, and the publication was banned once again.

Hara-Kiri was well-known for the irreverent spoof ads it contained. This one says 'God exists. I found him in a paxket of Bonux'.

Hara-Kiri was well-known for the irreverent spoof ads it contained. This one says ‘God exists. I found him in a packet of Bonux’.

To side-step the ban, the team then decided to change its title to Charlie Hebdo. Like Britain’s Private Eye, Charlie Hebdo specialises in amusing and provocative covers. Unlike Private Eye, it pushes the envelope far further than any British satirical magazine, and is frequently accused of anti-Catholicism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia – and even Anglophobia.

Reacting in 2011 to calls by UK Eurosceptics for Britain to leave the EU, it ran a cover that posed the question:

But who wants the English in Europe anyway?

This was accompanied by a cartoon by Charlie Hebdo editor Stéphane Charbonnier, who died in the attack, of two “typical” English folk: a woman in an ill-fitting Union Jack T-shirt, with a tattoo that says “Fuck Off ”.

She has a navel piercing and her belly is lobster pink. A little gent in bowler hat and pinstripe trousers, clutching a brolly, his skin a very unhealthy grey, is shown as her companion.


A French word for the British is rosbifs. It’s probably in retaliation to us calling them frogs. Commenting on that cartoon in the Guardian in December 2011, Jonathan Jones wrote:

It’s actually more subtle than it looks. The cartoon gleefully combines stereotypes old and new. The man in the bowler hat is not a contemporary Briton at all. He’s the ghost of a long-ago city gent. Is this why his skin is grey – because he’s dead?

The pairing of the two grotesques adds up to a pertinent satire on Britain’s true curse – our class system. Charlie Hebdo sees our Etonian- led nationalism as the unholy marriage of Britain’s bloodless aristocracy and bloodthirsty working class. A bit like Wellington’s army at Waterloo, I suppose.

However, it’s Charlie Hebdo’s strong anti-clerical content that has, over the years, caused the greatest offence. Not surprising, given that it came about as a result of Cavanna long-held hatred of religion.

Around 20 years ago he penned a book entitled Lettre ouverte aux culs-bénits (Open Letter to the cul-blessed).

There is no English term for culs-bénits, Moia said.

You only have ‘bigots’, but in French there is the lovely cul-bénit (blessed arse) and his book is hilarious!

Regrettably, it has never been translated into English, but I did gather, via Google Translate, that Lettre ouverte aux culsbénits was essentially a call to arms to atheists, a plea not simply to stand by, with “arms dangling” and:

Permit The hideous resurrection of the old swamp monsters we had really thought about to die a natural death.

Cavanna was also a strong advocate of animal rights, but I was only able to find one English reference on the Internet to this aspect of his life. Someone called “Jocelyne” – a French expat living in Ireland – posted a note on a pet loss message board in 2007.

After questioning the “religious tone of so many of your messages”, she brought Cavanna to readers’ attention:

Not that long ago I was reading a book by French author François Cavanna. Cavanna is an open atheist, a firm believer in evolution. And he loves animals too, and has kept many of them (dog, cats, poultry …)

He supports animal shelters and campaigns for several causes (fur trade, bullfighting, hunting etc are all things he absolutely abhors).

As Cavanna talks of the animals he had as companions, he also reflects on why he loves them. Certainly his experience in eastern Europe during the last war made a long-lasting impression on him, and horrified him – for life – at cruelty, death and violence, and at the stupidity of people for inflecting so much suffering on other living creatures, human or not.

Cavanna was born in Nogent-sur-Marne. Although raised in France, he grew up surrounded by Italian immigrants due to his father being from Italy. He described this life in his books Les Ritals and L’œil du lapin.

At the age of 16, he took up various part-time jobs. He delivered letters for the postal service, sold fruit and vegetables, and was a mason’s apprentice. His journalistic début came in 1945 when he began to work for the daily Libération.

Later, he turned to autobiographical writing. Les Ritals, mentioned above, dealt with his childhood, while Les Russkoffs (and later Maria) told of his experience in World War II. Les Russkoffs was the novel for which he won the Prix Interallié in 1979. In Bête et méchant and Les yeux plus grands que le ventre he tells his hilarious experiences in Hara-Kiri and Charlie Hebdo.

Cavanna’s final book, Lune de miel, deals with his Parkinson’s disease.

• This updated piece first appeared in the March, 2014, print edition of the Freethinker.

4 responses to “François Cavanna’s grim prediction”

  1. Rob Andrews says:

    It’s hard to promote atheism, since it’s a belief in nothing. I think this leaves most people cold. “Why should I believe in nothing”.; I hear his from xtians a lot. Or ” You don’t believe in anything”? To which I say that I’m a secular Humanist. And suggest they go to to:

    And another good site is
    But I don’t push this on the believers I know, or they get defensive in behalf of their bible.

    But i enjoyed this article

  2. Rob Andrews says:

    To keep a few suckers around there are preachers.
    outrageous rubbish spewing creatures
    To attract attention
    Nothing’s to stupid to mention
    Religion of any sort isn’t one of their features

    This helps to explain the dogmatic schnooks
    Who believe everything regurgitated from books
    Those brain dead monkeys
    Willingly become submissive flunkies
    Of passionate manipulatve crooks

    Charlie Hebdo magazine is good ;everybody can understand humor. Especially those it’s directed at. (Danish cartoons, C. Hebdo as proof). It forces the issues to the front

  3. EJ says:

    We are at war. Where deaths occur, this is the front line.
    This man no longer exists, but we can remember and enjoy the good bits, and perhaps follow some of his examples, as he accomplished many public and far-reaching effects from his actions.

    While I wish things had been different for him, there is no going back in time and only a few ways to assist in his past endeavours while being in the here and now.

    There are others like him still living. Help them if you can.
    You are like him in some ways. That is why I donate my time and money to this newspaper when I can.

  4. gegsieline says:

    It’s hard to see what can be done, other than campaigning to stop the indoctrination of children. Higher educated people with religious leanings seem attracted to teaching children. Maybe it would be advantageous to allow ‘the theory of intelligent design’ to be taught alongside evolution theory, ‘intelligent design theory would then become a discipline of religious theory. We could then demand that faith schools refer not to religious education but to religious theory.