French cartoonist receives death threats

7th August 2008

Civil Liberty correspondent

Siné - hub of controversy
Siné - hub of controversy
Two years ago a Danish cartoonist created a dozen or so images satirizing the prophet Mohammed. The fallout was felt across most of Europe, the Middle East and the UK with the Danish and Norwegian embassies in Damascus and Beirut attacked, stores across the Middle East removed Danish produce and tens of thousands of Muslim protestors vented their anger from London to the Lebanon.

Cartoons are again a source of controversy – this time in France where a satirist is at the centre of a hullabaloo after an allegedly anti-Semitic remark.

Two of the bastions of French left-wing publishing; the newspaper Libération and the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo are fuelling a bad-tempered debate. Every day sees a new avalanche of opinion pieces and web posts and no one expects them to stop soon.

The row kicked off last month when the infirm 79 year-old Maurice Sinét, known as Siné, filed his weekly satirical column complete with cartoons for Charlie Hebdo as he has done for two decades. Philippe Val, the editor, barely read the veteran contributor's standard ironic invective and so missed the reference made to aspirant politician Jean Sarkozy, the smooth-talking 21-year-old law student son of the right-wing President.

The young man, Siné wrote without a shred of evidence, was planning to convert to Judaism before marrying Jessica Sebaoun-Darty, the Jewish heiress of a huge electronics chain. "He'll go a long way in life, this lad!" Siné commented. The piece was published without controversy -- until several days later, when a radio presenter referred to it as anti-Semitic. The families of those concerned were said to be "sickened".

Val, who took the controversial decision to republish the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad two years ago in the name of freedom of the press, agreed that the piece was offensive and told its author to apologise.


Siné refused, saying he would rather "cut his own nuts off" and was, more or less, fired. Cue outrage, argument, counter-argument, argument. Was the original statement anti-Semitic? For Val, there was no doubt. Siné's statements, he said last week, "could be interpreted as making a link between conversion to Judaism and social success" and that they spread the old stereotype associating Jews and money.

In the latest development in a controversy marked by insults, libel claims and mud-slinging, the anti-capitalist cartoonist filed a lawsuit with police over what he said were death threats on a Jewish Defence League website.

In an apparent call to stab him a message from a site user said: “20 centimetres of stainless steel in the stomach, that should make the son of bitch stop and think.”

An online petition defending his right to free speech has been signed by more than 8,000 people.

Twenty eminent intellectuals, including the philosopher Bernard-Henry Lévy, wrote to Le Monde to defend the decision to dismiss Sinet.
“Once too often, Siné has crossed the line between humour and insult, caricature and hatred,” they said.

The piece that sparked the controversy can be seen here.


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