‘Je Suis Charlie’ Artist Reminds Us That There Is Still A Fight For Freedom Of Expression

Joachim Roncin had no idea that the message he tweeted would become a slogan the entire world would pick up.

01/06/2016 11:55 am ET
Theodora Richter

Three words. One image. On Jan. 7, 2015, at 12:52 p.m., Joachim Roncin published a personal message on Twitter: "Je suis Charlie." He had no idea that his message would become, in the span of only a few minutes, one the entire world would pick up as a symbol of solidarity.

Since that day, "Je suis Charlie" has appeared on social media profile pictures, posters and front pages the world over. One year later, the passion has not subsided. Without intending to, this Parisian artistic director and music journalist created a slogan for demonstrations of unity across the planet.

Roncin is quick to say that "Je suis Charlie" does not belong to him. It’s for that reason that he has not been very vocal on the subject.

But one year after the events, as a week of commemorations and tributes begin, the creator of "Je suis Charlie" agreed to revisit this phenomenon with HuffPost France.

MICHAL CIZEK via Getty Images
A girl holds up posters reading 'Je suis Charlie' (I am Charlie) in front of the French embassy on Jan. 10, 2015, in Prague.

Where were you on Jan. 7, 2015?

I was at an editorial meeting at Stylist magazine. A journalist who was scanning Twitter alerted us. We stopped our meeting, without really knowing what had happened. There was talk of "attacks," of "gunshots" at Charlie Hebdo at that time, and we rushed to our computers to find out more.

On Twitter, I saw the news come in, piece by piece. I began to understand that something horrible had just happened.

And when no one could find words, you created a phrase and an image ...

In a rather automatic way, as I do every day as a news artistic director, I started gathering elements related to the subject. In this case, the covers of Charlie Hebdo. Their logo.

I sat for two seconds, with all the material laid out in front of me, and I tried to understand what they inspired within me.

What emerged was stupefaction, bewilderment. It's hard to say how it came to me. Everything happened within a fraction of a second. I tweeted this thing a few minutes after the announcement of the attacks, around 12:50 p.m., then everything certainly moved very quickly.

Were you a regular reader of Charlie Hebdo? 

Not at all. I had picked it up before, but I didn't buy it every week. But there were some issues at home, at my father's house. I read Hara-Kiri. For me, it evokes an entire period. This possibility to laugh at everything and to protest with laughter.

And your reaction was to create an image and publish it on Twitter?

Yes, but I never intended to create something that would go viral. At no point did I want to put on a publicity stunt. The idea was really to relay a personal message. Something rather pure.

When I said "Je suis Charlie" on Jan. 7, these three words were not at all politicized, and that's still the case for me. It is only a way to express the fact that I am not afraid, that they did not affect me, my vision of democracy, or my vision for freedom of expression. These are the things I wanted to express immediately. 

In the days that followed, we saw various analyses on the profound meaning of these three words. The Washington Post discussed the collective spirit surrounding the words "Je suis." Others debated the "suis" of your slogan. They tried to figure out if it was a form of the verb "etre" [to be] or the verb "suivre" [to follow]. What do you think of all these interpretations, and this quest for meaning?

When I wrote it, my intentions weren’t as advanced as that. The message was pure. It was also a form of respect for the families of the victims. A simple way of saying, "I am in solidarity."

Later, I cited my sources. Obviously I cited "Spartacus" by [Stanley] Kubrick, as it's a film I know well. I cited Kennedy ("Ich bin ein Berliner"). There is also "We are all Americans" after the attacks of Sept. 11. These are all the relevant references.

But with analysis and post hoc analysis, people can say what they want in images and words. Notably, there is Emmanuel Todd, who has written volumes about it. There is an analysis, which is not my own, on the march of Jan. 11, saying that it’s all a big masquerade and that it’s not representative of the French demographic. What I take from it is that on Jan. 11, there was a communion, a solidarity with the victims, from the 7th, 8th or 9th of January. 

What must be remembered is that there are people who are dead because they made drawings. We cannot dispute that. It is as stupid as that. No one has the right to kill someone else over drawings. It is something Miss France could have said, but that's it! This is what I wanted to say on Jan. 7.

When a slogan has a global impact, at a given time, there will be contrary opinions. And that leads to arguments. In that way, we begin to criticize, to take positions. 

Me, a little guy in front of his screen, dropping three words on the Internet -- and the image makes its way around the world several times. It was beyond surreal.

Do you have the impression that the slogan got away from you?

That's what I really wanted. I very quickly detached myself from it. I didn't want it to belong to me. 

It's a personal message that I tweeted to 400 followers. It just happened that the slogan gained ground, but it was not me who made it successful. It was social networks. So if people identify with and approve of the message, very well. It belongs to everyone.

I never patented the brand. Rather, I quickly approached INPI [National Industrial Property Institute] when I found out that people were trying to trademark the slogan "Je suis Charlie." For me, it was important that it be free, that no one could patent this slogan, not even me. I don’t know if I played a role there, but INPI issued a press release to announce that they would not accept any patent request regarding "Je suis Charlie."

But that did not prevent people from appropriating the slogan. There have been very beautiful things, very funny things, but also very awful things such as "Je suis Charlie Coulibaly" or "Je suis Charlie Martel," which came out even before the victims were buried. That was hard for me to believe.

Hundreds of people gather holding pencils and posters reading 'Je Suis Charlie (I Am Charlie)' in Lisbon on Jan. 8, 2015.

Did you reach out to the survivors of Charlie Hebdo after Jan. 7?

Yes, definitely. There was an outburst around the slogan. It was crazy. Me, a little guy in front of his screen, dropping three words on the Internet -- and the image makes its way around the world several times. It was beyond surreal ... Really, I still haven't understood why.

But there was something that bothered me: I was not in contact with the people at Charlie Hebdo and I didn't know what they would think. I was very concerned that they would not understand my intentions. It was also for this reason that I wasn't very vocal! I didn't want to be indecent. The victims are the people at Charlie Hebdo, the people at the Hyper Cacher, the police ... not me!

The night a number of survivors were released, Tuesday, Jan. 13, Canal+ asked me to participate in the nightly show "Grand Journal" with the members of Charlie Hebdo. I declined, and I told them that instead I would be delighted to meet the team and talk. They said yes, and I went backstage.

I met Zineb [El Rhazoui] and Luz and it was an absolutely wonderful meeting. They took me in their arms, told me positive things about the slogan and that really lifted a weight off my shoulders! I said to myself, "OK then, they understand it."

Luz told me something sublime that I will never forget, and it brought me to tears. He told me, with respect to the march of Jan. 11: "Honestly, Joachim, I don't know if Sunday would have been as important if you had not written those words." That deeply moved me, and in that moment I cried from my heart.

There are also variations of "Je suis Charlie" as signs of solidarity. We can name "Je suis Raif" in support of the Saudi blogger Raif Badawi and "Je suis Tunis" after the attack on the Bardo Museum. Do you approve of those?

Definitely! When we start to find the DNA of a slogan which defends freedom of expression, freedom of the press, democracy, yes, I can only embrace it.

But I am also not here to evaluate it. That is not my role since "Je suis Charlie" does not belong to me. 

PETER PARKS via Getty Images
Members of Sydney's French community gather in the heart of the city to hold aloft banners reading 'Je Suis Charlie' (I am Charlie) on Jan. 8, 2015.

Gradually, we have seen more lighthearted and even humorous variations appear. "Je suis, je suis, je suis Julien Lepers" for example. What is your view of these diversions?

It's funny! It says that this thing has become a pop icon. And you know when I realized it? When I saw it at the end of a Simpsons episode. I said "Ah, yes, OK, it has gone into the pop sphere."

But this thing is like dough that can take the form of different causes, different kinds of humor, etc. I am thinking of "Je suis Chablis" for example.

And on the night of Nov. 13, people sent me rather quickly: "Je suis en terrasse." Some versions still have the mark of a real fight.

But, it doesn't work for everything! Excuse me, but I don’t think that the plumbers and locksmiths need to make flyers for our mailboxes saying "Je suis utile" ["I am useful"]. When it’s pure communication, with nothing behind it, I think it doesn't work.

Have you ever spoken up to condemn a specific use of "Je suis Charlie?"

Initially, I did when I saw people selling "Je suis Charlie" T-shirts or caps. There are still many vendors doing so. They say that a part of the proceeds is given to the families of the victims, which is obviously not true. I don't doubt the sincerity of the people who are going to buy it to show their solidarity, but the people who sell it do it simply for money ...

I only work with Reporters Without Borders, who have produced T-shirts. And in that case, the funds go to support freedom of the press.

Have you been working much with Reporters Without Borders?

They were the first to contact me about using "Je suis Charlie." I said yes, no problem. And since then, I have worked with them. I am on the Reporters Without Borders board, and I participate in their fight for the defense of freedom of expression throughout the world.

What has "Je suis Charlie" changed for you, personally and professionally?

I always had conviction, but I wasn’t always a very involved person. Now I am. I am involved with Reporters Without Borders as I told you. I also go to schools. I explain to them what freedom of expression is, what defamation is, I show them examples from the press, and I try to show young people that they shouldn’t take everything they see on the Internet literally.

From a professional point of view, nothing has changed. I got offers but I declined. I think that those who approached me at the time, did so for the wrong reasons. I don’t wish to encourage people who only see me through the prism of "Je suis Charlie."

One year after the January attacks, what remains of "Je suis Charlie"?

There is an ongoing fight for freedom of expression. That's something that should be cherished. Until Jan. 7, it was something acknowledged a priori in France. Until we saw that this was not the case.

It’s still the same. In Jan. 7, 2015, or January 2016, and it will not change.

This post first appeared on HuffPost France. It has been translated into English and edited for clarity.

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