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Why the French army is not laughing at controversial Charlie Hebdo cartoons

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French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo was under fire after it published a series of cartoons over the death of 13 French soldiers in Mali. Although the armys chief of staff expressed his “indignation”, his strong response could simply translate as perceived ingratitude towards the army. Or resentment for smearing its recruitment campaign.

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Hundreds of people lined up in Paris on Monday to pay tribute to the 13 French soldiers killed while battling jihadist militants in Mali exactly one week before. But controversy erupted over the weekend as the French armys chief of staff, Thierry Burkhard, sent the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo an open letter following a series of cartoons mocking the armys recent recruitment campaign and the soldiers deaths.

Burkhard tweeted his letter on Friday, where he expressed “deep incomprehension” and "indignation”, claiming the “families mourning has been soiled by the extremely outrageous cartoons” published by Charlie Hebdo.

One drawing published Thursday put a skull instead of a face before the slogan “I protect my country, I progress in my life”, in a dark take on an army ad campaign seen in many Parisian metro stations.

Charlie Hebdos editor Riss defended the magazines “satirical spirit” on Sunday in an open letter to General Burkhard. “Our newspaper has to stay loyal to its satirical, sometimes provocative spirit,” he wrote, adding that "Nevertheless, I would like to say that we are aware of the importance of the work done by French soldiers to fight against terrorism." Riss also offered his "condolences to the families" of the soldiers.

Charlie Hebdo targeted the armys recruitment campaign

“This is Charlie Hebdo, who has always said they will never refrain from targeting anything”, defense expert and researcher at the French Institute of International Relations Centre of Security Studies, Elie Tenenbaum, told FRANCE 24. According to Tenenbaum, the armys reaction was “surely something emotional, rather than rational”.

Tenenbaum said that Charlie Hebdo had hit a sore spot. “Charlie Hebdo targeted the armys communication, specifically its recruitment campaign,” he said. “And recruiting has been at the core of the armys public relations operations, as it has recruitment objectives.”

The French satirical magazine has a long tradition of anti-militarism as well as regularly mocking organised religion, generating public outrage, death threats and, most notably, the terrorist attacks against its offices on January 15, 2015, when two gunmen who claimed allegiance to al-Qaeda killed 12 people, including many of the weeklys star cartoonists.

Ingratitude

“The army and its soldiers might have also felt some kind of ingratitude from the magazine,” Tenenbaum said.“Because antiterrorist operations such as Barkhane in Mali started after terrorist attacks like the one against Charlie Hebdo, in order to protect freedom of speech.”

According to French President Emmanuel Macrons entourage, one soldiers family decided to press charges against Charlie Hebdo, daily Le Monde reported.

But Charlie Hebdo wasnt the only one criticising the army and its operations.

On the eve of the death of the 13 soldiers, other voices raised doubts on the usefulness of the French-led Barkhane anti-terrorist operation in the Sahel region, starting with far-left party La France Insoumise. On November 26, MPs led by party head Jean-Luc Mélenchon published a press release asking Macron and his government to “start a serious and reasonable debate on how to engage in a way out of a war that is understood neither by our compatriots nor even by the Malians themselves”.

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