Moments before gunmen ambushed the Paris office of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo on Wednesday, in an attack that left 12 dead, the magazine had published its 2015 New Year's card on social media — a cartoon of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, with the caption "Best wishes, and most of all, good health."
This week's issue of the magazine features a cover with controversial French novelist Michel Houellebecq, whose latest novel Submission — a fictional portrait of a Muslim-run France — hits shelves today. Critics of Houellebecq have accused him of playing into the hands of far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen, herself no stranger to the caustic limelight of Charlie Hebdo's front cover. Past editions of the magazine have shown the FN leader shaving her pubic hair, making out with her father, former FN leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, or grinning demonically in front of the bodies of dead migrants.
Charlie Hebdo has never paid much attention to sacred cows, and has lampooned everyone from the pope to presidents in its polemical caricatures and irreverent editorials.
Speaking to VICE News on Wednesday, Peter Gumbel, author and global fellow at The Wilson Center's Global Europe Program, described Charlie Hebdo as "a magazine that provokes deliberately," and called the attack "a carefully premeditated attempt to destroy the magazine and kill all the cartoonists."
"They picked the day when there was an editorial meeting when all the staff would be there," said Gumbel, "they knew who they wanted, they asked names of people before they killed them, it was premeditated murder."
Tom Bishop, director of the Center for French Civilization and Culture, and a professor of French at NYU, explained that Charlie Hebdo "holds a very particular place in French culture because of the country's tradition of satiric magazines."
"They're not at all party-aligned," Bishop told VICE News. "They tend to be viewed as holding nothing sacred. That's their attraction."
Famous for its unsparing, sardonic — and often obscene take on the news, politicians, and religion, Charlie Hebdo was pretty much born out of controversy, after its former incarnation, Hara-Kiri (subtitled "Stupid and vicious newspaper") was banned by the government in 1970 over an insulting headline about the death of former French president and military hero Charles de Gaulle.
The new publication, which was baptized Charlie Hebdo (Charlie Weekly) in homage to Charlie Brown, soon made a name for itself as an anti-religious, anti-clerical, and anti-establishment voice in the French media landscape. Despite a limited circulation, the leftist and staunchly secular magazine was well known across France, and together with satirical newspaper Le Canard Enchaîné came to form the backbone of French political and religious satire.
In an interview published in 2000 by French daily Libération, Charlie Hebdo illustrator Georges Wolinski — who died in Wednesday's attack at 80 — explained how Charles Schulz's Peanuts had come to inspire the publication.
"Schulz' death made me think," he told the reporter. "Ultimately, Peanuts shows that living and existing are two different things. The mediocrity of our existence is unbearable. That's what Peanuts is about. It would be a good thing to revive that kind of existential comic."
Reviled by some and much loved by others, the magazine has as long history of being championed and condemned by politicians and intellectuals alike, and has established itself as an incendiary French institution. A letter from a reader in the fourth issue signed by famed French writer and film director Marguerite Duras asked the editors, "Where did Charlie Brown get his sweater from?"
Embroiled in countless legal and opinion scandals over the years — mainly over its publication of cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammed — the name Charlie Hebdo came to be associated, in France, with freedom of speech, and even more so, the freedom to provoke.
The Great Mosque of Paris sued the magazine and the Union of Islamic Organizations of France after in 2006 it reprinted notorious cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad that had originally appeared in Danish daily Jyllands-Posten. That issue featured a cover drawn by Cabu — who also died in today's attack — depicting the prophet "overwhelmed by fundamentalists." Through his tears, the prophet says, "It's tough, being loved by idiots." The case against Charlie Hebdo was eventually dismissed the following year, with the courts ruling that, "In a secular and pluralistic society, the respect of all faiths goes hand in hand with the freedom to criticize all religions."
In 2011, the magazine published another cartoon of the prophet on its front cover in a special "Charia Hebdo" edition — a play on the word in French for sharia law — which was "guest-edited" by the prophet Mohammed. The caption over the drawing read: "100 lashes if you don't die laughing." The day after the issue hit newsstands, Charlie Hebdo's offices were fire bombed and the magazine's website was hacked.
The magazine hit back with a characteristically insolent special "Fire at Charlie's" edition, whose cover depicted a Muslim man and a white cartoonist passionately making out. The caption: "Love is stronger than hate."
In 2012, in the wake of violent attacks on US embassies in the Middle East following the YouTube release of the controversial anti-Islamic movie Innocence of Muslims, Charlie Hebdo waded into the controversy with more cartoons of the prophet — this time in various stages of undress. French politicians, including Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, and then Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, accused the magazine of pouring oil on the fire of an already tense debate.
The magazine's editors and its headquarters had been under police protection for some time following death threats after the "Charia Hebdo" edition. In a 2012 article from French daily Le Monde, re-published in the wake of the attack, Charlie Hebdo Editor Stéphane Charbonnier, known as Charb and killed in this morning's attack, had said, "I have no wife and kids, no car, no credit. What I'm about to say might seem pompous, but I'd rather die standing than live on my knees."
In the same Le Monde article, Charb, who was included on al Qaeda's most wanted list in 2013, had expressed the desire to "continue until Islam became as trivialized as Catholicism."
"These uproars always concern the same religion," he said at the time. "We're about to publish the 1058th issue of Charlie. There have only been three scandalous front pages, all of them involving Islam. We can show the pope fucking a mole and no one cares."
Wednesday's attack touches a raw nerve in French society, Bishop told VICE News: "France views the slaying of the journalists as an attack on the freedom of the press and freedom of expression."
"It really goes back a long, long way to the Enlightenment," he said. "Which was all about freedom of expression, when Voltaire was imprisoned in the Bastille for what he said, and Rousseau exiled himself to Geneva. [Charlie Hebdo's] cartoons are not about freedom of the press, their very existence is a sign of freedom of the press."
Gumbel echoed Bishop's analysis, saying, "France is a place that takes freedom of speech incredibly seriously. People defend Charlie Hebdo's right to provoke them, that's been very striking. There's been nobody saying they should've soft-pedaled it or that they went too far."
Stéphane Charbonnier, who succeeded Philippe Val as the managing editor of Charlie Hebdo in 2009, was a French journalist and illustrator. Throughout his career, he collaborated with numerous publications including l'Humanité, Fluide Glacial and l'Echo des Savanes. Known for his acerbic wit and impertinent cartoons, he had just published a tragically foreboding cartoon in his "Charb doesn't like people" column, titled "Still no terror attacks in France."
Bishop expressed concern over the fallout of Wednesday's attack, and warned of a possible backlash against French Muslims. "This is going to turn out to be a dramatic moment in French life," he said. "France is going to go on the warpath now."
Today, Le Monde published a map of planned gatherings and vigils to pay tribute to the journalists and police officers who died in the attack. Marches have been scheduled in dozens of French towns.
VICE News' Colleen Curry contributed to this report.