The man who first said “Je suis Charlie”
In issue #18 of Delayed Gratification, our associate editor Matthew Lee interviewed four people whose lives were affected by the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January: Lars Vilks, the controversial Swedish cartoonist who’s in hiding following an apparent copycat attack in Copenhagen in February; writer and filmmaker Rokhaya Diallo, who as a French Muslim experienced her loyalty to her country being repeatedly brought into question; and Simone Rodan-Benzaquen, the head of the American Jewish Committee in France, whose organisation worked closely with French Jews following the anti-semitic attack on a Paris kosher supermarket.
We also spoke to Joachim Roncin, the magazine designer whose life changed in the click of a button when the logo and phrase he created minutes after news broke of the Charlie Hebdo shootings – ‘Je suis Charlie’ – spread throughout the world on social media.
We spoke to Roncin three months after the attacks. This is his story.
At 11.52am on 7th January, less than 25 minutes after 12 people were murdered at the offices of Charlie Hebdo, Joachim Roncin tweeted three words.
Je suis Charlie.
“It’s strange and disturbing because I’m still the same person,” says the 39-year-old French magazine designer, speaking to us by phone from Paris. “I’m wearing the same clothes, sitting at the same desk at Stylist, and working on the same computer. Everything’s the same except for, well, people see me differently now.”
At one stage on the day of the attacks #jesuischarlie was being tweeted 6,500 times a minute. Three and a half million tweets included the hashtag in 24 hours. Many of these tweets carried Roncin’s original design – a white ‘Je suis’ and a grey ‘Charlie’ in a font echoing the typography of the satirical magazine’s masthead. It only took him a couple of minutes to create the slogan and the logo. It’s the work he’ll be remembered for.
“I tweeted it because I had no words and I was so astonished,” Roncin recalls. “It felt a bit like my childhood had been killed. Nobody really read Charlie Hebdo yet it’s a cultural institution. Cabu (staff cartoonist Jean Cabut, who was killed in the attacks) presented a kids’ TV show when I was a child. My father threw stones at the police in May 1968 so I was raised in this kind of countercultural spirit. Charlie Hebdo taught me to be irreverent.”
7th January, says Roncin, was a very odd day. Not least because there were gunmen on the loose in central Paris, which had gone into lockdown, and because the Charlie Hebdo offices were just a few minutes’ walk from where he lived with his young family. Everybody around him was scared, sad and confused, but he was also fielding calls from journalists seeking a scoop on that ‘Je suis Charlie’ guy.
“The AFP dropped the bomb,” Roncin recalls, explaining that the news agency were the first to publish his name in connection with the slogan, which was ubiquitous on social media by mid-afternoon. “I talked to Stylist’s editor-in-chief and she urged me to think carefully before talking to the media. Also, I was getting huge anxiety because it was potentially dangerous. If there was a focus on me and my face was everywhere, I could be the next target. But mostly it just felt strange because something horrible had happened, the killing of people first at Charlie Hebdo and two days later at the kosher supermarket, and I was experiencing this increasing momentum of fame. It would be cynical to say I’m proud of what I did because it’s based on something horrible happening.”
On the afternoon of 7th January, Roncin joined thousands of Parisians in Place de la République. There were signs carrying his logo everywhere, but it was only just beginning. Within days, George Clooney had worn ‘Je suis Charlie’ as a badge, Helen Mirren had held it as a sign, and Maggie Simpson had waved it as a flag. At the unity rally on the following Sunday numerous world leaders, including several who repressed free speech in their own countries, asserted that they too were Charlie. And on the cover of the ‘survivor’s issue’ of Charlie Hebdo, which ended up getting a print run of nearly eight million, the cartoon character with the turban and the beard held up a familiar sign. The prophet Muhammad, according to the survivors of the massacre, was Charlie too.
But it’s not the case that everybody was Charlie Hebdo. Some people argued that Roncin’s slogan created an unhelpful division, making it difficult to condemn both violence and the magazine’s decision to publish offensive images. The hashtag #jenesuispascharlie – “I am not Charlie” – gained momentum on social media. In newspaper columns and letters pages people debated the meaning of Roncin’s slogan.
Its creator is clear on what it stands for. “The subtitle of ‘Je suis Charlie’ is that Voltaire quote: ‘I may disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,’” he says. “We have the right to blaspheme in France. I have the right to say the president is a dick. I have the right to call the pope an asshole. This is a free country and if at some point you say something cannot be said there’s no democracy any more. ‘Je suis Charlie’ is about believing in whatever you want to believe in. My views are very clear. I’m pro-Republic, I’m pro-democracy.”
As the days went on and social media handled the rapid global distribution of #jesuischarlie and its various spin-offs, Roncin began to feel like he was “stuck in a Kafka novel”.
“Every day I woke up and there was something bigger than the day before,” he recalls. “One morning there was a huge ‘Je suis Charlie’ in Times Square, then the Twitter offices put it in huge letters on their wall. And I was harassed by the entire planet over that period. The media kept calling me over three weeks – CNN, Al Jazeera, the BBC, everyone. I refused all of them because I thought it was quite indecent. It’s not about me, it’s about something really horrible happening. And if it hadn’t been me it would have been somebody else. They wanted to make me some kind of spokesperson but I knew I should not become one.”
He did accept one offer, however. Roncin is half-Ukrainian and couldn’t resist the chance to meet the country’s embattled president Petro Poroshenko, on the condition that no photos were taken. “One day I’m working on magazine covers and two days later I’m talking to the president of Ukraine about the crisis in his country and he’s saying I might be able to work there as a spin doctor or something,” Roncin says. “Maybe somebody else could have earned a lot of money from all this, but that person wasn’t me.”
Indeed, many people tried to profit from his slogan. Roncin required the help of lawyers, all working pro bono, to help him fend off the 150 or so opportunists who attempted to register ‘Je suis Charlie’ as a trademark in France. “The trademark office received applications from people who wanted to use the slogan in the category of ‘rifles and guns’,” Roncin reveals. “I spoke to the director of the trademark office and he agreed with me that the slogan belongs to the people, that it cannot be a brand.” Similar attempts to trademark the slogan in Benelux, the EU and the US were also blocked.
Since January he’s been doing some work with nonprofit freedom of speech organisation Reporters Sans Frontières (Reporters Without Borders) and he’s also been working on a graphic novel about the bizarre Charlie Hebdo experience. He jokes that he’s losing followers on Twitter because he isn’t tweeting like a celebrity (“people are waiting for me to have another good word about something horrible”) and he’s excited about one day being able to tell his six-year-old son the whole crazy story of when dad said something that everybody in the world repeated. But does he have any regrets?
“I went through some horrible and complicated stuff, and it was a real mindfuck, but it was nothing compared to the horror the families and friends of the victims went through,” he replies. “To lose one person feels like the world has stopped turning. But on that day there were people who lost twelve friends in just a few seconds. If I could turn back the clock I would tweet ‘Je suis Charlie’ ten thousand more times.”
We hope you enjoyed this excerpt from ‘The Aftermath’, published in DG #18. To read the interviews with Vilks, Diallo and Rodan-Benzaquen, order a copy in our shop, or take out an annual subscription with promo code ‘social20‘ and we’ll send you this issue for free.
Slow Journalism in your inbox, plus infographics, offers and more: sign up for the DG newsletter.
Thanks for signing up.