Political Caricature: An Unrestricted Territory?



On October 16th, 2020, a middle school teacher in France was stabbed to death for having shown his students a caricature of the Prophet Muhammad (Deutsche Welle, 2020). The killing came during the trial of 14 alleged collaborators in the January 2015 attack on Charlie Hebdo’s headquarters, a French satirical newspaper which publishes satirical cartoons of the Prophet. The recent stabbing shows how divisions unleashed in 2015 still hover over French society to this day.

French President Macron coins these atrocities as attacks on the essence of French statehood, including values such as secularism, freedom of worship and freedom of expression. In contrast, Muslim communities around the globe take the streets in mass protests against Macron’s support for free speech, including the right to satirize elements of Islam (Deutsche Welle, 2020). This raises the question: are there limitations in employing satire as a language of democratic politics?

Political Caricature as Exaggerated Pictorial Art

A ‘caricature’ is pictorial art which exposes in a satirical manner, human wrongdoings or follies, with the purpose of scorning and ridiculing those at hand (Streicher, 1967). Exposing persons, groups and organizations engaged in societal power struggles is the core purpose of political caricature. The images or drawings, which are symbolic representations of nations, political parties, ideas or social issues, are often accompanied with words or captions. However, a caricature is not a cartoon. Caricatures are exaggerated representations of the most obvious features of persons or objects (Streicher, 1967).

History of Caricature in European Politics

Political satire, as both an art form and a mode of persuasive discourse, dates back to Ancient Greece and Rome (Gilmore, 2018). The Athenian playwright Aristophanes, who wrote plays based on thematic issues such as status, power and war, opened the era of ‘Old Comedy in Greece’. It was not until the fifteenth century in Western Europe that visual satire, influenced from Ancient Greece and Rome, became an appeal to the masses. The art of visual satire began to flourish with the rise of oil portraits and lifelike images of contemporary political rulers. Over time, as technology developed, so did the manner in which satire was communicated. The development of printing allowed both texts and images to reach wider audiences. Indeed, the ‘great age of political caricature’ was in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century (Gilmore, 2018). English painter and engraver, William Hogarth, was a major player during this era. His satirical prints of contemporary society’s ailments reached the rich aristocrats and the poor.

Figure 1

Note. William Hogarth, 1751, “Gin Lane”, the dangerous impact of the ‘gin craze’ (Source: Gilmore, 2018)


However, European governments, notably France, began to censor the rapidly growing political caricatures out of fear that they would imbalance social order (Goldstein,1989). Governments saw how caricature was able to communicate to civilians in an immediate way, inciting large public outrage towards social injustices. As such, strict government-run censorship lasted from 1820 until 1881; ‘national security’ vs ‘freedom of expression’ was hotly debated (Goldstein, 1989). As a an act of counter-balance, a handful of Parisian newspapers started a ‘movement de résistance’ against top-down censorship.

Figure 2

Note. Le Pétard, 1877, “Liberty of the Press, if you please” (Source: Goldstein, 1989)


Political caricature became a wartime weapon from 1914 -1918. Propaganda art not only reshaped ideas, but also opinions (Kaminski, 2014). Posters began to inform, instruct and suggest new methods to perceive the war and the state. Propaganda would appeal to patriotism, civilian-oriented activity and fear of the enemy.

Figure 3

Note. 1916, the enemy will not win by “frighten[ing] the British” (Source: Kaminski, 2014)


World War II also made use of ‘weapons on the wall’ (Vallée, 2012). To mobilize the home front and sustain the will to fight, British and American artists would draw caricatures about Hitler. They represented him as an object of scorn, a clown, a fearsome monster, or as a despicable creature (Vallée, 2012). Overall, while caricature appealed to the hearts and minds of ordinary citizens, they also carried political undertones.

Figure 4

Note. Cracking the world’s biggest ‘nut’ (Source: Vallée, 2012)


To this day, 21st century political satire prods at figures or groups in a manner that appeals to wide audiences. However, while the same artistic tactics and rhetorical devices are used, questions of censorship similar to nineteenth century France have re-surfaced.

2015 Charlie Hebdo Attacks

Charlie Hebdo is a French satirical magazine founded in 1970, known for its notorious takedowns of politicians, public figures, and religious symbols. While the magazine has experienced a handful of backlash since 2006 for its increased targeting of Islamic fundamentalism (Cox, 2017), it was the magazine’s repeated publishing of Prophet in 2015 that triggered a change in the discourse of satirical limitations. In January 2015, 12 staff members were shot to death at the magazine’s office. Across France, and around the globe, millions responded in solidarity for those killed; they attended vigils, anti-terrorism rallies, and shared the ‘Je suis Charlie’ hashtag (Gilmore, 2018).

Figure 5

Note. 2015, Charlie Hebdo cover page after the attacks, “All is pardoned” (Source: Cox, 2017)


The massive support from day-to-day citizens and world leaders spread a very clear message: there should be no limitations to freedom of expression, and that no subject should be off-limits for satirists. The absolute right to satirize is rationalized in three ways. First, satire is an outlet where hypocrisy can be exposed without feeling constrained from conventions of politeness (Cox, 2017). Second, satirists look for reactions to stimulate discussion on certain political matters because deliberation and dialogue are main tenets of democratic institutions. Third, the magazine is part of a chain of satirical outlets tying back to a long-standing French tradition of secularism; the separation of the church and state (Oboler, 2019). As the editor-in chief boldly stated:

“[Charlie Hebdo] is an atheist paper, a secularist paper […] you’re not supposed to use religion for your sense of identity, in any case not in a secular state” (Oboler, 2019, p.176).

In other words, secularism is a ‘carte blanche’ to uphold the right to unlimited freedom of expression. However, sending religion back to the private sphere supresses it as a social institution, which is supported by freedom of religion (Cox, 2017).    

Second, satire works when it ‘punches upwards’ against the powerful, but becomes bullying when it targets minorities (Oboler, 2019). Satirizing Islam with the Prophet can be perceived as ‘punching down’, vilifying marginalized Muslims in France. As Oboler (2019) explains, if the caricature was intended to represent Muslims in general, and if the representation was used to promote negative stereotypes, then it should be prohibited from being published. In fact, the magazine, by claiming freedom of speech in its satire of Islam, ends up masking its own hate speech. Hate speech diminishes an individual’s sense of dignity, self-worth and belonging to a community (Oboler, 2019).

Despite French law providing an intellectual escape, international law still exists. The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination condemns the spread of racial discrimination through any outlets. Additionally, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states that advocacy of religious hatred that spreads violence is prohibited. Freedom of speech protected under secularist law is not immune to international law. The two could not be more incompatible (Cox, 2017; Oboler, 2019).


Discussing limitations around freedom of speech is not unchartered territory. The debate is, however, re-ignited by the re-occurring violent outbursts from Muslim communities. Charlie Hebdo serves as a fitting case since, year after year, publishers continue to satirize the Prophet, and repeatedly push buttons. Nonetheless, the French President utters the sacred name that is ‘secularism’, neutralizing the debate momentarily. How long can this game of see-saw continue? Political satire is not an unrestricted territory or an intellectual playground. Just like in any language, there are words that are acknowledged as hateful, and as such, are placed under strict censorship laws on media outlets. The language of democratic politics, that is, freedom of speech, should be treated the same. Satire usually prods and pokes, but when it stabs, that is when a line has been crossed.



Cox, N. (2017). Blasphemy and Defamation of Religion Following Charlie Hebdo. In J. Temperman & A. Koltay (Eds.), Blasphemy and Freedom of Expression: Comparative, Theoretical and Historical Reflections after the Charlie Hebdo Massacre (pp. 53-84). Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/9781108242189.004

Deutsche Welle (2020). Muhammad cartoon Row: Anti-France protests erupt across Muslim world. Retrieved from https://www.dw.com/en/muhammad-cartoon-row-anti-france-protests-erupt-across-muslim-world/a-55448696

Gilmore, J. (2018). Satire. Chapter 18: Satire and the Visual Arts. London: Routledge, https://doi-org.proxy.bib.uottawa.ca/10.4324/9780203383421

Goldstein, R. (1989). The Debate over Censorship of Caricature in Nineteenth-Century France. Art Journal (New York. 1960), 48(1), 9–15. https://doi.org/10.1080/00043249.1989.10792581

Kaminski, J. (2014). World War I and Propaganda Poster Art: Comparing the United States and German Cases. Epiphany (Sarajevo), 7(2), 64–81. https://doi.org/10.21533/epiphany.v7i2.104

Oboler, A. (2019). After the Charlie Hebdo Attack: The Line between Freedom of Expression and Hate Speech. In Antisemitism Today and Tomorrow (pp. 171–183). Academic Studies Press. https://doi.org/10.1515/9781618117458-013

Streicher, L. (1967). On a Theory of Political Caricature. Comparative Studies in Society and History, 9(4), 427–445. https://doi.org/10.1017/S001041750000462X

Vallée, C. (2012). Monsters and Clowns Incorporated: the Representations of Adolf Hitler in British and American WWII Propaganda Posters. LISA. https://doi.org/10.4000/lisa.4880