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Plantu: The power of press cartoons

Le Monde's cartoonist has opened an exhibition of war and peace drawings in Caen. Connexion spoke to him in 2007

JEAN Plantureux - known as Plantu - is one of France's most famous satirical cartoonists; known for his regular drawings in Le Monde as well as his page three specials in the weekly L'Express. The Connexion caught up with him as he prepared to open a major exhibition of cartoons from around the world on a theme of peace.

Parisian Plantu, 56, was destined for medicine - his parents' preference - but dropped out to study cartoon drawing at a school in Brussels founded by Hergé (he says he now "looks after the health of politicians" instead).

Due to money problems he ended up studying for three months, not three years, but had already discovered a talent for political satire (dessin de presse). He returned to Paris where, in 1972, he showed his drawings to several newspapers before getting his break with Le Monde.

His first published drawing was - appropriately - a peace dove with a question mark in its beak, commenting on hopes for resolution to the Vietnam War. International violence and corruption have been major themes of his, along with humourous takes on domestic politics. He is not a Sarkozy fan and Jean-Marie Le Pen is another of his bêtes noires, usually depicted in a Nazi uniform ("he sulks about it, he's not keen," Plantu said).

In 1973, Plantu made an international name for himself with a cartoon depicting a firing squad victim tied to the outline of Chile - a comment on Pinochet's coup d'etat.

He realised the potential cartoonists had for international relations in 1992, a year when he met PLO leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli foreign affairs minister Shimon Peres, who both signed one of his cartoons depicting hope for peace between their nations. In the 1980s, a daily Plantu on Le Monde's front page became the norm, and his fame continued to grow - he has had exhibitions around the world, has designed a stamp, had a selection of cartoons published by Unesco to celebrate 50 years since the declaration of human rights, and had PhD theses written on his work.

Former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan regularly requested cartoons by Plantu, even though, Plantu says, he has often criticised what he sees as the UN's passivity. One 1994 cartoon shows a miserable African woman behind a stall on which we see miniature scenes of massacre. "Can I interest you in anything?" she says. "No, just looking thanks," a UN soldier replies.

It was from discussions with Annan that his idea was born to organise an exhibition of international cartoonists' work on a theme of peace - showing how the press cartoon can act "as a barometer of freedom of expression."

Dessins Pour La Paix (Drawings for Peace) opened at the UN headquarters in New York and has since been to Geneva, Paris and Antibes. It opens on January 27 at the Memorial de Caen, with 94 drawings by cartoonists from a dozen countries.

Why do you think an exhibition like this is needed?

To react to the scandal that followed the publication of the Mohammed cartoons in Denmark. I saw the way it was manipulated by imams. I thought: "You've got to continue to do drawings but at the same time try to extend a hand of friendship to others."

The danger is that there is a fracture between the Muslim and Western worlds, and the goal of a cartoonist should be to bring us all together - Jews, Muslims, Christians, Agnostics, and to say, "Look, we want to continue to do drawings that are disturbing, annoying, political, critical - but without hatred. So, if we criticise Hezbollah or Hamas, or Al Khaida, a decision taken in Jerusalem, or a declaration by the Pope, we take a political position, but the goal is not to humiliate Muslims or Jews or Christians. We should show the reader that we respect their beliefs. I think cartoonists should stop thinking they can be anarchists - they should think of themselves as drawing journalists and be aware of their responsibilities. I admire provocateurs but you've got to be clever and know how far you can go.

What’s your view of the Mohammed issue?

Legally-speaking, there's nothing to stop someone drawing Buddha, or Jesus, or Mohammed and there are drawings of Mohammed that date back to the 15th and 18th Centuries.

At first I thought; "I don't see anything shocking about it." But then I thought that it was as if Le Monde had suddenly decided to do Mohammed portraits, and Le Monde wouldn't have done it.

There was no urgent need for Mohammed portraits. So, it was a deliberate provocation. As a cartoonist, I feel supportive of that, but the fact it was done in this serious, conservative paper - it was curious. They stirred things up, and the imams are just waiting for anything like that to say: "Look at how the West despises us" - it's not the case at all, I hope, but it worked.

So young people marched in Pakistan and Lebanon, convinced they were protesting against a Western world that despises them. Another thing - they asked the Danish PM to disown the newspaper.

They think that a minister can command newspapers - in Egypt, Jordan, Iraq and so on, that's how it works.

They don't understand that a Danish PM, even if he doesn't agree with what the paper has said, isn't going to condemn it, because the papers are independent.

Some French press reproduced the cartoons, while the English didn't. Was the French press braver?

You could say that, or you could say they were less thoughtful. A French cultural centre in Gaza was attacked, the French embassy in Beirut was attacked and tanks and sand bags had to be deployed to protect it.

French lives were put in danger. I could draw Mohammed having sex with a pig - I've got the right - but if embassies are going to burn the next day, I've got to think about what I'm doing.

Can cartoonists really make a difference?

Yes, we can. At least I act as if we can. I want to arrange events like this one, with meetings between cartoonists, around the world.

I have one coming up in Atlanta, and we will have both a Palestinian and an Israeli cartoonist at the opening. I plan to invite Steve Bell, the famous Guardian cartoonist, when I go to Rome next year. I think he is extraordinary. He is coming for a meeting between press cartoonists and Romano Prodi - it will be great.

I also want to do the same in Ramallah in Palestine because I want to bring together Israelis, Lebanese, Egyptians and Palestinians and make it feel natural and normal for them to get to know each other. We can all learn from each other. For example, the Egyptians believe that when I draw, there is a Jewish lobby telling me what to do - and I tell them that's not true. These kinds of meetings are also a way for us all to find out about new ways of working.

Is the cartoonist's job different in other countries?

Not in our heads. When a cartoonist sits down to think of an idea, I don't think it matters where he's from. If you looked inside our heads, you'd see the same cogs whirring round.

However, for example, I went to Qatar and spoke to an Al Jazeera cartoonist and I said to him: "Your drawings about Sharon, for example, or Bin Laden, are quite kind - don't you want to be more critical?" He said: "Yes, but my editor wouldn't want it.”

There is the fear of displeasing the editor, and the editor is afraid of displeasing a minister. If the minister is displeased the journalist will be gone. An Egyptian paper printed the Danish cartoons and the editor was jailed.

So, are you glad to work in France?

I benefit from a certain freedom but I don't want to make out that we have freedom and it doesn't exist elsewhere. In the west we don't have censors poised with big scissors but we have marketing - money is very important in the media, and when I see, for example, the Murdoch press, I see that the idea isn't necessarily "how will I inform people better," but more "how will I sell more papers."

You're referring more to the British press, than the French, in that respect?

Yes, but at least your press is not in crisis - ours is! We have great ideas but don't sell papers. Some of yours are trashy but they sell.

Have you noticed other differences?

Yes - to take Steve Bell again - there was a cartoon he did around the time of mad cow disease, which would not be considered publishable in the ‘serious’ press in France.

There are two cows talking, and one says: "We should do in Thatcher," and the other says: "Yes, then we should bury her. Then dig her up and then do her in again." You couldn't say that in France. But I like it.

British cartoonists can be quite nasty - but in a healthy way. Our editors can be a bit too timid. I think the press cartoon scene is livelier in Britain than in France - there is Charlie Hebdo and the Canard Enchainé but in the dailies there's a slight feel that photographs are starting to replace cartoons. It's censorship that dares not speak its name. The tendency is to be PC and photos are seen as safer. Also, those who decide on what images are used are increasingly not journalists, and they are afraid to be too original.
They fill the pages, but go for something soft."

Who do you enjoy drawing the most?

Well, we have a President who is already a real caricature and he's an easy target.

Has he complained about your drawings of him?

Yes, because I drew him with a little fly around his head (usually associated with Plantu's cartoons of Le Pen. The next day Sarkozy appeared with three flies instead...).

In election, do you root for most drawable candidate?

I certainly didn't do anything to help Sarkozy win! He's a gift to draw. What we call a good customer but as a French citizen and someone who dreams of democracy, I don't think he was the right customer. He does too much PR. I want politicians who act like politicians.

People have said Sarkozy is Thatcherite. Have you satirised this?

Not much - unfortunately - because I think it’s a good subject. Le Monde tells me what subject to cover although I am then free to come up with ideas. I could do it in L’Express but it would need to accompany an article. You’d need the wrapping, and then my gift inside.

What do you think of Blair?

I liked him. I was always nice to him. Even though I was opposed to the war in Iraq, I was glad to have him in power in the UK because the British don't know how much the French like them.

I didn't like Thatcher. I did some nasty cartoons of her but if you're not careful people think we don't like the Brits, which isn't the case.

There's always a risk of stirring up rivalry between Britain and France - for example I didn't like the attitude of the Mayor of Paris after London got the Olympics. I just thought: "Fine, the Brits got it. Good for them."

Have you tried Brown yet?

No, but I like what the British cartoonists do with him - he has one eye smaller than the other, he's a bit uncouth. I think he will be easy to do.

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