Pascale Abadie, OFLA Recruitment and Retention Chair
Associate Professor, Wright State University

Learners cannot learn French only because they want to become a chef in France. In order to learn proficiently, it is necessary to know how the French live, what their beliefs are, and what they stand for. Knowing and understanding those points will allow learners to get a new perspective on the language, facilitating the learning process. Culture and humor are not the only tools available today to increase language learning; images are also a key point, and comic books offer a visual clue on what a word means. Topics from different comics, will lead to valuable discussions, involving not only giving one’s opinions but defending it as well. Learning a foreign language goes past memorizing words and basic grammar rules, learning and understanding the culture is essential.

For decades, the syndicated press was essentially the only means for cartoonists to have their works published and engage their readership. French jurisprudence is less liberal than the United States’ First Amendment tradition. Even though France has a long history of governmental censorship, mostly during the 16th to the 19th centuries, today’s freedom of speech is protected, and cases of governmental censorship are limited.

Louis-Philippe, king of France, forbade cartoonists to draw him, but Honoré Daumier did so in 1831 and was thrown in jail for six months for having drawn the king as Gargantua stealing money from the people. This marks the moment when the “caricature” and freedom of speech was born in France. Later on, and during the French Revolution, L’Assiette au Beurre, a satirical newspaper that denounced the power of the Church, was founded. In 1905, the separation of Church and State molded France’s new secular French Republic, which still operates today. In 1915, “rire de tout” [trans: laugh about anything and everything] became the new way, particularly with the birth of Le Canard enchainé, a satirical weekly newspaper. “Ni dieu ni maître” [trans: no god, no master] was the main topic of Hara Kiri, another satirical newspaper in the 1960s. The famous satirical weekly magazine Charlie Hebdo replaced Hara Kiri in 1968 and with it its famous slogan: “il est interdit d’interdire” [trans: it is forbidden to forbid], insolence in complete freedom was born.

In France, comic books have a large readership, as they are meant for both older and younger audiences. One of the best-selling comics in France is about the character, Asterix. When their first volume Asterix the Gaul was released in 1961, censorship was still a concern for the authors, so they had to be very cautious for their following volumes about how they could, for example, evaluate the French people’s handling of the German Occupation during World War II, which is depicted in Asterix and the Chieftain’s Shield.

Dealing with “delicate” topics is particularly urgent, since free speech at public schools is once the most obvious and paradoxical of constitutional principles. Because of the nature of academic inquiry, only an open, robust, and critical environment for speech will seek the truth. But we must remember that public schools and universities mostly have to balance the requirements of free speech with issues of respect and human dignity. Public schools bring different people together with diverse backgrounds. These students, more often than not, have very contradictory views. Today’s diverse student bodies are such that it is not uncommon for students and instructors to have different political beliefs, sexual orientations, and religious commitments. Using comic books in classrooms will trigger conversations and allow students to share their points of view on sensitive subjects such as politics, terrorism, religion, and racism.

French students can read about some of these sensitive subjects in a variety of French comics. For example, Volume 38 of Asterix: Asterix and the Chieftain daughter, is the first time in 60 years that a woman is the main character in the Asterix series. The authors choose to give their leading character her rightful place in French society, following the MeToo Movement (Balance ton porc in France). That very same year, Lucky Luke, by the Belgian cartoonist Morris, ranked 1st place with A Cowboy in High Cotton. This lonesome cowboy inherits a 250-acre cotton plantation in Louisiana, and between his new role as a rich landowner and the fear of the former slaves, he will come to a conclusion that it is best to split his heritage among the latter. In this endeavor, Lucky Luke will encounter problems with his neighbors, hateful and racist members of the Ku Klux Klan. This is the first time, in some 80 volumes, that black characters have landed a lead role in a Lucky Luke series. This last volume echoes the most recent news in the U.S. where the racial questions appear central after police violence and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Comics have a role to play in opening the door to discussions in language classrooms through laughter and humor as these volumes trigger a smile while teaching the reality of slavery. It’s easy, particularly today, to get offended when a topic dear to one’s heart is treated with humor rather than the seriousness it deserves. Laughter is not only the simple fact of laughing; it is much more, as it allows one to talk or bring a sensitive subject to the table so it can be discussed and understood. Healing will often come through laughter, and laughter is sometimes the only thing left when everything else is lost. Laughter is first and foremost a security against all kinds of social blindness, and a representation of freedom in the way it is used. It’s the appearance of futility in comic books that allows these incursions into taboo domains and, furthermore ensures their depth. The key to a successful class, is a constant reminder that any topic can be dealt with humor, and the door to discussions always has to stay open to anyone’s view.