Diplomacy at a pencil stroke
Who has never heard of Plantu? Or rather: who has never smiled at one of his cartoons, published daily in the newspaper Le Monde? Fewer people may realise, however, that the cartoonist was behind the project Cartooning for Peace, which brought cartoonists together at the headquarters of the United Nations in New York in 2006 for the first time to discuss the role of press illustration and caricatures as a means of expression and communication. Three years on, he has produced an initial assessment.
History was made in November 1991. The cartoonist Plantu, whose drawings had been published in Le Monde since the early 1970s, was in Tunis for an exhibition of his work. During his trip, he met Yasser Arafat and asked the Palestinian leader for a spontaneous reaction to his drawings. Yasser Arafat rose to the challenge, adding a Star of David to the Israeli flag Plantu had drawn.
The following year, Plantu met Shimon Peres in Jerusalem. He handed him a pencil and got the scoop of his life: for the first time, the signature of the head of the PLO and the leading figure in Israeli diplomacy appeared on the same document, a year before the Oslo Accords of 1993.
This incredible encounter – made possible by a pencil – marked a turning point in the history of press illustration, which had never before had such a direct contact with history. Even in the 19th century, the golden age of caricature – thanks to the expansion of the press, which had been galvanised by the Industrial Revolution and technical innovation – cartoonists were content with giving readers something to think or laugh about by soaking their pencil lead in vitriolic humour, as practised so expertly by Honoré Daumier, the illustrator alter-ego of another Honoré, the brilliant writer Balzac, author of the colossal Comédie Humaine. Plantu is far from colossal: he is a slim, discreet and almost timid man. But his plans for his art are huge: he has set himself the goal of restoring dialogue between cultures through the medium of drawing which, freed from linguistic barriers, has the immediate advantage over words of being immediately accessible to everyone.
By bringing Arafat and Peres together around a single drawing, Plantu laid the foundations of a new mission for the cartoonist: one that the Reuters news agency neatly summed up as “Cartoon diplomacy”. Plantu lays claim to this ‘diplomacy at a pencil stroke’, in which the cartoonist is not merely a spectator but a real player in the world: “When Yasser Arafat wanted to meet me in Tunis,” he explains, “I didn’t know he would use the cartoon to recognise the Israeli state. It was a surprise for the kind of cartoonist I am. I realised that drawing could be used as a way of trying to move things forward...”
This initial experience formed the basis of the Cartooning for Peace project. The first event, held at the headquarters of the United Nations in autumn 2006, brought together 12 cartoonists from all over the world in support of peace and tolerance. A risky gamble shortly after the so-called “Danish caricatures of Mohammed” affair, which at the time was inflaming the minds of those with little inclination for cultural dialogue and mutual understanding: “The Secretary General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, suggested that we organise our discussions around a unifying educational theme: unlearning intolerance,” explains Plantu. It goes without saying that the game was not over at that point...
For the last two years, however, exhibitions and debates organised worldwide, and on every continent, have provided ample evidence of the interest aroused by the initiative. Despite the risks artists sometimes incur, and the manipulation that can happen in a world in which the Internet plays a part in diluting and sometimes even distorting messages, fundamentalists who ask cartoonists to change or withdraw a particular drawing, and the censorship and taboos found in Western democracies concerned with “political correctness”, Plantu has never strayed off course. “Every time I have a discussion with a colleague, I get a clearer perception of the problems they face and a better understanding of what freedom of opinion really means.” Always in the knowledge that the fate of the cartoonist is a very accurate barometer of such freedom.