Creative problem solving for migrants.

Death by garbage truck.

Detention? Give me a loud speaker.

These are the winning topics expressed by three French teenage girls as part of Charlie Hebdo’s first annual literary prize.

While continuing to grieve for the 11 journalists murdered in January 2015 by two brothers claiming allegiance to Al Qaeda, Charlie Hebdo’s editorial team is working to educate French youth on the role that free speech, and in particular cutting satire, plays in democracy.

Nearly 1,400 young writers from Francophone countries entered Le Prix Charlie Hebdo, which asked participants to explore in 4,000 words how France could replace le baccalaureat, the often-dreaded series of written and oral exams that students must pass to enter university. Contestants had to be between the ages of 12 and 22 — in other words, those who are preparing for or have recently passed “le bac.”

All styles were welcome — from the absurd, grotesque, and dark to zany parody and biting irony.

“Charlie Hebdo encouraged entrants to express themselves freely and to avoid self-censure,” the magazine’s publicist told me during a recent conversation in Paris, where I hand-delivered print copies of my e-zine, Creativity Is Risky: Free Speech in a Charlie Hebdo World. “It was a unique opportunity to address themes and use language that would never be permitted in school.”


Promotional content: If you are between the ages of 12 and 22, have fun and make us life by participating in the Charlie Hebdo prize.
“If you are between 12 and 22 years old, enjoy yourself and make us laugh by participating in the Charlie prize.”

The Winning Ideas

Riss, the journal’s chief executive, who was shot in the shoulder and lives under a fatwa, said that after the attacks the magazine received many cartoons from young people with a liberated tone of voice. “This prize is a means to continue the dialogue between this generation and Charlie,” Riss told Le Parisien. “We are a magazine that dares. We want to transmit this taste, to help youth to loosen up, at an age when everything is still possible.”

After the magazine’s jury identified 10 finalists, 5,000 people voted on the contest website for the three winners: Alice Petit (nom de plume: Kaptain’Globule), 18, who passed the bac last year and is now studying graphic design; and high school students Aurelie Liot (Tiliote),17, and Enora Frigout (Enorahope), 15. While many French news organizations covered the contest, this article is the only one written in English.

Amidst a few calls to replace the bac with farting contests to, in one writer’s words, “give a breath of fresh air” to the French school system, other essayists addressed issues such as unemployment and war. Commenting on the content of history courses, one entrant wrote, “Are we supposed to think the French state improved the lives of the people it colonized?” Few essays were positive — it’s not in the magazine’s nature — yet one writer wished the bac would teach people to love.

High School for a Migrant

Liot’s essay, “If you replaced the bac by…a migrant’s passage,” describes in frightening detail what an individual fleeing war must master to enter Europe.

“This much-feared exam won’t last a week but rather several months,” her essay begins. “You are presently on Libyan soil awaiting your smuggler who will be your examiner as you pass through your different tests. A word of caution: never forget that this person is not your friend, he is not there to help you, his only role is to evaluate you, you cannot trust him or count on him.”

She points out that a refugee, like a French student, needs to learn math (the kilometres he will travel and how much to pay his smuggler), geography (where on European shores has he landed or did the smuggler take him back to the starting point as just another test along the way?), creative problem solving (lose a leg? make a tourniquet), and foreign languages (to integrate into society).

For this refugee, earning the bac means citizenship in his adopted European country. But if he is deported, he fails and has to start all the tests over again. If he dies, his fate no longer concerns him.

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