Charlie Hebdo staff including cartoonists Cabu (front L), Charb (front R), Tignous (rear L) and Honore (rear R) at the offices of the satirical weekly on March 15, 2006 (AFP Photo / Joel Saget)

‘Little Schoolboy’ at Charlie Hebdo

MOSCOW, January 8, 2015 – I knew for sure I wanted to be a journalist one morning in the autumn of 1996, after punching in the door code to a nondescript building near the Place d’Italie at the southern edge of Paris.

They were all there, sat round a big table, doodling away as they munched on chunky chocolate bars and Petit Ecolier biscuits – a staple French kids’ snack whose name means ‘Little Schoolboy’.

So these were the journalists and cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo. I thought they seemed like a pretty tame bunch – given the angry bile they used to attract from those who, already back in those days, made it their business to hate.

The Charlie Hebdo daily news conference on November 22, 2001.

R to L, cartoonists Gébé, Honoré, Tignous, Cavanna and editor Gérard Biard (AFP Photo / Francois Guillot)

I was a 20-year-old student intern, and I guess I found it reassuring to see them sat there eating chocolate, real journalists wolfing down whole chocolate bars at 11 in the morning.

There was room for everyone around that table – but you had to earn your seat.

I could tell you my week-long internship – which turned into three months – was an arduous battle to prove my worth to these wise-cracking cartoon whizzes, each with their pen name, who could spew out comic strips effortlessly, on the corner of a table.

The truth is I never saw a newsroom more welcoming, curious and eager to listen than the one at Charlie Hebdo.

Cartoonists Luz (L), Charb (R) and Catherine (2ndR) choosing Charlie Hebdo's front page on August 15, 2011

(AFP Photo / Miguel Medina)

On day one Georges Blondeaux - known as Gebe - gave me short shrift when I professed my admiration for the Jean-Pierre Melville movie about the French Resistance, “Army of Shadows”. The satirist, who died in 2004, rubbished it as “terribly sad and morbid, when the fact is we had a good laugh in the Resistance.”

Francois Cavanna, another Charlie Hebdo legend, who died last year, gave me a grilling about my father, my mother, my family background. I answered as best I could, while trying not to stare at his extravagant white moustache. He told me the stories of my childhood neighbourhood, near the old Panhard factories on Paris’ southeast edge.

“Uncle Bernard”, an economist and professor of political science, killed in the January 7 attack on the weekly’s Paris offices, set about educating me on the intricacies of interest rates and the French national debt, while Bernard Boulitreau, known to all as Bernar until his death in 2006, sat there drawing with the white glove he always used to avoid smudging his comic strips.

French cartoonist Jean Cabut aka Cabu in his Paris apartment on Mars 15, 2006 (AFP Photo / Joel Saget)

Jean Cabut was a household name in France, known as Cabu. At Charlie Hebdo he was simply “Jean”, and was tickled that I didn’t dare ask him about his time on the kids’ TV shows “Dorothee” and “Recre A2” – which did much to make him famous. Instead he shared with me his musings on the belly buttons of girls on the Boulevard Saint Germain.

There was Bernhard Willem Holtrop, aka Willem, with his impenetrable Dutch accent and Laurent Sourisseau, pen name Riss – Charlie Hebdo’s current editorial director and one of those injured in the shooting – who delighted in quoting slapstick old French jokes.

Renald Luzier - Luz - who had just quit law school, sketched a cartoon of me in a concentration camp uniform – opposite the far-right French politician Bruno Megret, dressed as a Nazi prison guard, telling me: “I assure you, Mr Bentalbi, the stripes make you look slimmer.”

Charlie Hebdo's publisher, known as Charb, on September 19, 2012 (AFP Photo / Fred Dufour)

There was Charb, Stephane Charbonnier, the suburban commuter, who looked just like a schoolboy with huge eyes peering out from behind thick glasses. And Georges Wolinski, who handed me my first cigar after a couscous one Saturday – omitting to mention that I shouldn’t inhale. Both of them murdered.

There was Anne Kerloc'h, now a journalist at France’s, who I found scary. And Francois Came, the managing editor. Ah… Francois Came.

But let’s go back to the beginning. As a French kid wanting to be a journalist, do you dream of a stint at Charlie Hebdo? No. You imagine Le Monde, Liberation, AFP…

Which is a mistake. Because I would never be where I am today without the good old Wolinski, Cabu, Charb and Tignous – real name Bernard Verlhac - the fourth victim of the attack which killed 12 including their fellow illustrator Philippe Honore.

A rally in Strasbourg, eastern France, on January 7, 2015 following the deadly attack on Charlie Hebdo's Paris offices (AFP Photo / Patrick Hertzog)

I can still see myself, as a Russian language and history student, looking for that elusive first break into the world of journalism. I have no connections. I’ve fired off application letters everywhere, to no avail.

Then one Sunday, I find myself at the Pompidou Centre in Paris, among the audience at the recording of a television show. Charlie Hebdo’s editor Philippe Val is one of the guests. After the show, I pluck up the courage to go and ask him for an internship.

“Come tomorrow,” he replies.

So the next day, I punch in the door code 1515 – I remember it perfectly – and land at Charlie Hebdo. The big table. The chocolate. Francois Came, with his feet on the table, asks me why I’m there.

“To take your job” I quip back at him.

Francois Came made a journalist out of me. He was my first mentor, who helped me get into Liberation on an internship. There I met Philippe Lancon, a brilliant writer also injured in the Charlie Hebdo attack. From there I went to Le Figaro, then AFP, Russia, Iraq, Afghanistan…

Charlie Hebdo cartoonists Gebe (L, seated), Wolinski (3L, seated) and Cabu (R) on June 24, 1993 (AFP Photo / Pierre Boussel)

Charlie Hebdo’s cartoonists were not my friends. They were my first family in journalism, the one you can never fall out with.

Through all these years, I would receive from time to time, a message from Charb – invariably signed “Allah Akhbar” when I was on assignment in a Muslim country – asking me: “So are the bearded guys fun, then?”

The last time Cabu and I talked properly, years ago now, I remember him shaking his head at the rise in tensions between France’s different communities. He asked me jokingly, in a nod to the stigmatisation of France’s Muslims -- “Karim do you think I should introduce myself as Jean, a Frenchman of Christian descent, as everyone seems to do these days?”

The cartoonist Cabu, in Paris on March 15, 2006 (AFP Photo / Joel Saget)

On the day they died, the image that stays with me the most is one of men and women driven by great curiosity, tremendous tolerance, healthy indignation, a deep sense of responsibility and thoroughness – combing relentlessly through the press to find ideas, and cross-check facts.

They taught me to be irreverent and light-hearted, how to think outside the box, question everything, to debate tirelessly, to have a good bust up and laugh about it.

I have often thought of Charb, of Cabu, as I stood before insurgents, soldiers, or at the Kremlin, trying to imagine what their sharp, witty eye would spot that I hadn’t.

And tonight, despite the gaping hole they leave behind, I would like to believe there was chocolate and Petit Ecolier biscuits on the big table at Charlie Hebdo when they stopped drawing.

Karim Talbi took his first steps as a journalist at Charlie Hebdo. He is currently AFP’s deputy bureau chief in Moscow, following postings in Moscow, Paris, Baghdad and Kabul and assignments to cover the conflicts in Libya and Syria.

A Paris rally in support of victims of the attack on Charlie Hebdo on January 7, 2015 (AFP Photo / Martin Bureau)