Free speech and the French paradox

Spearhead Analysis – 16.01.2015

By Saman Tariq
Research Analyst,
Spearhead Research

free-speechThe terrorist attacks in Paris claimed by Yemen’s al-Qaida branch and the subsequent violent anti-Muslim acts have sparked a debate on the right to freedom of expression, particularly the complexity of expression on religion in France. As the world unites in condemning the attack on Charlie Hebdo and rightly so, the affinity of French society to its principles of freedom, equality and fraternity has come under scrutiny, along with the existing limitations on free speech in the country.

Freedom of expression, contrary to popular belief is not an absolute right even in France. Under the law on freedom of press, Article 24 prohibits anyone from publically inciting another to discriminate, hate, harm and Article 32 and 33 further prohibit anyone from publically defaming or insulting another person or a group for belonging to an ethnicity, a nation, a race, a sex, a religion or for having a handicap. However, French society abolished the offence of blasphemy in 1791 and the roots of secularism in France can be found in 1905 Laïcité. What does France entail for expression on religion within the context of separation of churches and the state of France? There exists a paradox in France today, it is acceptable to criticize or mock religion (in the absence of blasphemy law) but not those who practice it; the implementation remains to be as abstract as the concept.

In 2005, the French court banned a clothing advertisement based on Lenardo Da Vinci’s Christ’s Last Supper ruling it as “a gratuitous and aggressive act of intrusion on people’s innermost beliefs”. However in 2007 when two French Muslim associations sued Charlie Hebdo for republishing cartoons critical of Islam originally printed by Danish publication, French court rejected the plea on the premise that the reprint of the cartoons did not incite religious hatred. On the contrary, many believe that the caricature with a bomb in the turban indicated that terrorist violence is inherent to the Muslim community, thus profiling all Muslims as terrorists.

Interestingly, the same French elite that defended Charlie Hebdo back in 2007 for reprinting these Danish cartoons attacked a Franco-Cameroonian satirist Dieudonne for promoting the exact same values of free speech. His show was banned because he was viewed as an “anti-Semite”, while he considered himself to be an anti-establishment and anti-Zionism comedian, discussing taboo topics such as the holocaust and France’s colonial past.

It should be noted that Charlie Hebdo was not much celebrated or valued publically before except for the occasional slander cases brought against it. Reportedly, many of its cartoonists initially started working for Hara-Kiri magazine, which openly proclaimed to be “inane and nasty”. It reappeared as Charlie Hebdo later after it was banned for printing a mock death notice for Charles de Gaulle. Many people believe that the magazine’s content was intently provocative towards Muslims. In 2012, the top editor Gerard Biard while talking to The New York Times reporter Scott Sayare had defended the choice to publish cartoons that could possibility fan the violence by saying that Charlie Hebdo was an “atheist, secular and democratic” paper. He further argued that the magazine adhered to French law and it had made a habit of ridiculing Christians, Jews and Muslims, however, Islam was in need of special caustic treatment for full integration into French society. In a few days following the recent attacks, Charlie Hebdo has become a global symbol of free speech, a value it did not embrace itself. Previously, the magazine had fired one of its cartoonists accused of anti-Semitism named Sine because he mocked a former French president’s son who converted to Judaism.

In 2012, amid continuous death threats, authorities increased police presence outside the Charlie Hebdo office fearing another attack. With terrorist attacks leaving 17 people dead in Paris, followed by an alarming rise in anti-Muslim acts across France, the magazine published yet another controversial cover as an act of defiance which is being widely circulated now. While the attacks have indeed highlighted the shortfall of state’s security apparatus, the government is rather complacent. Ironically, in 2014 France became the first country to ban protests against Israel’s action in Palestine on the pretext of security concerns. The Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve defended this ban by saying there was a ‘threat to public order’, the same reasoning that can be applied today.

While world leaders and prominent politicians united in Paris as an act of defiance and to celebrate free speech, valid concerns were raised on the curbs of expression back in their own countries. Ironically, Israel had demanded an apology for a controversial cartoon that appeared in British Sunday Times for their caricature of bloodthirsty Benjamin Netanyahu building a wall with the blood and bodies of Palestinians back in 2013. Similarly, France itself considered it a crime to insult the president since 1881 until 2013, convicting several citizens for the same.

Freedom of speech comes with a right not to be killed for your beliefs in any case but there are certain limitations to this right that are set by moral values varying from society to society.  The Charlie Hebdo incident has shed light on the national identity crisis in France; the existing cultural conflict in the context of Laïcité and the double standards concerning free speech in the state. With millions of copies out for the next Charlie Hebdo issue from a mere 60,000 previously, the world in general is celebrating free speech in France, while the comedian Diedonne has been arrested for allegedly supporting Charlie Hebdo killer on his Facebook status. The satirist claimed that like Charlie Hebdo, he was a victim who was denied freedom of speech but unlike the magazine, his assailant was the government.

Some analysts believe that the inexcusable killings in Paris have brought the existing friction between secular fundamentalism and religious fundamentalism to the forefront. Many moderate Muslims while condemning the attacks uphold that the wisdom to target religious extremism at the expense of intolerance towards faith of the believers (not radicals) can hardly fall under liberal democracy. This conflict between the non believers’ right to mock religion on the pretext of free speech and believers’ right to uphold their beliefs publically in French society is likely to continue as both sides feel targeted and see defiance as the only way forward.