France’s double standard on free speech

Vigils expressing solidarity widespread immediately following the Charlie Hebdo attacks. But consensus about the limitations of free speech has since fallen apart. (Photo from Flicrk by Valentina Calà)
Vigils expressing solidarity widespread immediately following the Charlie Hebdo attacks. But consensus about the limitations of free speech has since fallen apart. (Photo from Flicrk by Valentina Calà)

As a kid with two passports — one American, and one French — I was taught that both of my home countries share similar values. Freedom of expression is what made both the French and American revolutions so important to history.

But as I grow older, I realize time and again that this is not true.

The honeymoon of unity following the Charlie Hebdo attacks is over.

I stayed silent and cringed as I watched the parade of world leaders lock arms and lead the somber procession along the streets of Paris. In an ugly parody of de Gaulle’s famous post-liberation march down the Champs-Élysées, the leaders and representatives of Russia, Israel, the UAE, Egypt, and Turkey locked arms with the heads of the French Republic. They held their chins high, as if to say:

“We are all Charlie. We are all champions of free speech. There are no journalists languishing in Egypt and Turkey’s dungeons. There were no journalists killed in Gaza or murdered in Russia.”

The leaders of various nations were permitted to pretend for a very brief moment that they had something in common with their people, who have taken to the streets to denounce their very brutality. This was a moment of solidarity in which these leaders did not deserve to partake.

I will not adopt the slogan “Je Suis Charlie” because I disliked the xenophobia of the ill-fated magazine before the atrocity, and I continue to dislike it today.

The author (left, during French bicentennial celebrations in 1989) torn between differing French and American concepts of free speech. (Courtesy photo)
The author (left, during French bicentennial celebrations in 1989) torn between differing French and American concepts of free speech. (Courtesy photo)

The French should not be criticized for adopting the slogan as an act of defiance, because no one should live in fear of murder or persecution for their words or drawings. But I choose not to.

If the principle of fighting for free speech — even offensive or disagreeable speech — is what people fight for, then the leaders of the French Republic have not gotten the memo.

The comedy of the French is that they think they are fundamentally different from one another, that they are not all plagued by hilariously similar hypocrisies, paranoia, racism and double standards.

France is as sectarian as the nations and creeds it so deeply resents. But the French hide their sectarianism behind clever secular arguments:

Anti-Semetic Comedian Dieudonne M’Bala claims that his inverted Nazi salute is not anti-Semitic, but anti-system. Marine Le Pen claims that the religious language of her crusade against Muslim immigrants and Jews is not in defense of a racial hierarchy, but in defense of secularism against Islam. Bernard Henry Levy pretends his insistence that Islamophobia is high art, but that anti-Semitism should be censored, is purely Voltairian. The leaders of the French state claim that a ban on religious iconography in public schools, which targets only Muslims, exists in defense of secular principles.

The hypocrisy of French discourse on free speech is both jarring and underreported. People are routinely arrested for “making apologies for terrorism,” a law which often targets drunks and fools who mouth off at police and are given lengthy prison sentences.

Rallies in support of over 1,000 innocents killed in Gaza were deemed unworthy of free expression when Hollande declared them illegal last summer. In stark contrast, the solidarity rallies for the murdered cartoonists are practically sanctioned by the state. One could argue that the atrocious targeting of synagogues by right wingers during last year’s summer of hatred justified banning peaceful rallies because of their anti-Israeli politic. The problem with this view is that it would also have to apply to the Hebdo solidarity rallies, which occurred in the wake of attacks on French mosques and the firebombing of a Halal restaurant.

Following the Hyper Cacher (“Super Kosher”) murders, Manuel Valls’ deeply hypocritical reaction was to call for the banning of anti-Semitic materials, bringing the Je Suis Charlie argument full circle.

France has laws limiting Holocaust denial, which is, admittedly, one the most disgusting concepts a person can verbalize. But we should retaliate against such ugly lies with words of truth, rather than by limiting the expression of the lies in the first place. This double standard is best exemplified by the fact that members of the French government and political class routinely deny the torture and mass murder of up to a million souls that occurred under France’s shameful tenure as Algeria’s overlord.

In a free country, wouldn’t these two atrocities serve as a point of unity between Jews and Arabs, who are in many ways citizens of the same diaspora and victims of French state terror?

Lassana Bathily, a Muslim employee from Mali who helped Jewish shoppers hide from an islamist gunman during the Hyper Cacher attack. Bathily was rewarded with French citizenship for his heroics. (Photo by Francois Guillot / AFP)
Lassana Bathily, a Muslim employee from Mali who helped Jewish shoppers hide from an islamist gunman during the Hyper Cacher attack. Bathily was rewarded with French citizenship for his heroics. (Photo by Francois Guillot / AFP)

On what it is to be French, the right and left both get it wrong.

The “Hyper Cacher” murderer was not acting out some righteous anger at being dispossessed when he hunted down and murdered Jews the way the Nazis did. The killers were not some threat from the east as the fascists say. Both the Hebdo attackers were raised in foster homes as wards of the French State, with no connection to Islam. They are children of the Republic, literally and figuratively. Whatever hatred and madness they learned, they acquired in France.

The killers were terribly French, as were the victims and the Muslim hero Lassana Bathily, born in Mali, who saved 15 citizens of his new country.

The policeman who died trying to save the French people (who made a living mocking his religion) was likewise a Muslim and a Frenchman. The extremists who know nothing about Islam have attempted to posthumously strip Muslim police officer Ahmed Merabet of his religion, and the fascists who know nothing about what it means to be French have tried to rob him of his French identity.

If anyone is a hero of the Voltairian principle of defending everyone’s right to free speech, it is Merabet. If anyone is a hero of the Islamic principle that people of the book and scholars should be protected, it is again Merabet.

Hebdo’s dead are exalted as martyrs to the principal of freedom of expression and creativity — a view that is not unfounded. In stark contrast, anti-Semitic comedian Dieudonné M’bala is considered a threat worthy of abandoning that very principal for, as he has just been arrested for a deeply offensive Facebook post. Admittedly, Dieudonné’s material is far more hateful than that of the dead Hebdo journalists, and I will continue to call him an anti-Semite even as I defend his right to speak despicable words.

Are we all Charlie? If so, aren’t we all Dieudonné as well? I choose to not identify myself as Charlie because I do not ever, ever want to be identified with Dieudonné.

As I get older, I learn through experience that French and American values around free speech are strikingly incompatible. I learn that the fight for freedom of expression is not exemplified by a fuzzy feeling of unity, but by making peace with one’s enemies and embracing discord of thought.

Deep down in my gut I want Dieudonné and his creepy sycophants to be censored. However, I also realize that my disgust with his opinion is exactly why he should be free to express himself.

There is an expression that “for every Frenchman there are five opinions.” I would like it to stay that way.

2 Comments

  1. Brillant . I believe it is essential that this be read by the french people. Many of them are at a loss with the new challenges posed here. There is a deep sense of confusion. The desire to honor the great humanist ideas the “republique” stands for, comes crashing down in the face of adversity in the real world. The school system in the last 40 years has a lot to answer for. But that is the subject for another article.

  2. If France wants to truly be free of all censorship, they need to draw Mohammad Cartoon, lampoon Christ, and stop imprisoning people for questioning the holocaust. All of these things are things people have a right to do. It’s called FREEDOM. If you don’t like it, you can find a nation that hates freedom and live there.

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