Can Europe Make It?

Free speech in the French Republic

Since the touchstone of a free speech regime is in how well it protects speech that most find revolting, its defenders have to be willing to speak also for those whose opinions they don’t find respectable.

Antoine Lentacker
24 January 2015
French comedian, Dieudonne with fans, 2014.

French comedian, Dieudonne with fans, 2014. Vincent Emery/Demotix. All rights reserved.The week before last saw France’s most deadly terrorist attack in decades, but by no means the first. In fact, events that took place in France more than a century ago may have contributed more than any to defining what terrorism has come to mean. In March 1892, François Ravachol bombed the Parisian apartments of a judge and a prosecutor who had sought and pronounced hefty sentences against a group of anarchist workers a few months earlier. Ravachol received his death sentence to the cry of “vive l’anarchie,” and was guillotined in July 1892. While his actions made him a controversial figure among anarchists, his death made him a martyr. “Propaganda by the deed,” as he called it, inspired followers. In December 1893, August Vaillant threw a bomb into the Chamber of Deputies. No one died, except Vaillant himself who was guillotined early in 1894.

On the heels of Vaillant’s attack, French Deputies rallied to vote in their Patriot Act. The laws of 11 and 18 December 1893 were meant to prevent future attacks and preserve public safety. Laws to prosecute and punish propaganda by the deed, of course, already existed. Henceforth, however, propaganda by the word too became a crime. Because many supporters of the Republican cause had been censored and imprisoned in the 1850s and 1860s for violating the Second Empire’s repressive press laws, the Third Republic’s press laws, voted in 1881, were among the most liberal in the world. In just a few days late in 1893, these hard-fought freedoms were undone. Anarchists were censored and imprisoned just as Republicans had been when they opposed the regime in place.

To little avail, it seems, since new terror attacks took place. In February 1894, Emile Henry bombed a Parisian Café. In July of the same year an Italian baker, Sante Geronimo Caserio, stabbed France’s president to death. The lois scélérates (“villanous laws”), as these restrictions on the freedom of the press came to be known, were extended to any expression of support for revolutionary or anarchistic convictions. Newspapers were shut down and people were brought to trial who had no involvement whatever in violent action. Disrespect to the French government or military sufficed to mete out prison sentences.

These late-nineteenth century events prefigured what is now referred to as ‘terrorism’ not merely because of the nature of the attacks, carried out by small radical groups against unsuspecting civilians, but also because of their consequences. Ever since – and not just in France – terror attacks have been followed by outbursts of nationalism, the silencing of dissent, the curtailing of civil liberties, and further discriminations against vulnerable groups. As such, I feel doubly affected by last week’s events—horrified by the many deaths, no doubt, but also troubled by their likely consequences. French elected officials are already calling on the government to adopt a new French Patriot Act, with explicit (and seemingly approving) reference to the Bush Administration’s response to 9/11.

The Dieudonné case

There are reasons for concern beyond historical precedents, whether in the 1890s or early 2000s. As the case of comedian Dieudonné M’Bala M’Bala illustrates, the French government under its current socialist president has proved even more willing to limit the freedom of speech than it did under Hollande’s far-right predecessor. (And France typically ranks far lower than most of its European neighbours on press freedom indexes to begin with.)

Dieudonné, born to a Cameroonian father and a French mother, was a powerful voice in anti-racist struggles in France during the 1990s. He became famous on stage, exploring and exposing racial stereotypes in his popular duo with Jewish comedian, Elie Simoun. Off stage, he became involved in political activism against the rise of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s xenophobic National Front. In subsequent years, his support for the Palestinian cause gradually turned into obsessive rants, not just against Israel, but against Jews generally, to the point of allying with Le Pen and other Holocaust deniers he used to oppose.

As a result, he faced wide criticism in the French press and lost much (though far from all) of his following, but his troubles didn’t stop at that. He was repeatedly indicted and convicted for hate speech, including in 2008 for dismissing Holocaust commemoration as “memorial pornography.” Before becoming France’s prime minister, Interior Minister Manuel Valls declared that Dieudonné was no longer a comedian, but an anti-Semite, and the government, supported by the courts, took steps to have all his shows banned as “threats to public order.”

In a recent Facebook message, Dieudonné wrote that he “felt like Charlie Coulibaly,” deriding the “I am Charlie” rallying cry of that day’s demonstrations by attaching to it the surname of one of the gunmen of Thursday’s attacks. According to the explanations he gave in the face of the outcry elicited by his post, he was suggesting that even though, like Charlie, he exercises his right to shock and provoke through caricature and satire, authorities treat him rather like Coulibaly, an enemy of the Republic. The authorities, it seemed, were unconvinced. Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve ordered an investigation. Prime Minister Manuel Valls promised severity in his speech before Parliament on Tuesday. On Wednesday morning, Dieudonné was arrested at his home and charged with “apology for terrorism.”

Does Dieudonné have a point? According to its defenders, Charlie Hebdo was squarely within an old and respectable Voltairian tradition that sees all religions as webs of superstition that justify arbitrary rule and maintain political submission. Within this tradition, dominant in the French Left (but largely alien to US conceptions of civil liberties), the struggle for freedom cannot be separated from a struggle against established churches. Charlie Hebdo’s militant secularism defiled sacred figures and symbols across the board. But it is also fair to say that, in recent years, Muslims have received a disproportionate share of those satirical attentions. In one respect at least (though not the one that Dieudonné meant), Dieudonné and Charlie Hebdo can be compared: the magazine’s satire of Islamism devolved into islamophobia, just as Dieudonné’s critique of Israel had morphed into anti-Semitism.

Dieudonné does not deserve to be defended, but neither does the French government in its obstinate efforts to silence him. Hate speech might be a fair description of Dieudonné’s humor of late, but hateful speech is widespread in France, particularly against Muslims. The government never questioned Charlie Hebdo’s right to offensive speech. Neither does it question Eric Zemmour’s, for instance, a rabid islamophobe who can be heard on the radio or seen on television on a weekly basis, and who published a recent bestseller in which the Vichy Regime is commended for its efforts protecting French Jews during World War II. The government’s selectiveness is giving Dieudonné’s audiences, less white and privileged on average than Zemmour’s or Charlie Hebdo’s, legitimate reasons to feel singled out.

In the name of the Republic

In France, authoritarian restrictions on civil freedoms are always justified in the name of the Republic. ‘Republic’—always with a capital R—is one of these magically ambivalent words—a name for democratic and revolutionary ideals as well as for the regime in place, which falls so far short of them. Its magic, which no one uses to greater effect than our prime minister, Manuel Valls, transforms those who oppose or criticize the regime in the name of democratic values into enemies of democracy. The word, which has come to mean essentially the same thing as public order, is now ritualistically invoked before the passage of any legislation curtailing civil liberties.

Thus even though four million descended in France’s streets on Sunday to defend the freedom of expression, hardly anyone has spoken against the special measures taken against Dieudonné. These measures have received unanimous support in the mainstream media. Few have pointed out that, once the government decides who gets to enjoy its protections, the right to free speech has effectively been suppressed. Since the touchstone of a free speech regime is in how well it protects speech that most find revolting, its defenders have to be willing to speak also for those whose opinions they don’t find respectable.

Time and again, states of exception have served to justify exceptionally repressive measures. The national unity that follows times of crises makes dissent more difficult, but also more necessary. Several prison sentences have already been meted out for “apology for terrorism.” New “villainous laws” are being proposed, though no one wants to call them that. Meanwhile, dozens of French Muslims, Muslim businesses, and mosques, denied the protections of the 10,000 troops deployed to secure vulnerable sites in the aftermath of the attacks, have been assaulted or vandalized. As Manuel Valls declares a new war on terror, let us remember that the ongoing war on terror has made more innocent victims and perhaps more damage to our civil liberties than terror itself.

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