In Wake of Charlie Hebdo, Free Speech for Some

Chloe Vassot, Contributing Writer

For obvious and grim reasons, January was a difficult month for France. Thinking about the massacre at the headquarters of Charlie Hebdo in Paris on Jan. 7, and the complex and heated reactions that followed, has made my mind run in confused circles.

The recent attacks revealed many contentious problems France has faced as a country. But perhaps no issue is as delicate as what many perceive as the hypocrisy in France’s laws regarding freedom of speech and expression.

France is not America. There is no First Amendment that guarantees a near-absolute right to verbal liberty. French laws draw complicated lines around what types of speech are permissible, and hate speech directed against individuals or groups based on ethnicity, religion or race is left out of those laws.

The charge against France’s laws is that they are discriminatory and biased, punishing certain types of offensive speech more than others. Comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala has battled French law multiple times over charges of anti-Semitism in his work, and he is about to go to court again over a Facebook post that allegedly sympathized with the terrorist attack at a kosher market following the Charlie Hebdo shooting.

Meanwhile, the French government has wholeheartedly supported the right of Charlie Hebdo to publish cartoons that some French citizens viewed as extremely offensive. Criticizing the Prophet Muhammad is legal in the eyes of the law, despite outrage from the Muslim community.

France, which has the largest population of Muslims of any European country and has also recently seen the rise of a powerful anti-immigration political party, has an undoubtedly contentious atmosphere when it comes to Islam. But are its laws actually biased?

The crux of the debate is whether the Charlie Hebdo cartoons can be viewed or perceived as intended to promote hatred towards the Muslim population. Lampooning the Prophet Muhammad is deeply offensive, but the cartoons ostensibly targeted the religious institution of Islam and not Islam’s followers — this is a crucial distinction. While the cartoons have been protected as free expression, anti-Semitism — on the rise in France — is punishable speech because it attacks a group on the basis of its religion. Similarly, Holocaust denial is also illegal and punishable by law.

There may also be antiMuslim biases in other components of French laws aimed at limiting freedom of religious expression in favor of a secular society. Yarmulkes, large crosses and headscarves are not permitted in France’s public schools because of the government’s insistence on secularism as the solution to religious conflicts in French society. (Whether this approach works is certainly questionable.) Does the law discriminate against Muslims because of the disproportionate impact of a headscarf ban, or is it simply to be expected and understood that lifestyles dictated by strict religious observances will be affected the most by a push for a publicly secular society?

The Charlie Hebdo tragedy has highlighted the widening rift between the ideals of the French government and those of its Muslim population. Laws that force Muslims to alter the practice of their religion will not end this conflict — yet a society that has reaffirmed the right to satirize all faiths will not easily bend to compromise. The current test in France is whether conservative religions and irreverent ridicule can coexist, and I fervently hope they can.