France is not the free-speech champion it says it is

The horrific murder of Samuel Paty, the French teacher who showed cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed in a class on freedom of expression, sent shockwaves throughout France. It also forced a difficult conversation about freedom of speech and who has the right to exercise it. 

President Emmanuel Macron and his government responded to the killing by proclaiming their support for freedom of expression. But they have also doubled down on their perpetual smear campaign against French Muslims, and launched their own attack on freedom of expression. Last week, for example, French police interviewed four 10-year-old children for hours on suspicion of ‘apology of terrorism’ they apparently questioned Paty’s choice to show the cartoons.

The horrific murder of Samuel Paty has forced a difficult conversation about freedom of speech and who has the right to exercise it
Amnesty International

The French government is not the champion of free speech that it likes to think it is. In 2019, a court convicted two men for ‘contempt’ after they burnt an effigy depicting President Macron during a peaceful protest. Parliament is currently discussing a new law that criminalizes the use of images of law enforcement officials on social media. It is hard to square this with the French authorities’ vigorous defence of the right to depict the Prophet Mohammed in cartoons.

The right to freedom of expression includes opinions that might disturb, offend or shock, and depictions of the Prophet Mohammed are protected under this. No one should fear violence or harassment for reproducing or publishing such images.

But those who do not agree with publishing the cartoons also have the right to voice their concerns. The right to freedom of expression also protects the ability to criticize the choice to depict religions in ways that may be perceived as stereotypical or offensive. Being opposed to the cartoons does not make one a ‘separatist’, a bigot or an ‘islamist’.

While the right to express opinion or views that may be perceived as offending religious beliefs is strenuously defended, Muslims’ freedoms of expression and religion usually receive scant attention in France under the disguise of Republican universalism. In the name of secularism, or laïcité, Muslims in France cannot wear religious symbols or dress in schools or in public sector jobs.

The French government’s rhetoric on free speech is not enough to conceal its own shameless hypocrisy
Amnesty International

France’s record on freedom of expression in other areas is just as bleak. Thousands of people are convicted every year for “contempt of public officials”, a vaguely defined criminal offence that law enforcement and judicial authorities have applied in massive numbers to silence peaceful dissent. In June this year, the European Court of Human Rights found that the convictions of 11 activists in France for campaigning for a boycott of Israeli products violated their free speech.

The murder of Samuel Paty has also prompted actions by the French authorities which recall the state of emergency that followed the 2015 Paris attacks. Beginning in 2015, parliament-approved exceptional measures under the state of emergency led to thousands of abusive and discriminatory raids and house arrest targeting Muslims.

In a disturbing sign of history repeating itself, the French government is now in the process of dissolving organizations and closing mosques, on the basis of the ambiguous concept of 'radicalization'. Throughout the state of emergency, ‘radicalization’ was often used as a euphemism for ‘devout Muslim’.

Gérald Darmanin, the Minister of Interior, has also announced his intention to dissolve the Collective Against Islamophobia in France (CCIF), an organization that combats discrimination against Muslims. He has described the CCIF as ‘an enemy of the Republic’ and a ‘back room of terrorism’. The Minister has not produced any evidence that could substantiate his claims.

In a video published on social media, one of the parents who opposed Paty’s choice to show the cartoons suggested reporting similar ‘discriminatory acts’ to the CCIF, and got in touch with the organizations. The French authorities have failed to join the dots between this kind of community work and the notion that the CCIF has had any role in promoting violence or ‘separatism’.  

The murder of Samuel Paty has also prompted actions by the French authorities which recall the state of emergency that followed the 2015 Paris attacks
Amnesty International

A couple of days after the murder, Darmanin voiced his intention to expel 231 foreigners who were suspected of ‘radicalization’ and threatening national security. The authorities then proceeded to carry out 16 expulsions to countries such as Algeria, Morocco, Russia and Tunisia where Amnesty International has documented the use of torture, particularly for persons labelled as threats to national security.

While many in the US and abroad have hopes for the Biden/Harris administration to tackle entrenched racism, the French Ministry of Education has also engaged in a cultural war against multiculturalism and critical race approaches. It has argued that attempts to tackle entrenched racism are based on ideas ‘imported from the US’ and that they are a fertile ground for ‘separatism and extremism’. But it is not extremist to note that Muslims and other minorities are victims of racism in France. It is factual, and to say so is a right protected by freedom of expression.

The French government’s rhetoric on free speech is not enough to conceal its own shameless hypocrisy. Freedom of expression means nothing unless it applies to everyone. The government’s free speech campaign should not be used for covering up the measures that put people at risk of human rights abuses including torture.

This article was first published here by Newsweek