Analysis: France

France focuses on freedom of speech, but comic Dieudonné arrested for controversial remarks

French comedian Dieudonné
French comedian Dieudonné Reuters/Jacky Naegelen

Shortly after the jihadist attacks on Charlie Hebdo’s offices, President François Hollande vowed to protect the freedom of expression embodied by the satirical journal. But since then more than 50 people have been detained or jailed for a range of remarks, shouted out or posted on social media.  


Young people in particular are denouncing what they see as double standards: cartoons satirising the Prophet Mohammed are given support in the name of free speech while people are prosecuted for comments that appear to condone terrorism.

On Wednesday French comedian and polemicist Dieudonné M’Bala M’Bala was arrested for condoning terrorism after posting “I feel like Charlie Coulibaly” on Facebook. This was just after some 3.7 million people had taken part in the “Je suis Charlie” ("I am Charlie") unity marches across France.

Dieudonné has been convicted on charges of anti-Semitism in the past and the comment was interpreted as supporting Amedy Coulibaly, the gunman who killed a policewoman and four Jewish men in a kosher supermarket just over a week ago.

Pope Francis summed up the mixed messages during his visit to the Philippines, saying that “to kill in the name of God is an absurdity,” but “you cannot provoke, you cannot insult other people’s faith.”

Prime Minister Manuel Valls has clearly said that freedom of speech must not be confused with racism, anti-Semitism or Holocaust denial.

But where does France put the boundary between freedom of speech and condoning terrorism?

The right to say, write or print what you want is laid down in Article 11 of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, adopted during the French Revolution in 1789.

Click for RFI reports of the Charlie Hebdo killings

Later, in 1881, a freedom of the press law imposed limits on this fundamental right. Certain exceptions such as defamation, incitement to hate and slander were added.

People who provoke “discrimination, hate or violence towards a person or a group of people due to their origin, belonging or non-belonging to an ethnic group, a nation, a race or a religion” can be jailed for one year and/or fined 45,000 euros.

After an anti-terror law was passed in the National Assembly last November, directly provoking or publicly condoning terrorism now carries a five-year jail term and a fine of 75,000 euros.

The CFCM (French Muslim Council) took Charlie Hebdo to court in 2007 for publishing insulting caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed, but lost.

“The court found that the caricatures of Mohamed were meant to be a humorous way of criticising a religion but that they did not set out to hurt or shock the religious sentiments of Muslims,” explains lawyer Julien Fournier.

Under French law you can insult other people’s faith, “but not individuals on the basis of their religion,” Fournier adds.

But lawyer Emmanuel Pierrat told Mediapart that the associations “didn’t target the right drawings”. If they’d attacked caricatures of Muslims rather than the Prophet himself, “the verdict would not necessarily have been the same.”

Charlie Hebdo also benefitted, and continues to benefit, from a European Court of Human Rights ruling which states that controversial, even insulting, comments are allowed if they’re judged to be part of a public debate.

Charlie Hebdo cartoons fit the public debate category perfectly,” says Patrice Rolland, a human rights expert at Paris’s UPEC university. “They treat issues such as violence and Islam.”

France’s Cour de Cassation uses this as a way of guaranteeing very large freedom of expression in public, explains Rolland, even if it allows the use of very strong vocabulary and criticism in public - which in private would be considered defamatory.

In 2006 that ruling was also applied to over-rule charges of anti-Semitism against French sociologist Edgar Morin for having lambasted Israel’s policy in the Palestinian territories in 2002.

“The Cour de Cassation said it wasn’t anti-Semitic defamation, but that it related to a very serious political debate, a debate that had to be preserved in the name of freedom of speech. Even if it involved shocking vocabulary,” adds Rolland.

It will now be up to the Parquet de Paris to decide whether Dieudonné’s Coulibaly posting falls into the same category says Fournier.

“The Parquet de Paris felt there was enough material for Dieudonné to be judged and will have to show in court that his words [I feel like Coulibaly] can’t be considered part of a public debate or as humouristic.”

Dieudonné’s past is not likely to weigh in his favour.

In 2008, he invited Robert Faurisson, a Holocaust denier, to one of his shows.

Holocaust denial is punishable under the 1990 Gayssot law, and carries up to a year in prison.

Dieudonné claims to be a humorist but inviting Faurisson meant he “could no longer fall into the humour category,” lawyer Emmanuel Pierrat told Mediapart. “From a legal point of view, that was his error. It’s connoted everything he’s done since.”

Franck Fregosi, an Islam specialist at Aix-en-Provence University, says French tradition allows you to mock all religions and “there’s almost a sanctification of the right to satire, going back to Voltaire, to the Enlightenment.”

But Dieudonné’s focus on Jews is far from keeping with this satirical tradition.

“This guy makes sketches in which he regularly wants to accuse Jewish people of being responsible for all the difficulties of the societies. Anti-Semitism is not an opinion, it’s racial prejudice. Dieudonné wants to re-write history.”

Basically French freedom of expression allows for radical differences of opinion and belief - including denying the existence of the Prophet or Jesus Christ - but does not accept the denial of historical facts.

While many intellectuals in France defend the principle of free speech, there is growing debate over the cartoons themselves.

“For many Muslims these cartoons are like being punched in the face,” says Rolland. “There’s no discussion, no right to reply. I don’t think Charlie fully appreciated the impact they might have.”

Rolland is not in favour of banning the cartoons but regrets that Charlie Hebdo has lost touch with reality.

“They didn’t realise that they were in the position of force, of domination. They say “we’re against the fat cats, the powerful people, the baddies”, as if all Muslims are ayatollahs or oil magnates. I don’t think they paid enough attention to that.”

Rolland hopes that journalists will explore the difference between a harsh critique and an insult, something Charlie Hebdo “didn’t see and didn’t want to see.”

And while Frégosi says France is still in a state of shock and it’s too early for a calm debate about what went wrong, he welcomes the willingness of some media to discuss limits on what you can and cannot say.

“Many journalists said we have to accept freedom [of expression], but we have also to be responsible for the impact these drawings have on other people and other countries. Because the problem is not only French. There’s a French context but all these questions also have an influence all over the world.”

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