The Finest French Hypocrisy
In Handyside v. the United Kingdom, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) reaffirmed that the right to freedom of expression, as safeguarded under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), protects speech that may “offend, shock or disturb”. Unfortunately, it appears that within the French context, this right to “offend, shock or disturb” can only be directed at Muslims – certainly, never at French State or Government officials.
The French President is intolerant of any critique directed at him, as evidenced most recently in a terribly entitled press release issued by the Spokesperson of the Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs, in which it was stated: “Today, a member of the Pakistani Cabinet has expressed views through social media, in terms that are deeply shocking and insulting for the President of the Republic and for our country. These despicable words are blatant lies, loaded with an ideology of hatred and violence. Such slanderous comments are disgraceful at such level of responsibility. We reject them strongly”.
One would have been taken aback to read this press release, considering it takes issue with “terms that are deeply shocking and insulting for the President”, if there wasn’t enough precedent exposing France’s hypocrisy on the right to freedom of expression. That France has concealed its Islamophobia under the guise of “living together” and “freedom of expression” for many years now is no secret. Banning the face veil and burkinis wereearly indications of France’s rising Islamophobia, cloaked in sophistry but always intended to blatantly discriminate against French Muslims.
The French President took issue with Pakistani Minister Shireen Mazari criticizing, in strong words, his policies but expects the entire Muslim world to just accept with a smile offensive and provocative cartoons against our Prophet (PBUH). The height of Macron’s arrogance stands exposed: he cannot be subject to question as that is where the limits of the right to expression end.
When Turkish President Erdogan commented on Macron’s “mental state”, the French Government immediately recalled its Ambassador from Turkey. In 2019, a court in France convicted two men for “contempt” after they set fire to an effigy of the French President during a peaceful protest. In fact, France regularly convicts persons over “contempt of public officials” to silence dissent. In fact, France is generally so intolerant of the right to free speech that the ECtHR recently ordered it to pay 27, 380 euros to twelve persons who were sentenced by French Courts for calling for a boycott of Israeli goods.
“Laïcité”, it would appear, only applies to disrespecting the beliefs of French Muslims. The French President, government officials and certain religious groups remain protected above the right to expression. One recalls Macron’s stand on the right to expression after republication of inflammatory cartoons: “It’s never the place of a president of the Republic to pass judgment on the editorial choice of a journalist or newsroom, never. Because we have freedom of the press”. However, shortly after this statement, we saw a heated exchange of words between Le Figaro’s journalist, Georges Malbrunot, and Macron after the former reported the latter’s meeting with certain Hezbollah leaders. On that occasion, President Macron conveniently forgot that it is never his place to “pass judgment on the editorial choice of a journalist”. The subject of critique here had beenhim and not a venerated figure for millions of Muslims around the world.
It doesn’t just stop at critique of Macron though. The French Government also wants to regulate how Muslims condemn the murder of Samuel Paty. That there is no justification for violence is beyond dispute but why is there this fascist understanding of what “condemnation of violence” constitutes? When Muslims simultaneously condemn the cartoon and condemn the violence, why is that viewed as an “apology of terrorism”?
On 12 November 2020, Amnesty International reported how French police interviewed four 10-year-old children for hours on suspicion of “apology of terrorism” as they had questioned Samuel Paty’s decision to show the cartoons of the Prophet (PBUH). This is strange as surely, if persons are free to print cartoons, people should also be similarly free to critique these cartoons. Freedom of expression here applies both ways. One can condemn violence whilst also condemning insult to their religious beliefs.
Muslims in France are indeed, under the pretext ofsecularism, subjected to discrimination. The French Government has been conducting widespread raids and arrests targeted specifically towards its Muslim population since 2015.
It is high time for France to reflect on its actions in angering not just its local Muslim population but Muslims around the world. A government that has been internationally condemned for police violence against its own should perhaps reconsider its hypocrisy on freedom of expression. Either there is freedom for all, or freedom for none.
Ultimately, the very simple reality is that the French President cannot stand as a beacon for freedom of expression when he is intolerant of criticism directed against him or his government’s policies. Freedom to “offend, shock and disturb” applies to him just as much as it does to the Muslims his government has actively persecuted, excluded and intimidated.
The writer is a lawyer.