For all the talk of defending the right to blaspheme Mohammed, the French can be extremely hypocritical when it comes to making fun of others.
- By Leela JacintoLeela Jacinto is an award-winning international news reporter at France 24 specializing in the Middle East and South Asia.
When it comes to giant displays of solidarity and defiance, it doesn’t get much bigger than the Jan. 11 demonstration in Paris. On that day, over a million people packed the streets to watch leaders and top diplomats from around the world advance, arm-in-arm, down Boulevard Voltaire to pay tribute to the victims of Islamist militant attacks in and around Paris. Even the sun behaved on that bright, chilly Sunday afternoon — a made-for-TV moment. The marche républicaine — a term rather prosaically translated in the English-language press as “unity march” or “rally against terrorism” — aspired to reaffirm the values of the French Republic, particularly the freedom of speech.
The initial cries for free speech emerged just hours after the shocking Jan. 7 Charlie Hebdo attack. Demonstrators gathered at Place de la République that evening, coining slogans that would soon grow into rallying cries. “We are all Charlie!” they chanted. “Ink should flow, not blood.” After a three-day terror spree that killed 20 people including the attackers, the French proved they’re no “cheese-eating surrender monkeys” after all.
But the ink does not always flow free in France, which leads the Western world in crackdowns on free speech. Holocaust denial is a crime, and denying the Armenian genocide nearly became one in 2012. French legal history is choked with cases of bloggers, celebrities, and ordinary folk being dragged through the courts on charges of defamation or hate speech. Worse still, when the ink does flow, it predictably steers clear of powerful sacred cows, while baiting and stifling the usual suspects. If the French don’t learn the lessons of the Paris attacks and fail to confront the free-speech double standards that divide the country today, blood — not ink — will continue to flow.
Barely a day after an estimated 3.7 million people rallied across the country in support of Charlie Hebdo’s right to offend Muslims, French officials embarked on yet another legal effort to protect Jews from hate speech. In an embarrassing display of the complexity of the French free-speech debate, the Paris prosecutor’s office on Monday announced an investigation into a since-deleted Facebook post by controversial comedian Dieudonné M’Bala M’Bala, in which he proclaimed, “I feel like Charlie Coulibaly.” (Update: He was arrested and held for questioning in Paris on Wednesday.) The post was a characteristically insidious, Dieudonné-esque play on the now-ubiquitous “Je Suis Charlie” slogan invoking Amédy Coulibaly, the gunman who killed a policewoman on Jan. 8 and died the next day during a standoff in a kosher supermarket that killed four Jewish hostages.
The son of a French mother and a Cameroonian father, Dieudonné, as he is known across France, has waged a long game of legal cat-and-mouse with French authorities, who have tried to ban his shows for trafficking in anti-Semitism and inciting hatred. All of this only adds to the comedian’s anti-establishment credibility with his fan base, and convinces others, who would normally be repulsed by Dieudonné’s grotesque humor, that the French establishment is a bastion of hypocrisy and double standards. True to form, Dieudonné — a master of deliberate linguistic ambiguity, which drives prosecutors crazy — has seized upon this latest legal drama to score points. In an open letter to French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve, he accused the government of “trying to kill me by any means,” before adding, “When I speak … you look for a pretext to ban me. You consider me an Amédy Coulibaly, while I’m no different from Charlie.”
Let’s get one thing straight: Dieudonné’s humor is viciously, sickeningly anti-Semitic. One of his most controversial acts involves flashing the “quenelle,” a gesture that critics say is an inverted Nazi salute. The French-Cameroonian comic’s rebuttal: It’s “a gesture of courage” of “the free man confronting the system of his jailers.” The quenelle controversy crossed the English Channel in 2013, when English football authorities banned the French striker Nicolas Anelka from five matches for making the sign. As the quenelle drama gripped the football world, France’s then-Interior Minister (now Prime Minister) Manuel Valls declared Dieudonné “no longer a comedian” but an “anti-Semite and racist.”
You know you’re in trouble when an interior minister gets to decide who is and isn’t an ex-comedian.
The quenelle was occasionally on display in the summer of 2014, as President François Hollande’s government busily stifled free speech by banning a series of demonstrations in Paris against the Israeli operation in Gaza. As protesters took to the streets across the world, France assumed the dubious distinction of being the first and only Western nation to ban pro-Palestinian demonstrations. The bans were sparked by fears of violence after clashes broke out during a July 13 demonstration near a Paris synagogue between protesters and vigilantes from a group called the Jewish Defense League (LDJ).
Of course, the bans did not stop the rallies — the French love demonstrations. Protesters took to the streets, where they duly clashed with the police with a choreographed certainty. The illegal protests were organized by a motley crew of pro-Palestinian, leftist, and anti-capitalist groups, with an unsavory mix of Dieudonné supporters sprinkled in. They put authorities in a tight spot, and the violent demonstrations grabbed headlines across France. The government finally authorized a demonstration by mainstream groups on July 23, 2014, which drew thousands and passed peacefully.
But the damage was done. For the marginalized youth from the banlieues, or poorer suburbs, the message was clear: Their voices were not welcome in Paris, the fabled City of Lights, only a few miles and a world away from their deprived neighborhoods.
The double standards of a state that defends Charlie Hebdo’s right to free speech while stifling Dieudonné is so evident that among France’s marginalized citizens of Arab and North African descent, even the kids get it. In Seine-Saint-Denis, an immigrant-dominated, working-class Parisian suburb, tags of “Vive Dieudo” (“Long live Dieudonné”) appeared in the subway last week. In an interview with Agence France-Presse, a high school teacher in the neighborhood said there was “a feeling of double standards” among some of her students. “We must explain the difference between freedom of expression (Charlie Hebdo) and incitement to hatred (Dieudonné),” she said.
In other words, Charlie Hebdo has the freedom to express hatred of all religions — Islam in particular. Dieudonné, on the other hand, must be controlled for the public good.
For all the laudatory talk praising Charlie Hebdo as a fearless French satirical weekly that spares no sacred cows, some cows are apparently more sacred than others. In 2009, the magazine fired Maurice Sinet, known as Siné, one of its most famous cartoonists, over a column he wrote suggesting that then-President Nicolas Sarkozy’s son, Jean, would “go a long way in life” since he was marrying a Jewish heiress. Siné’s stereotyping was tame by Charlie Hebdo standards, but it was too much for then-editor Philippe Val, who asked Siné to apologize. He refused, noting, “I’d rather cut off my balls.” And so he was kicked off the masthead, a move criticized by some but also approved by the likes of French “public intellectual” Bernard-Henri Lévy — who, mercifully, is taken about as seriously as a Charlie Hebdo cartoon in his native France.
The issue of anti-Semitism is highly charged in a country still haunted by the Alfred Dreyfus affair, in which a Jewish French army captain was wrongly charged with spying in 1894. Given that France is steeped in its past and traditionally slow to respond to today’s challenges — from reviving the economy, to boosting investment, to reducing unemployment and cutting government spending — this comes as no surprise. This also accounts for Hollande’s timorous response to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s persistent criticisms of French anti-Semitism, followed by his frequent calls on French Jews to migrate to Israel. In July 2014, Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius and Interior Minister Cazeneuve embarrassed many of their countrymen when they co-wrote (or co-signed) an extraordinarily defensive New York Times op-ed insisting that “France is not an anti-Semitic nation.” Days after the column’s publication, Hollande’s government banned the first of three Gaza demonstrations.
Netanyahu, who traveled to Paris for the unity rally, issued his latest call to French Jews to make aliyah — to immigrate to the Holy Land — only hours after the kosher supermarket siege ended with four Jewish hostages dead. The Paris attacks have sparked a competition between the Israeli and French governments to woo French Jews, one that has reached almost farcical proportions.
On Monday, Israeli media reported that in the lead-up to Sunday’s rally, Hollande asked Netanyahu not to attend the Paris march, explaining that he did not want a French solidarity march complicated by Jewish-Muslim relations or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But Hollande also feared that Netanyahu would turn the event into a political circus, and make speeches that horrified his hosts. That’s exactly what happened in 2012, when Netanyahu attended a memorial service for the Jewish victims of “Toulouse gunman” Mohamed Merah’s murder rampage. According to French media reports, Hollande complained in private that Netanyahu had come to France to conduct a “two-staged election campaign.”
This time, Israelis and French Jews would have none of it. In a column in the Hebrew daily Maariv, Israeli commentator Ben Caspit mocked Netanyahu’s portrayal of Israel as a safe haven. “Are the Jews of Paris more threatened than us?” he asked. “All of Israel’s territory is targeted by thousands of accurate and heavy rockets and missiles…. Just this past summer, Tel Aviv (Tel Aviv!) was a city that was bombed for 50 days. So the French should flee here?”
While there’s little doubt that anti-Semitic attacks in France are on the rise, the real danger of the Paris attacks is a potential spike in Islamophobia. The day after the Charlie Hebdo attack, a number of mosques across France were attacked. No one was injured and no one paid much attention. Trumpeted by the likes of Marine Le Pen and her swelling ranks, Islamophobia has moved from the margins into polite (and not-so-polite) French society. In France, the fervor is fed by the extreme right as well as the lefties of the Charlie Hebdo crowd. That’s the beauty of Islamophobia here — it brings together the extremes.
While influential organizations such as the Conseil Représentatif des Institutions Juives de France (CRIF) represent the political interests of France’s half-million Jews (the largest Jewish community in Europe), its diverse, 6 million-strong Muslim community lacks political cohesion, according to Olivier Roy, professor at the European University Institute. “The new elite Muslims in France — the highly educated people, in good jobs as lawyers or doctors — have a problem of political representation,” said Roy in an interview with German broadcaster Deutsche Welle. “There is no such thing as an Islamic party in France, so they go to traditional political parties. But there they cannot be positioned in winnable seats. So there is slow progress.”
That’s the reality. In fiction, though, it’s another story. Just two days before the Charlie Hebdo attack, French gadfly writer Michel Houellebecq’s much-anticipated new novel hit the stands in France, following weeks of hype. Titled Soumission (Submission), the book is set in 2022, when the leader of a fictitious Islamist party wins a presidential election. The new leader then implements France’s worst nightmare: an Islamist state under sharia, flush with veiled women, Gulf petrodollars, and emblems of parvenu taste.
Islamophobia in France is widespread, banal, and becoming increasingly mainstream — particularly as more radicalized French youths turn up in Syria to wage jihad. Home to Europe’s largest Muslim community, France has stayed ahead of the foreign jihadi curve, with nearly 1,000 French nationals traveling or planning to travel to the Syria-Iraq region, according to official figures. Kosher supermarket gunman Coulibaly’s admission that he was inspired by the Islamic State (IS) will undoubtedly fuel the panic.
The Islamic State’s rise has sparked a strange phenomenon, with perfectly ordinary, peaceable Muslims going about their business suddenly being asked to “denounce” extremism. In France, the mania reached a peak last September, when a jihadi group in Algeria claiming allegiance to IS kidnapped and executed French hiker Hervé Gourdel. An editorial in the French daily Le Figaro called on Muslims to “take to the streets to denounce these barbarians.”
The same newspaper’s own journalists criticized their paper for “ineptitude” when it published an online poll asking readers if there had been “sufficient condemnation by French Muslims of the assassination of Hervé Gourdel.” Some 82 percent said there hadn’t been enough of an outcry. The editors took down the poll just hours later, when the newspaper’s editorial oversight committee blasted it for insinuating that “the entire Muslim community is somehow complicit or even complacent when it comes to terrorism.”
The calls for public denunciations have only multiplied since last week. Muslim community leaders began denouncing the Paris attacks soon after the Charlie Hebdo shooting, and continue to do so. At a demonstration at the Paris Grand Mosque shortly after Gourdel’s beheading, a group of Algerian Muslim women in a nearby park clutched my arm, not letting me go, as they shouted their revulsion over what had happened. But apparently that’s not enough. My French Muslim colleagues tell me they feel helpless and hurt by “this madness,” as they call it.
“I’m being asked to say, ‘Je suis Charlie’ as a Muslim. But I say, ‘Je suis Charlie’ as a French person,” said one.
In truth, it is a bit mad to expect a vast, diverse community of some 6 million, most of whom are perfectly well-assimilated and some of whom don’t even want to be identified as Muslim, to somehow rise up and speak in one voice against the obvious.
Maybe French Muslims just need to up their protest game. The power of a vocal demonstration cannot be underestimated in a country where a president with record-low approval ratings can whip the public’s shock into a giant display of defiance that obscures — at least for a day — the economic stagnation, unemployment, double standards, and absence of political vision that got us here in the first place. Maybe the French need to add a chapter on how to hold a good rally in their assimilation studies, with additional sidebars on tailoring and presenting the message — lest, as with the Gaza protests, the authorities feel compelled to ban the demonstrations in the interest of the public good.
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