Are the French Hypocrites for Free Speech Arrests After 'Charlie Hebdo' Massacre?

More than four dozen people are facing punishment for free speech violations in the wake of the Paris attacks.

A demonstrator holds two pencils signifying freedom of speech at a unity rally along Place de la République in Paris. (Photo: Richard Bord/Getty Images)

Jan 15, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Britni Danielle is a regular contributor to TakePart. She writes on a variety of subjects for Clutch, Ebony, Jet, and others.

Less than a week after millions took to the streets of Paris to declare "Je suis Charlie" to show their support for freedom of speech in the wake of the vicious attacks against the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, a growing chorus of critics is now wondering if the slogan should be "Je suis hypocrite."

The swift change in tone was precipitated by the announcement that 54 people were arrested in France for allegedly “condoning terrorism” or threatening to carry out attacks. A 20-year-old man was arrested after yelling, “Long live the Kalash[nikov]” at police in a shopping center, and another was picked up after posting a video allegedly mocking one of the murdered police officers, according to BBC News.

Those threats are hardly prudent in a time of heightened security, but it’s the arrest of the controversial comedian Dieudonné M'bala M'bala over a Facebook post that has many calling the French government hypocritical.

M'bala M'bala is no stranger to this debate. He has been arrested several times for his offensive brand of comedy, which many describe as virulently anti-Semitic, and he has racked up more than $80,000 in unpaid fines for his act. Most recently, French authorities investigated him for a YouTube video comparing the decapitation of James Foley to the beheadings during the French Revolution. While many disagree with M'bala M'bala’s provocative routines, his arrest, just days after French President Francois Hollande declared the Charlie Hebdo massacre “an attack on freedom,” has many wondering if France is truly the bastion of "Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité" it claims to be.

“There’s a huge cultural gap between the U.S. and France,” says Mathilde Cohen, associate professor at the University of Connecticut School of Law. A legal scholar who grew up in Paris and graduated from the Sorbonne, she has served as an editor for the Columbia Journal of European Law.

While the United States imposes few restrictions on speech, including that which is blatantly offensive, the French take a different approach, she said.

“The U.S. has stuck to an absolutist conception of free speech where there’s a free marketplace of ideas where, ideally, bad speech will get corrected by good speech,” she says, citing a French law that passed last year that criminalizes “apologizing for terrorism.” “The French approach is paternalistic. It says we can’t allow certain people to say certain things, and we’re going to criminalize certain speech.”

While the French (and other European nations) have gone out of their way to criminalize “hate speech” in a bid to protect their increasingly multicultural nation in the face of rising xenophobia, deciding who is engaging in hate speech versus who is being comical or satirical can be difficult and problematic.

“There is no one correct interpretation of what anyone says,” Cohen asserts, explaining that local law enforcement officials decide what is and is not criminal speech. This opens up a whole new set of concerns. “It depends on the political climate and the dominant group in the society,” she says, theorizing that people in France are prosecuted for anti-Semitic speech at higher rates than those spouting anti-Islamic views, for example.

Rosemary Salomone, a law professor at St. John’s University, echoes Cohen’s hypothesis.

“The [French] law itself prohibits defamation or any violence against a person or group because of their religion. Whether that’s how the law is prosecuted, I don’t know,” she says. “There could be a sensitivity toward anti-Semitism in France because of the history.”

That history is messy. “During World War II some French political officials were complicit with the Nazis in sending Jews to the death camps,” Salomone explains, noting that denial of the Holocaust is also against the law in France.

For his part, M'bala M'bala has claimed he is not anti-Semitic but rather, antiestablishment. Still, his recent Facebook post, which seemed to sympathize with Amedy Coulibaly, the terrorist who stormed a kosher market during last week’s attacks, has added fuel to the free speech debate in France.

Following the massive march in Paris, M'bala M'bala wrote: “After this historic march what do I say…Legendary. Instant magic equal to the Big Bang that created the universe. To a lesser extent (more local) comparable to the coronation of Vercingétorix, I finally returned home. You know that tonight as far as I’m concerned I feel like Charlie Coulibaly.”

The last sentence, “I’m concerned I feel like Charlie Coulibaly,” which mixes the name of one of the attackers with the magazine seems to have set off French authorities.

While many have accused Charlie Hebdo of being racist and anti-Muslim over the years, President Hollande praised the staff for its bravery. M'bala M'bala, on the other hand, will stand trial on “condoning terrorism” charges but insists he—like the paper that has become synonymous with free speech—is just “trying to make people laugh.”

“For a year, I am treated like public enemy number 1, while only trying to make people laugh,” he wrote on social media. “Some consider me Amedy Coulibaly, while I'm no different from Charlie.”

Perhaps the truth, like what differentiates satire from offensive speech, lies in the eye of the beholder.