Free speech and French satire

November has traditionally been a time for remembrance – in the Christian calendar the month begins with All Saints’ Day (1 November) and All Souls’ Day (2 November). The significance of these dates seems to have declined in modern Britain, particularly when compared with Mexico’s Day of the Dead celebrations. There, the festival has attained the status of a National Holiday.


This made it an ideal focus for PEN International’s Mexico campaign*, which aims to raise awareness of the dangers faced by Mexican journalists, thirty-five of whom have been murdered in the last five years alone. Mexico is known to be one of the most troubled regions in the world, with one of the poorest records when it comes to free expression. But in the light of this morning’s events it seems that there are grave problems far closer to home.


I am, of course, referring to the petrol bombing of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. The publication’s offices were destroyed in the ensuing blaze, which came just one day after they released a controversial cover featuring a caricature of the Prophet Mohammed. This was a blatant and unacceptable assault on press freedom, one of the core tenets of liberal democracy.


As the Prime Minister, François Fillon, said in a statement on the attack:


“Freedom of expression is an inalienable right in our democracy and all attacks on freedom of the press must be condemned with the greatest firmness. No cause can justify such an act of violence.”


France, which has the largest Muslim population in Europe, is no stranger to religious tensions. The government recently courted controversy when it banned the public wearing of full-face veils. It strikes me that this was not as outrageous as it may appear, since it forms part of the more general policy of laïcité, the rigid separation of church and state. French state schools, for example, take an equally dim view of the display of Christian and Muslim symbols. Likewise, Charlie Hebdo has treated other religions with equal irreverence. They were not fire bombed on those occasions. Why should it only be Islam which is sacrosanct?       


This was not hate speech, and did not incite violence against the Muslim community. The magazine explained that it published this as an ironic reference to the election victory of the Tunisian Islamist party Ennahda, and the adoption of Islamic law in post-Gaddafi Libya.


In a touching display of solidarity, the Liberation offered desk space to Charlie Hebdo’s journalists so that they could continue to work after their offices and equipment were destroyed. The daily is also preparing a special edition, which will celebrate the right to free expression, and in particular the right of Charlie Hebdo to offend whomsoever it pleases.


*I do have an interest to declare, since I wrote the campaign press release as part of my day job, but the point still ought to be made.

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