Is speech still free in France?


MYRNA BROWN, HOST: It’s Tuesday, the 24th of November, 2020.

You’re listening to The World and Everything in It and we’re glad you are! Good morning, I’m Myrna Brown.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. 

First up: threats to free speech.

It’s a hot topic in the United States, but it’s also an issue abroad. Especially France, where an Islamic terrorist recently beheaded a history teacher because of comments he made in his classroom. After a series of similar terror attacks, the country is reopening a conversation about what people should and shouldn’t be allowed to say.

WORLD correspondent Jenny Lind Schmitt reports.

DAUTRY: Il nous a montrer… 

JENNY LIND SCHMITT, CORRESPONDENT: Marie Dautry’s 11-year old son recently came home from school in Beaucourt, France, upset about a picture his teacher had shown the class. It was a caricature of Jesus. As a Christian, her son didn’t like seeing Jesus portrayed that way. Dautry wondered about the teacher’s motivations, and if other parents had a similar experience. 

Dautry’s experience is part of a national conversation happening in France following the brutal murder of teacher Samuel Paty. Paty taught history in a suburb of Paris. The class had been learning about freedom of expression and freedom of the press. That led to a discussion about the current trial of the terrorists who murdered 12 journalists at the Charlie Hebdo magazine in 2015.

After giving students the chance to leave the room if they wished, Paty showed his class the cartoons of Mohammed that prompted the attack. Days later, Paty himself became the victim of a brutal beheading. It scandalized the world and left France feeling like freedom of speech was under attack.

BRABANT: C’est la premiere fois en France depuis qu’il y a l’école publique, depuis un siècle et demi, qu’un professeur est tué pour le metier qu’il fait. 

Laurent Brabant teaches the same subject as Samuel Paty, in Chirens, eastern France. He says Paty was by all accounts an excellent teacher, well-respected. And he was teaching freedom of expression the same way he had in previous years.

BRABANT: Lecole: C’est notre boulot ça, d’expliquer et réexpliquer. Parce que si nous, nous le faisons pas, personne ne le fait. L’école c’est l’endroit où on doit leur expliquer les choses, pour présenter une autre valeur à quelques élèves. 

[TRANSLATION: That’s our job: to explain and reexplain. Because if we don’t do it, no one will. School is the place where things are explained, to present other values to certain students.]

In France, free speech is tied to the so-called “right to blasphemy,” that is, to criticize a religion or institution. It’s guaranteed in the French bill of rights adopted in 1789. While the caricatures in Charlie Hebdo have become a symbol of freedom of speech, Brabant says blasphemy should not be the end goal. 

BRABANT: Mais ce que j’apprends à mes élèves c’est pas l’usage de blasphème, c’est l’usage de la liberté d’expression, c’est à dire, de dialogue… Mais dialogue respectueux. Nous pouvons être en désaccord, nous pouvons l’exprimer. On peut dire des choses qui peuvent heurter ton interlocuteur, mais ça n’empêche que le dialogue existe quand même.

[TRANSLATION: What I teach my students is not the use of blasphemy, instead I teach them how to use freedom of expression, that is: dialog. Respectful dialog. We can disagree, we can express it. You can say things that may offend your listener, but that doesn’t prevent dialog from happening.]

In response to Paty’s murder, some people said all teachers should show the caricatures of Mohammed to their classes. Nancy Lefevre disagrees. She is the in-house lawyer for the National Council of French Evangelicals. 

LEFEVRE: Our French state should not encourage or discourage religious blasphemy. It has to be neutral. If the Ministry of Education wants to educate French pupils about freedom of expression. They can use caricature, but let them use caricature against Mohammed, Jesus, Mr. Macron, against Jean Jaurès, the European Union, in a pluralist way. 

She says it’s essential to uphold the principles of “laicité” or secularism. Before the French Revolution, the Roman Catholic Church had too much power in the country. So secularism, the freedom of speech, and the freedom to publicly criticize powerful religious and government institutions were enshrined into law. But there are limits. 

LEFEVRE: The judge of what is allowed and not allowed is the criminal court. We talk about the right to blasphemy, but indeed it’s not the right to blasphemy as such, it’s the right to criticize any opinion, any institution, even the government, as long as you don’t incite people to hatred, to violence, and to discrimination. 

The problem, Lefevre says, is that people in France are more influenced by what media and public opinion say about the limits of free speech, than by what the law says. For example, when France banned Muslim headscarves in schools that created confusion about what people were allowed to wear or say in public. To counter that, the National Council of French Evangelicals launched a campaign called Freedom to Speak. It’s specifically aimed at Christians knowing, and protecting, their rights in the public arena. 

LEFEVRE: The campaign is really about stating what’s already in our good French law. And making people realize that our law is protecting them more than threatening their freedoms. And this campaign was also in reaction to either political or media or public opinion coverage of this issue, making freedom of religion weaker or freedom of expression smaller than actually our French law or international law protects them. 

Both Brabant and Dautry say misuse of social media has caused big problems for freedom of speech. Angry diatribes on Facebook allegedly incited Samuel Paty’s murderer to action. Brabant says it’s a challenge to help his students understand that the same laws of civil society also apply online. 

BRABANT: Alors ça c’est aussi quelque chose que l’école peut amener, et l’éducation des parents aussi. C’est le temps pour réfléchir et pas etre seulement dans la réaction du message. Déconnecter un instant et discuter.  

[TRANSLATION: That’s also an area where school can help, in addition to the teaching of parents. To take the time to be thoughtful, and not just be in a reaction to a message. Disconnect for a moment and have a discussion.]  

Marie Dautry says the recent events have allowed her to have good discussions with her son. 

DAUTRY: Je veux que Charlie Hebdo ait le droit de faire ça, parce que si Charlie Hebdo n’a pas le droit de faire ça, de faire les caricatures… ça veut dire que nous nous avons plus le droit de faire grand chose dans nos eglises. 

[TRANSLATION: I want Charlie Hebdo to have the right to do that, because if Charlie Hebdo does not have that right, to publish caricatures, that means that we no longer have the right to do much in our churches.]

And those discussions have led to deeper reflection on where freedom of expression comes from.

DAUTRY: J’ai vraiment le sentiment que Dieu fonctionne comme ça avec nous. En fait, Dieu nous laisse vraiment libre de faire ce qu’on veut. Et on peut faire des caricatures de Jésus et puis revenir vers Jésus et lui demander pardon, et être son enfant, être un enfant de Dieu.  Et du coup je me dis, Dieu nous laisse réellement libre. Pourquoi est-ce que je souhaiterais que l’État nous prive d’une liberté que Dieu nous accorde en fait. 

[TRANSLATION: It really seems this is how God is with us. God leaves us free to do what we want. And we can make caricatures that mock Jesus and then come back to Jesus, ask his forgiveness and be a child of God. And so I think, God gives us real freedom. Why would I want the state to deprive us of a freedom that God gives us?]

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Jenny Lind Schmitt in Delle, France.


(Thomas Coex, Pool via AP) Children raise their hand as French Prime Minister Jean Castex, second left, and Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer, second right, attend a homage to slain history teacher Samuel Paty, Monday Nov. 2, 2020 at a school in Conflans-Sainte-Honorine, northwest of Paris. 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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