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Reconciling freedom of expression and religion after the Charlie Hebdo attacks: France’s struggle for laïcité

By Marie-Cassandre Wavre

On January 11, millions of people throughout France and the world marched in an anti-terror unity rally in honor of the victims of the terrorist attacks against the French magazine Charlie Hebdo, in which 14 people were killed. Yemen’s al-Qaeda claimed responsibility for the deadly assault, saying it was “revenge for the honor of the Prophet.” Charlie Hebdo, a satirical magazine, is known for its controversial caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad, which is blasphemous in Islam. Before the attacks, however, the magazine was not very popular and was constantly sued for slander, libel and defamation. So what led so many people to proclaim, “Je suis Charlie”? It was freedom of expression.

Freedom of expression is one of the most important values in France, dating back to the French revolution of 1789. During the monarchy, the common practice of lettre de cachet—a letter signed by the king and closed with the royal seal that contained an order to arrest—allowed the King to imprison any person at will and without due process. It was usually used against political opponents of the regime who were “too loud,” and was one of the root causes of the revolution. Freedom of speech is now a constitutional right that protects “the pluralistic expression of opinions”

The implementation of this right is closely linked to the French tradition of secularism: laïcité. According to this version of secularism, which is strongly tied to French universalism, the particularities of individuals and groups are subjugated to the larger idea of the “Nation.” Therefore, all citizens are required to respect the neutrality of public space regardless of their religious or cultural background—the practice of religion being allowed only in the private sphere. Contrary to the United States’ communitarian policies and ideals that favor multiculturalism and the recognition of difference, French citizenship is intimately tied to acceptance of universalism. Rather than integration, assimilation is seen as the best way to protect human rights from the “tyranny of the minority.” Indeed, under the Ancien Régime, religion was often used to justify abusive power. For example, King Louis XIV was an absolute monarch because he was “the representative of God on Earth.” The French people believed that true democracy and freedom could only be achieved by completely separating the church from the state. Under the laïcité doctrine, no one can be barred from criticizing a religion or idea. This is why, although Charlie Hebdo was sued around 50 times in 22 years by many religious organizations, it was actually convicted less than ten times.

The controversial part of laïcité is that despite protecting free speech, it bars public displays of religion. In 2010, France passed a law making it illegal for anyone to cover their face in a public place, which de facto prevents Muslim women from wearing the burqa in public. For many, laïcité is seen an excuse to force Muslim immigrants to conform with French culture without regard for religious beliefs or cultural differences. Indeed, Catholicism is not as deeply affected by laïcité because many Christian traditions are part of the French national identity and culture. Nevertheless, in 1990, France adopted a law outlawing Holocaust denial. One might question the constitutionality of the law with regard to the laïcité principle since it obviously favors Judaism. However, French law clearly distinguishes between simple expressions of opinion and hate speech against a particular group. This limitation on free speech is permitted by international human rights law to protect national security. In other words, France protects individual rights and the people, but not their churches, doctrines or ideas. This had a rather confusing consequence when the French humorist Dieudonné was charged with “defending terrorism” after declaring “I feel like Charlie Coulibaly” (from the name of Amedy Coulibaly, who allegedly killed four hostages at a kosher supermarket and a policewoman following one of the Charlie Hebdo attacks).

French law is shaped by its history and traditions, but is still stuck in its past. France has one of the biggest Muslim populations in Europe (7.5 percent in 2010, according to the Pew Research Center), but laïcité laws directly affect their integration and religious rights. Furthermore, France’s Muslim population, which is mostly of North African origin, is deeply disenfranchised socioeconomically, causing resentment and lack of integration. The Kouachi brothers who carried out the Charlie Hebdo attacks were born, raised and marginalized in France. They belonged to a second generation of immigrants who criticize their parents for having denied their Muslim identity, which is sometimes seen as an acceptance of past colonial domination. Their alienation from French society and turn towards violence shows that France suffers from an important identity crisis. Many groups in France are discriminated against because of their race, ethnicity or religion while, at the same time, they have French citizenship and do not share the same history as their parents.

Overall, French Muslims are being more and more marginalized and geographically segregated. Many immigrants live in housing projects of the banlieues, where poverty, unemployment and crime rates are high. In this kind of environment, Islamic fundamentalist recruiters offer an alternative to drugs, marginalization and poverty. This increases social tensions which benefit far-right parties like the National Front, which openly promotes xenophobic policies.

There is an urgent need to promote cross-cultural integration and understanding through education and economic support. France’s laws on laïcité should be more flexible and compatible to allow for religious expression, even in public places. The prohibition of the veil in school, for example, is too aggressive towards Muslims. A first step towards solving the problem is to recognize the nature of the separation between the banlieues and the rest of France. The Kouachi brothers are the result of a society failing at integration and producing alienation. France does not need a law prohibiting caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad because freedom should not yield to extremism. But laïcité and freedom of speech do not mean the same thing. By tying the discussions about Charlie Hebdo with the issue of laïcité, France is evading a tougher debate about how to address the problems of integration. Liberty creates a responsibility to exercise freedom of expression in a more careful manner, respectful of religion and non-offensive, to avoid tearing apart a country that is already broken.

Marie-Cassandre Wavre is a French LL.M. student at Fordham Law School.

Photo credit: Olivier Ortelpa/Creative Commons