Paris attacks: France grapples with freedom of speech

A statue on Place de la Republique, Paris, symbolically "gagged" by protesters, 10 January 2015
Image caption A statue on Place de la Republique, Paris, symbolically "gagged" by protesters after the Charlie Hebdo attacks

When French President Francois Hollande gave a sombre televised address to the nation, hours after the shocking attack on Charlie Hebdo, he vowed to protect the message of freedom that the magazine's journalists represented.

Charlie Hebdo's "heroes" had defended freedom of speech and this was an attack on the entire republic, he said.

But since the start of the week, 54 people have been detained and several jailed for a variety of remarks, shouted out in the street or posted on social media, and France's judiciary has been lampooned for what appear to be double standards.

The so-called comic Dieudonne M'bala M'bala will face trial for writing "I feel like Charlie Coulibaly", hours after 3.7 million French citizens had taken to the streets behind the "je suis Charlie" rallying cry.

He said the posting was meant to be humorous. But in the context of his past convictions for anti-Semitism, the authorities saw it as a voice of support for one of the gunmen, Amedy Coulibaly, who had murdered four Jewish men in a kosher supermarket.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Dieudonne could face up to seven years in jail for his Facebook comment

Prime Minister Manuel Valls set it out plainly: freedom of speech should not be confused with anti-Semitism, racism and Holocaust denial.

But Dieudonne has plenty of young fans who watch his shows and follow his social media posts, however tasteless they may be, and many in France saw his arrest as an example of double standards.

After all, Charlie Hebdo's entire ethos has been tasteless lampooning of the establishment.

"Extremely clumsy to detain Dieudonne when you've just made the whole world march for freedom of speech," read one tweet.

'Just the start'

But the crackdown extends way beyond a notorious comic with a string of convictions.

The justice ministry has revealed that a number of fast-track custodial sentences have been handed down in cities across France in the past few days for expressions of support for the gunmen.

In Toulouse alone, three men in their early twenties have been jailed, two of them for 10 months, for shouting obscenities at police.

One threatened to attack police with a Kalashnikov while another said the Kouachi brothers were "just the start".

It was in Toulouse that Islamist gunman Mohamed Merah killed seven people in a series of attacks in 2012, including one on a Jewish school.

In Nanterre, east of Paris, a man was sent to prison for a year for posting a video on Facebook that mocked policeman Ahmed Merabet, who was shot at point-blank range by one of the Kouachis.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption The French government tightened anti-terror laws in November, clamping down on online comments

Human rights groups have been less than impressed with what would seem to be a knee-jerk response by the authorities after what Mr Valls admitted had been clear failings by the security services.

France's League of Human Rights (LDH) has condemned the fast-track sentences, which it argues are handed down in dreadful conditions and largely apply to drunks or fools.

French Revolution

But while the sentences may look startling and in some cases even draconian, they are following the letter of an anti-terror law that was passed by the National Assembly as recently as last November.

Directly provoking or publicly condoning terrorism in France now commands a five-year jail term and a fine of €75,000. And if it is done online, the penalty can be extended to seven years and €100,000 (£76,000; $116,000).

So for the many French who did not feel "je suis Charlie", where does France now see the boundary between freedom of speech and condoning terrorism?

The right to say, write or print what you want is rooted in the declaration of rights that came with the 1789 French Revolution, but even then abuse of that freedom was limited by law.

Those exceptions were defined in 1881 (in French) as defamation, slander and incitement to hate. There is also explicit reference to condoning crimes of war, crimes against humanity or collaboration with the enemy.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Not everyone has felt comfortable with the "je suis Charlie" message in France

However, not since the revolution has blasphemy been against the law in France, and according to Mr Valls it never will.

The restrictions on freedom of speech go well beyond those in the US. A former editor of Charlie Hebdo had to defend himself against incitement in 2007 after reprinting cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.

Since November those restrictions have gone further still. What was previously a law against condoning terrorism in the media has been extended to social media too.

And it will not just be careless tweets or Facebook posts that are caught in the crosshairs. US-based social media companies will be required to police their sites too.

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