The right to freedom of speech and expression in the weeks following Paris’s deadly terror attacks on satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, has been vigorously defended by the French state. Since the attacks however, a total of 69 people have been arrested in France on account of “defending terrorism”, a rather ironic twist in the public’s rallying cry for freedom of self-expression. These arrests not only violate France’s apparently unequivocal right to self-expression, but also fundamentally highlight, to an ever-polarised population, the fact that freedom of expression does not work both ways.
Those who have been arrested include a school worker in the northern city of Lille who was charged under the broad offence of “defending terrorism”. Authorities alleged that he refused to observe a moment of silence in honour of the victims of the Hebdo attacks. Another case was of a drunken 18 year-old who made sympathetic comments towards the attackers and was sentenced to 210 hours community service. Finally, a girl of just 14 years old was also arrested for stating: “We are the Kouachi sisters, and we’re going to grab our Kalashnikovs.”
The tension here is between freedom of expression and the need to protect France from domestic attack. Clearly it is important to take genuine threats to national security seriously. However, it is problematic to impose such differing standards regarding freedom of expression within one community.
A large proportion of the 69 arrests for ‘defending terrorism’ perpetrated since the Hebdo attacks have been youths and drunks. For the most part, minor offences that people committed quickly escalated into these much more serious terror allegations. Arresting people in this way serves no purpose other than to allow the French government to look tough amid an increasingly right-wing political atmosphere. However, these knee-jerk reaction arrests will only serve to further polarise a population of increasingly isolated, and for the most part, young and vulnerable minorities.
Arrests following the shootings in France are not the only example of a double standard with regards to freedom of expression. In 2009 Maurice Sinet was fired from Charlie Hebdo and faced charges of “inciting racial hatred” after he created a caricature showing Sarkozy’s son converting to Judaism. This comparison highlights a further contradiction: the published depictions of the prophet Mohammed could also be viewed as ‘inciting racial hatred’. It ultimately reflects a larger culture of Islamophobia, in which denigrating Islam is viewed as a courageous act of free speech.
These contradictions surrounding freedom of expression affect the everyday lives of many Islamic-French citizens. For example, French law does not permit women to wear the face covering niqab in public. This law not only violates the freedom of expression that is apparently so important to France, but also interferes with the fundamental human rights of minorities.
Violating a basic, and otherwise valued right of freedom of expression is a dangerous contradiction, isolating and excluding communities; nudging them down the path of radicalisation. One way to realistically defeat the extremism which caused the horrific attacks at Charlie Hebdo is to stop Islamophobic attitudes and nurture the bonds between otherwise quickly polarising communities.