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France: What’s happened to your promises about freedom of speech?

by Théophane Le Méné

" Censorship seems to have become the new weapon destined to silence those who it has proved impossible to convince by other means "

For at least two hundred years we French have boasted about how, we have, in our own country, defined the all the fundamental freedoms, not least amongst which, the freedom of speech. We watched over this freedom like a mother hen tending her eggs, and, not content with that, monitored, not without the arrogance attributed to us by many foreign countries, the degree to which our neighbours took inspiration from our initiative, sometimes even going to war to defend it. The French cockerel was singing loud and strong, and France took a swaggering pride in its achievements. When the cockerel screeched and certain people took exception, we brandished the memory of Voltaire and intoned his famous, though apocryphal phrase: “I do not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

Older people remember. In a period which those under twenty cannot know, there were certain things that could be said, and, what’s worse, laughed at. The extraordinary French humorist, Pierre Desproges, was capable of upsetting Jewish sensibilities in exalting, with striking cynicism, the kind of clichés that led to the genocide in the first place, and of flustering feminists – who had discovered a sense of indignation long before Stephane Hessel wrote his pamphlet on the subject –, while at the same time joking about the foibles of mainstream society. Nor was the ever-hilarious Coluche a slouch in this regard, parodying the antiracism of which he was the involuntary progenitor and making ironic comments about homosexuality. Even in public life, politicians were still able to speak straightforwardly without having to worry about the kind of anathema that would inevitably be thrown at them today. For good or ill, Jacques Chirac once evoked, without embarassment, “the noise and smells” that he attributed to a failure to assimilate foreigners. Such a comment would be unimaginable today. Some will also remember the speech delivered by Georges Marchais, then Secretary-General of the French Communist Party, in February 1981 at Montigny-lès-Cormeilles, criticising, with a certain rhetorical violence, the damage caused by immigration. Indeed, when we look back at the past, there is no shortage of examples. Plain speaking and laughter. Who would dare say such things today and run the risk of subjecting themselves to the opprobrium of our institutions? To see themselves branded as homophobes, anti-semites or racists, a trinity of self-referencing evil that makes it possible to ban anyone from any field whatsoever.

In 2002, when Jean-Marie Le Pen reached the second round of the French Presidential elections, many leading politicians expressed their indignation at the results. They justified their critical attitude to the decision of the electorate by appealing to Karl popper’s paradox of tolerance: one should never tolerate the intolerable. It would seem that this paradox now extends to freedom of speech and that these days we have to content ourselves with expressing the expressable and refrain from asking who – if not God – has the right to define the limits of what can and cannot be said, without giving ground to the prejudices inherent in the cogito. With the passage of time, a legislative arsenal has been implemented in France defining the restrictions placed on freedom of speech, notably the Pleven, Gayssot and Taubira Laws, which have transformed a good number of opinions into crimes and which impose, by legal means, a (historical, social and political) version of reality to which even academic researchers must submit, in spite of new discoveries that may invalidate theses that have held sway up until now.

Lastly, there is no lack of examples of how what some might regard as an overly liberal use of language has been sanctioned along with, in the end, justice and freedom of speech. There are many, be they journalists, politicians, humorists or ordinary citizens, who have been taken to court, and while many cases were legitimate, others were perfectly absurd, a denial of reality serving the diktats of the politically correct. On the other hand, many of the accused choose to submit rather than face court, preferring to assume a resolutely positive attitude to “the Other” (to use the philosopher Alain Finkielkraut’s now consecrated term) and to claim hitherto unrevealed friendships in order to escape any ambiguity when confronted by interlocutors who – you never know! – might denounce them if, in spite of taking care to achieve acceptable ideological standards, they somehow reveal their real opinions.

So, is France really the cradle of free speech? The Americans, who dedicated the First Amendment of their Constitution to its defence, would laugh at the idea; the British, meanwhile, would have a similarly jovial reaction. The Scandinavians, who regard freedom of speech as cornerstone of all freedoms would be equally amazed. In the latest edition of the Index of Economic Freedom, France was described as an “imperfect democracy”, ranked 62nd, between Thailand and Rwanda. And this ranking is mirrored by another. France comes fourth in the list of countries most frequently sanctioned by the European Court of Human Rights for violating Article 10, protecting freedom of speech, just behind Turkey, Austria and Russia. Perhaps a light has gone out in the country most closely associated with the Enlightenment.

Today more than ever, many people feel that they can’t speak as freely as they were once able to. Censorship seems to have become the new weapon destined to silence those who it has proved impossible to convince by other means, to silence those who are, perhaps, unable to censor themselves as they should. But we must be careful: social peace cannot be bought at the price of uniformity, still less if such uniformity is obtained by force. Human history provides a surfeit of examples of attempts to restrain passions that have merely succeeded in radicalising them. And in such situations, it is no longer a question of imprisoned words, but of liberated evils. That hurt us all.

Théophane Le Méné

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