How France went from free-speech rallies to 54 hate-speech arrests in one week

French authorities are reporting that 54 French residents have been arrested on charges of hate speech, glorifying terrorism, and inciting violence, following a wave of terrorist attacks that left 17 dead in the country last week.

The crackdown claims to be in the name of “protect[ing] freedom of expression from comments that could incite violence or hatred” according to an AP report.

Among those arrested was controversial satirist Dieudonné, who posted on his Facebook page that he felt like “Charlie Coulibaly”—a blending of the popular satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo that was attacked last week, and Amedy Coulibaly, the gunman who killed four hostages at a Paris kosher market on Friday, after killing a policewoman a day earlier.

Days after record-breaking rallies were held around the country in the name of freedom of speech, this might seem very counter-intuitive. How can a government claim to protect freedom of speech on one hand, and move to silence dozens of residents, including a satirist, on the other? Good question. But in France, the answer is anything but simple.

Why this makes sense in France.


Free speech and freedom of the press, like in the United States, are constitutionally protected rights. However, in France this typically comes with a few very important caveats. It is prohibited for an individual to publicly incite another to discriminate against individuals on grounds of ethnicity, nation, race, religion, sex, sexual orientation or handicap. However, the definition of “discrimination” remains intentionally murky and is frequently challenged in cases brought under these laws.

Another important act to know is the Gayssot Act which as of 13 July, 1990 introduced a stipulation making it illegal to deny the Holocaust. France still generally feels pretty icky about the whole Vichy regime, which fully supported Hitler’s final solution during WWII. This act has often led to allegations of anti-Semitism being prosecuted in court. Many feel that fact that Jews are apparently defended, while hate speech against Muslims is often overlooked as justifiable free speech, making tensions of Islamophobia all the more strained.

Critics of that law state that there is little acknowledgement of the pain of the Algerian war of independence from France, and its continued bleeding presence in contemporary French politics was clearly illustrated by the Hebdo massacre. It is telling that the last great massacre of this kind experienced in France was in 1961, when nationalists wishing for Algeria to remain under French colonial control bombed a train in Paris, killing 28 people.

Who is Dieudonné M’bala M’bala?

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Dieudonné, known universally by his first name, is viewed as something like a cross between Lenny Bruce and Sacha Baron Cohen, but in the last decade or so, his political career has overshadowed his comedy as he has repeatedly and publicly shown his affection for France’s far-right party, the Front National. He has won a reputation as a vocal anti-Semite, while arguing that his stance is not racist but is rather along the same lines of “equal opportunity” offense as the Hebdo satirists. He explains his position, arguing that “to clash, to shock, that is our job [as satirists].”

Dieudonné has publicly explained that he is not anti-Semitic, yet his explanation seems a bit evasive, stating “I do not feel at all anti-Semitic. I have absolutely no hatred towards the Jewish people, but no attraction to them either.”

He has been censored before, and gone to court over it. His film “The Antisemite” was banned from the Cannes film festival in 2012 and his stand-up act, “The Wall,” was also banned, also for inciting anti-Semitic sentiment. From this act comes the popular hand gesture, La Quenelle, which has been described as an “inverted Nazi salute representing the sodomy of the victims of the Holocaust.” It has been adopted by a number of hate groups, including individuals that have posted photos of themselves performing the gesture outside of Auschwitz.

So that’s the satirist. Who are the others?

A man was arrested on Saturday in northern France for saying to the police upon arrest, “There should be more Kouachis, I hope you are next,” referencing the brothers who carried out the Charlie Hebdo attack. The man was apparently drunk at the time of arrest, and was sentenced to four years in prison on Monday, reported France’s 20 Minutes. Another man was arrested for posting a video mocking Ahmed Merabet, the Muslim policeman also killed by the Kouachi brothers last wednesday, and was sentenced to one year in prison in Nanterre (a suburb of Paris).

The Minister of Justice, Christiane Taubira, has said “In these moments where the Nation must show its unity, hateful or contemptuous words or wrongdoing uttered or committed because of religious affiliation must be fought and pursued with great vigor.”

Fifteen out of the 54 cases were opened for offensive graffiti tags, ten for calls to use weapons, arson or explosives against mosques and other places of Muslim gathering. Ten cases were opened for leaflets containing anti-Muslim material, and 19 for offenses against security, 14 of which is for cyber attacks.

I’m American. This doesn’t make sense to me.

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That’s because there are no hate speech laws here.

In the U.S., you can pretty much say whatever you want to say, so long as it is not intended, and likely to produce, “imminent lawless action.” There are only a few exceptions to this rule, as explored below. The benefit of this standard, according to many freedom of speech advocates, is that social issues will get aired out in the social sphere, rather than forcing people to bite their tongue for fear of getting prosecuted.

The following quote from the American Civil Liberties Union’s “position paper” states why many believe even hate speech deserves to be protected:

The ACLU has often been at the center of controversy for defending the free speech rights of groups that spew hate, such as the Ku Klux Klan and the Nazis. But if only popular ideas were protected, we wouldn’t need a First Amendment. History teaches that the first target of government repression is never the last. If we do not come to the defense of the free speech rights of the most unpopular among us, even if their views are antithetical to the very freedom the First Amendment stands for, then no one’s liberty will be secure. In that sense, all First Amendment rights are “indivisible.”

Censoring so-called hate speech also runs counter to the long-term interests of the most frequent victims of hate: racial, ethnic, religious and sexual minorities. We should not give the government the power to decide which opinions are hateful, for history has taught us that government is more apt to use this power to prosecute minorities than to protect them. As one federal judge has put it, tolerating hateful speech is “the best protection we have against any Nazi-type regime in this country.”

Are there exceptions in the U.S.?

Other exceptions to Americans’ right to free expression is in the case of someone publishing defamatory falsehoods about public officials– but only if the official can prove that the falsehood was published with “actual malice.” Legally “obscene” material is also categorically not included in free speech, though thanks to cases like the 2 Live Crew v. Broward County case in the early days of hip-hop, this category is rarely ever upheld in court.

Speaking of that, here’s the music video of the groups flaunting their First Amendment victory:

“Fighting words… which by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace,” are also not protected, according to the ACLU. It is not clear if publishing an image of the Prophet Muhammad, or “defending terrorism” could technically fall under this category within the American political and social climate.

How is this playing out in Europe?

Most European nations have hate speech laws similar to those in France. In 2008, the European Union adopted a framework decision on “Combating Racism and Xenophobia” that required all members to criminalize certain kinds of hate speech; namely anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial.

The attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices has renewed a debate among these nations on the usefulness of these laws. Columnists have written that these hate laws are not part of the solution to extremism, but are rather part of the problem. Think the ACLU’s reasoning, as noted above.

Anti-blasphemy laws have also come under scrutiny in Europe, since the Paris attacks ultimately stemmed from an act of blasphemy (portraying the likeness of Muhammad is considered blasphemy to many Muslims).

In Ireland, calls to revisit the country’s blasphemy laws were splashed across the country’s editorial pages, with one piece reading: “If we really want to honour the slain journalists of ‘Charlie Hebdo’, then we need to repeal this antiquated law and stop perpetuating the nonsense that an all-powerful deity would be offended by a cartoon.”

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