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The French On Freedom Of Speech

Tens of thousands of fans of the French comic Dieudonne – often criticised as anti-Semitic – are making claims of hypocrisy and double standards after French authorities opened up dozens of cases against people accused of justifying terrorism.

Fans of the controversial comedian reacted angrily after he was arrested and charged with condoning terrorism for a remark on his a Facebook page: “je me sens Charlie Coulibaly” (“I feel like Charlie Coulibaly”).

The remark, which has since been taken down, was a mash-up of the#JeSuisCharlie tag and the name of Amedy Coulibaly, the man who killed a policewoman near a Jewish school and four people at a Jewish supermarket in Paris. Dieudonne later defended the remark by saying he felt like he was being persecuted by authorities as if he were a terror suspect.

“Freedom of expression is dead, but its funeral on Sunday was pretty!!” said one of the comedian’s Facebook fans, referring to the enormous march through Paris in support of Charlie Hebdo.

“WHAT HYPOCRISY!!!!!” shouted another commentator. “You can legally caricature and insult the prophet and the Muslim world: the oligarchy calls this freedom of expression … We are in a pseudo-democratic dictatorship.”

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The worry is that judgments are coming too quickly, and influenced by a very emotional event”

Emmanuel PierratFrench legal expert and PEN member

Dieudonne is a comedian with a history of making crude jokes about the Holocaust (and occasionally getting into legal trouble). He has a huge following on social media including more than 900,000 Facebook fans. Most of the comments on his page were in support of the comedian, and his name was trending briefly on Twitter earlier in the week, but there were a few fans who thought Dieudonne had crossed a line.

“There is a big difference between freedom of expression and incitement to hatred,” said one fan. “He knew what to expect … Charlie Hebdo made caricatures of the prophet that I haven’t agreed with, it has made a mockery of the prophet, made some laugh, shocked others, but there was no incentive to hatred and this is a big difference.”

The comedian adapted the "Je Suis Charlie" trend to rally supporters after his arrest.The comedian adapted the “Je Suis Charlie” trend to rally supporters after his arrest.

The arrest of Dieudonne was just one of dozens of cases – up to 100according to one estimate – opened by the French authorities since the attacks. Some people have even been jailed already under fast-track legislation that was passed last year.

In a typical year, only one or two people are arrested for speaking out in favour of terrorism, said Emmanuel Pierrat, a French media lawyer and member of PEN International, which supports free expression.

Pierrat told BBC Trending that free speech is an idea at the core of the French nation, but one that in his view has been eroded over the years by exceptions for things including hate speech.

“We have weakened the principle of freedom of speech, for good intentions, but without thinking about the consequences. We need to think about how we can recover the idea of freedom of speech after an event that is so emotional, like the one in Paris (last week),” he said.

He cautioned however, that Dieudonne’s statements could not be directly compared with the Charlie Hebdo cartoons showing the Prophet Muhammad.

“One thing is for sure, in France you can make drawings or speeches against ideology or against religion. The French revolution of 1789 abolished the crime of blasphemy” and courts have consistently upheld the legality of speech directed at religions or historical religious figures, he says.

Pierrat, who represented Michel Houellebecq when the author wascleared of charges of religious hate speech against Muslims in 2002, says the Dieudonne case will be difficult to judge given the ambiguity of the comedian’s outburst. But he says he believes the authorities are made a mistake by arresting him. A trial is scheduled for next month.

“If Dieudonne wins, he will be like a hero,” Pierrat says. “It will gives a lot of young people the idea that he is a champion of Muslims or immigrants … he’s no longer a comedian or an actor, but instead his audiences are far-right sympathisers.”

“What makes me somewhat afraid is that French justice is speeding up when it comes to these questions,” he says. “Like Americans after 11 September, the worry is that judgments are coming too quickly, and influenced by a very emotional event.”

Blog by Mike Wendling

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