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Perspective: Why The Charlie Hebdo Massacre Won’t Stop Free Expression


A couple of years ago, as I entered the staff room at the French international lycée where I teach, I found a group of my colleagues standing around a large table in the middle of the room. On one side of the table there was a variety of pastries, cheeses, crackers and bread; on the other were three or four bottles of champagne – corks removed, ready to pour.  At the center of the table was a large hand-made sign that read, “Laïcité: 105 ans!!”  It was December 9, 2010 and my colleagues were celebrating the 105th anniversary of the “French Law on the Separation of Churches and State” – the 1905 law that officially established state secularism in France. 

At the time I was a bit embarrassed because I had never heard of the law.  I knew, of course, that France had such a law, but was not aware that it was important enough to celebrate with un petit goûter–a little snack–during an afternoon break at school.  Plus, I thought to myself, it’s not like this is the 50th or 100th anniversary – it’s the 105th anniversary.  Who celebrates the 105th anniversary of anything?

Last Wednesday, when heavily armed gunmen entered the Paris offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, killing 10 staff members and two police officers, one of the first thoughts that came to my mind was that afternoon back in 2010.  Though France has struggled in recent years to find a balance between religious expression and secularism (and I knew this issue would be a topic of conversation this week given the circumstances of the attack), my thoughts went back to that day not because I immediately viewed the Paris attacks from the perspective of religion or religious freedom, but because for the French, laicité is a concept that is much more closely tied to liberty than to religion. Freedom from the constraint of religious influence and domination is essential for what they call “freedom of conscience.”  Historically in France, one was either within the Catholic church or outside of it, there was no middle ground.  Laicté emerged from a desire for freedom from the moral authority of a single, dominant religion.  Creating separation from this religion was, therefore, the ultimate expression of liberty.

And here in France, that is where reactions to last Wednesday’s events start.  The attack on Charlie was first and foremost an attack on liberté – an idea that very important in French history and culture.  But among friends I have talked with, the role of religion in France is also a topic that, more and more, people are trying to come to grips with. There are other issues, of course, but I’ll briefly focus on reactions I’ve seen in the areas of liberty and religion.

Voltaire in Vignettes

A French friend of mine told me the day after the attack that “this is personal” because the attack came against the press, one of the most important pillars of the French concept of liberté. France is immensely proud of the role it has played in promoting free speech and freedom of the press around the world.  Most French people can tell you very quickly that Agence France Presse is the oldest news agency in the world (established in 1838) or that the first mass-circulation newspaper was Le Petit Journal, a Parisian daily first printed in 1863 that was by the mid 1880s, printing over one million copies every day. (An interesting note about Le Petit Journal is that is was also the first French paper to include an illustrated supplement each week – starting the tradition of including illustrated commentary that is so important around the world today).  To give you an idea of how important the press is in French history and culture, the history curriculum during the final year of high school (the famous ‘baccalaureate year’) includes a major section called médias et opinions publiques en France, which essentially covers how and to what extent the press influences public opinion in France.  One of the topics students study in depth is J’accuse, an open letter written by French intellectual Émile Zola in 1898 and published in a newspaper called  L’Aurore. The letter was addressed directly to French president Felix Faure and claimed, among other things, that the government’s decision to convict Alfred Dreyfus – an officer in the French army and a Jew – of espionage and treason was blatantly anti-semetic. The letter was wildly controversial (the government went so far as to sue Zola for libel and he was forced to flee to England to avoid prison), but it was credited with changing public opinion on the entire Dreyfus Affair issue. Is is in this tradition–the idea that the press can, even should, be a part of the public conversation–that most French people view last weeks tragedy.

Charlie Hebdo is not Le Petit Journal or Agence France Presse, that is for sure. It isn’t Le Monde, Le Figaro, or Libération either, for that matter. Charlie Hebdo is a relatively small satirical magazine that prints about 30,000 copies every week. When I asked my friends and colleagues about the magazine, I was hard pressed to find anyone who read it regularly. But, as one friend told me, “we always see the cover.” And it is the cover that satirizes, offends, provokes, shocks, and denigrates….everyone. Many French people I know do not particularly like the magazine and some patently dislike it, saying it often goes too far. A colleague told me just the other day that she thought it “was a terrible publication.”  She then said, without hesitation, “mais aujourd’hui, je suis Charlie.” 

Charlie Hebdo is freedom and liberty for the French.  It doesn’t matter if you like the magazine or not, it symbolizes the notion that ideas and the freedom to express them are alive and well in France.. And while many French people may disagree with the viewpoints expressed in the cartoons on the cover each Wednesday, they are united in their defense of its right to publish them.  Yes, Voltaire’s proposition that “I may not agree with a word you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” is alive and well in France.  Perhaps this is why Libération, one of the country’s largest daily newspapers, used its editorial the day after the attacks to describe Charlie as “Voltaire in Vignettes.”

The Role of Laicité

Though France did not fully separate church and state until the 1905 law I mentioned earlier, laicité is one of the core concepts of the French constitution.  Article1 formally states: La France est une République indivisible, laïque, démocratique et sociale.  The combination of the constitution and the 1905 law was intended to curb the power of an establishment religion–Catholicism–and create a society where the practice of religion was both something to be protected at all costs and something to keep out of politics at all costs. Today political leaders are free to practice their own religion, but are expected to keep religious views out the public discourse, the idea being that religious positions are generally not compatible with reasoned political debate.  But French secularism has gone beyond the halls of the Asemblée Nationale and is now often applied to citizens in public places, leading to frequent conflict between the government and those who wish to publicly display their religious affiliations (particularly France’s large – and growing – non Christian population). Because faiths such as Islam, Sikhism and Judiasm are often accompanied with strict dress codes (think hijab, turban, yarmulke), they have increasingly been the target of bans imposed by the government. In 1994 the French government tried to make a distinction between “discreet” and “ostentatious” religious symbols. Those considered ostentatious including the Muslim hijab, were banned from all public places in the country. In 2004 the French banned all “conspicuous” religious symbols from public schools, carefully making sure not to mention any religions in particular so as to avoid charges that the law was targeting Muslims. In 2011, France became the first country in Europe to ban the burqa in public. The ban was challenged in European Union courts but upheld in a 2014 decision.

How does all of this relate to last week’s attacks?  That depends on who you talk to. Many friends I spoke with were firm in their view that the attacks were an act of terror aimed, essentially, at the western ideals of freedom, liberty, and democracy and should not be viewed as a “clash of civilizations” between the Muslim world and the West. Yes, the assailants were radical Islamists, but the issue is not really about religion, per se. But others are not so sure. Benoit, a teaching colleague and a strong atheist, summarized his views like this (I’m summarizing here):

It may not be strictly about religion, but one issue that we (the French) are going to have to  address is how we are going to apply the idea of laicité today and going forward. This is not  1905. We have a lot of non-Christian immigrants and we have a complicated history with many of our Muslim immigrants–the Algerian war wasn’t that long ago, you know. 

As we were talking, some other colleagues came around and we began talking about what French secularism really is, or rather, what it should be.  I was somewhat surprised to hear several people argue that, though they fully agreed with and supported laicié in France, the application of the idea needed some revision.  No one was exactly sure what a new application of French secularism would look like, but a theme that emerged in our small group was that perhaps in an effort to protect freedom of thought and religion, the French conception of laicité actually infringes on people’s right to express religious freedom or, in some cases, actually prevents it.

In some cases it goes beyond that and is used to advocate right-wing policies.  France’s far-right party, the Front National (FN), uses the idea of secularism to promote a xenophobic and anti-Islam agenda.  In 2012 Front National’s leader, Marine Le Pen (daughter of longtime FN leader Jean-Marie Le Pen) went so far as to compare Muslims who prayed openly in public to the Nazi occupation of France.  This is important because Front National is not some fringe political party – it is the third largest party in France and in last year’s elections for European Parliament (different from elections to the National Assembly), Front National won the most seats of any party in France. 

Perhaps because of the rising popularity of Front National, leading intellectuals in France are beginning to more openly debate laicité.  As more and more non-Christian immigrants feel marginalized within France, frustration (on all sides) increases.  In an interview with the French daily Le Monde in 2012, one of France’s most influential historians, Jean Baubéro (who has the title of Chair of History and Sociology of Secularism at the university where he teaches), argued for some changes, saying that the 1905 law was now being used to limit religious freedom by effectively removing the visibility of religion in public areas, something he argues the law was not intended to do.  Instead, it was passed to ensure and protect freedom (liberté) throughout France. Even former French president Nicholas Sarkozy engaged in the debate. During his run for president in 2007 he called for a more “positive laicité”, one that recognized the contributions that religion and faith-based groups have played in France’s history and one where religious freedom could be used to illustrate the importance of liberty in general. (Sarkozy later strongly supported new legislation in France that outlawed the burqa in public).

That brings us back to Charlie Hebdo. As I write, millions of French citizens are marching through streets from Paris to Lyon to Bordeaux. This afternoon here in Nice they are expecting more than 50,000 people to march along the famed Promenade des Anglais.  The marches are being called “Unity Rallies” and they hope to unite French people around the very ideals that masked men tried to destroy last week. Though those masked men tried, they failed.  My television is showing me–right now–millions of reasons why their attempts to stop people from expressing themselves will not succeed.  I don’t know if these marches will cure some of the deep-rooted sociological issues that are present in France, but millions of people coming together in support of (essentially) each other can’t be a bad place to start.

The last few days have been traumatic to say the least, but throughout the past week I have been immensely proud to be living in France. The French will not be intimidated by these attacks. Like Americans after 9/11 and the British after the Tube bombings in 2005, the French have decided that they will not allow terrorism to win. They have said they will be defiant, and they have been. As time passes and the events of last week slowly – very slowly in all likelihood – fade away,  there will be conversations that need to take place. These conversations will be difficult and contentious. They will include discussion about the limits of freedom and liberty, the role of religion in society, the political impact of events like the Paris attacks, immigration and integration, radical Islam,  measures to combat terrorism, and many, many others. 

I’m not sure what the result of these conversations will be, but I am sure that Charlie Hebdo will be there every Wednesday with a brand new issue satirizing and making fun of all parties involved.


Jonathan Scriven teaches history and political economy at the Centre International de Valbonne, an international school near Nice, France. Jonathan is a graduate of Andrews University and recently completed a doctorate in international relations from the Geneva School of Diplomacy and International Relations in Geneva, Switzerland.

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