PARIS — The first reactions after last week’s killings in Paris were horror and indignation. But even as the "Je suis Charlie" campaign took social media by storm, in France and abroad, dissenting voices soon started to emerge. Among those were people outraged at the way that freedom of speech was now being celebrated for Charlie Hebdo, and its controversial depictions of the Prophet Muhammad and other religious figures, while just a year ago, for example, French comedian Dieudonné saw his show banned by a state-appointed court after a media uproar over accusations that the show contained anti-Semitic elements. 

There is a perceptible temptation to shrug off these people’s unease in favor of the show of solidarity that has moved the nation. But there are growing numbers of people ready to denounce a two-tier approach to freedom of speech.

"I’m deeply convinced that freedom of speech cannot be a concept of a variable geometry," says François Burgat, research leader at the Institute of Research and Studies on the Arab and Muslim World at Aix-en-Provence. "In France, we insist a lot on the universality of our values, but we have a recurring difficulty to apply them as such."

Burgat says among the clearest examples are the different treatments applied to Dieudonné and Eric Zemmour — a French journalist and writer often accused of Islamophobia. The former was largely banned from the media for a play on words — in 2003, he concluded a TV sketch in which he portrayed an Israeli settler with the words 'Isra-Heil,' in reference to Nazism. The latter meanwhile regularly appears on established French media. "The problem with our freedom of speech is that it’s selective, which makes it meaningless," says the researcher.

Dieudonné and the banning of his show last year, officially for "risk to public order," have returned to the center of this debate as well because the provocateur has provoked again. Dieudonné was arrested and will appear in court for posting on Facebook after attending last Sunday's mass march in Paris: "I feel like Charlie Coulibaly," a mixed-reference to the satirical magazine and Amedy Coulibaly, who shot and killed four hostages at a kosher market last Friday.

Dieudonné doing his infamous "quenelle" gesture — Photo: Facebook page

The Facebook message came alongside an open letter to the French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve, in which he wrote, "Whenever I express myself, nobody tries to understand me, nobody tries to listen and instead look for an excuse to ban me. People see me as Amedy Coulibaly when in fact I’m not so different from Charlie."

Banned and fired

The question of how the establishment and the media deal with offensive comments about Jews and Muslims is however nothing new. A video-montage posted on YouTube in 2007 shows Thierry Ardisson, a well-known TV presenter, defending tooth-and-nail freedom of speech at the time of the controversy surrounding the Muhammad caricatures published in Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten and Charlie Hebdo, arguing that the principle also meant the freedom for a cartoonist to offend. In a different show however, Ardisson is seen telling Dieudonné that he won’t be a guest anymore because he has offended people.

Charlie Hebdo itself has fueled this debate in 2008 when the then editor-in-chief Philippe Val fired cartoonist Siné for anti-Semitism. In a column, he joked about a rumor that Nicolas Sarkozy's son was considering converting to Judaism before marrying a young Jewish heiress and wrote "he’ll go far, that kid." Two years earlier, the magazine had sold more than 400,000 copies of its special edition with the caricatures of the Muslim Prophet.

"When Philippe Val fired Siné, it looked like there were double standards when it comes to freedom of speech," says Patrick Chappatte, cartoonist for Le Temps. "One has to be coherent. My fellow cartoonists and I talked a lot about the caricatures of Muhammad at the time. Some felt as if Charlie Hebdo was obsessed with its 'Screw Allah' stance. It’s a sort of provocation that caused a lot of debates. Many believed that it was counter-productive. That’s not an excuse for what happened. But there’s an unease about it that goes well beyond the Muslim minorities."

The French left, which turned the fight against racism into one of its priorities since the 1980s, has been divided over the question of Islam since the first controversy regarding the veil, in 1989. The gap widened after 9/11. "Associations affiliated with the left were beset by violent debates over Islam which were all the more damaging that they exposed blind spots at the heart of the left’s anti-racist as well as feminist tradition," Le Monde journalist Jean Birnbaum recently wrote. "They tore each other apart, with some accusing the others of relativism and complacency towards radical Islam, while the others retorted that their opponents were trying to take advantage of women’s rights to instill Islamophobia."

The Muslims’ uneasiness is also fueled by France’s geopolitical choices, by its decisions on where and where not to intervene abroad. Many Muslims criticize the West’s inaction over Israel’s repeated wars on Gaza. They also accuse France of having allowed the Syrian crisis to rot, and of only waking up to the horror when ISIS declared a caliphate and executed Western journalists.

Colonial past and present

On its own past as well, the voice of the Muslims is hardly heard in the public sphere. "We have yet to properly delve into how France exerted its power over its colonies," says François Burgat. "The French manipulated elections to keep the process of the creation of the elite under control. And we continue this dreadful tradition. The fight against terrorism also requires that all forms of power, including media representation, be better distributed among all the elements of our nation."

Muslims march in Paris in 2006 against Charlie Hebdo — Photo: David.Monniaux

The resources and the organization of communities make them more or less able to control the public debate. The law puts all victims of racism or of incitation to racial hatred on an equal footing. But to obtain justice, you need to file a complaint. "Most of the complaints are filed by associations such as the International League against Racism and Anti-Semitism (LICRA) or the Movement Against Racism and for Friendship between Peoples (MRAP)," says Nathalie Roze, a Paris-based lawyer specialized in media law. "But not all associations are as active or don’t defend all communities in the same manner."

The situation in Switzerland is similar. Official figures have shown that between 1995 and 2013, 210 complaints for racism were filed by Jews, 126 by non-white persons, 27 by Muslims and 8 by visitors.

Satirical publications like Charlie Hebdo have often been taken to court over the years. But even when the plaintiffs win, these legal procedures are quite costly.

The last filter of freedom of speech is self-censorship, both from journalists and cartoonists, as well as from publications. It shifts depending on time and space. If it were today, late French comedian Pierre Desproges would never begin a sketch like he did in the 1980s by saying "I was told that Jews sneaked into the room."

Crude French humor can hardly be exported to the U.S. where political correctness rules. Many media organization in the U.S. and even in the U.K. decided against showing Charlie Hebdo’s caricatures after the killings. In the London-based The Guardian, cartoonist Joe Sacco leveled a hard critique against the French magazine just days after the killings.

"We have learned the lines of good taste through history and our sense of guilt, be it post-colonial or post-Holocaust," says Le Temps' Patrick Chappatte. "We don’t draw black people with large lips anymore. And when we lash out at Israel’s policies, we get messages accusing us of being anti-Semites. Today, fear of bloodshed is forcing us into recognizing new taboos: those of Muslims. The big challenge our society faces is that we live in an increasingly open world with increasingly closed communities. This is also due to the evolution of the Internet, where people only read things that won’t challenge their beliefs."

With these ingredients, our cartoonist concludes, expect plenty more misunderstandings.