Terror in Europe

Charlie Hebdo, Jews And Muslims: A Double Standard For Freedom Of Speech?

In France, the sacrosanct freedom of speech is cited over the offensive images of Islam's prophet Muhammad. But the same standards have not always applied to anti-Semitism.

Jan. 11 protest in Paris
Julie Conti

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 expand=1] 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.

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European Debt? The First Question For Merkel's Successor

Across southern Europe, all eyes are on the German elections, as they hope a change of government might bring about reforms to the EU Stability Pact.

Angela Merkel at a campaign event of CDU party, Stralsund, Sep 2021

Tobias Kaiser, Virginia Kirst, Martina Meister


BERLIN — Finance Minister Olaf Scholz (SPD) is the front-runner, according to recent polls, to become Germany's next chancellor. Little wonder then that he's attracting attention not just within the country, but from neighbors across Europe who are watching and listening to his every word.

That was certainly the case this past weekend in Brdo, Slovenia, where the minister met with his European counterparts. And of particular interest for those in attendance is where Scholz stands on the issue of debt-rule reform for the eurozone, a subject that is expected to be hotly debated among EU members in the coming months.

France, which holds its own elections early next year, has already made its position clear. "When it comes to the Stability and Growth Pact, we need new rules," said Bruno Le Maire, France's minister of the economy and finance, at the meeting in Slovenia. "We need simpler rules that take the economic reality into account. That is what France will be arguing for in the coming weeks."

The economic reality for eurozone countries is an average national debt of 100% of GDP. Only Luxemburg is currently meeting the two central requirements of the Maastricht Treaty: That national debt must be less than 60% of GDP and the deficit should be no more than 3%. For the moment, these rules have been set aside due to the coronavirus crisis, but next year national leaders must decide how to go forward and whether the rules should be reinstated in 2023.

Europe's north-south divide lives on

The debate looks set to be intense. Fiscally conservative countries, above all Austria and the Netherlands, are against relaxing the rules as they recently made very clear in a joint position paper on the subject. In contrast, southern European countries that are dealing with high levels of national debt believe that now is the moment to relax the rules.

Those governments are calling for countries to be given more freedom over their levels of national debt so that the economy, which is recovering remarkably quickly thanks to coronavirus spending and the European Central Bank's relaxation of its fiscal policy, can continue to grow.

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive.

The rules must be "adapted to fit the new reality," said Spanish Finance Minister Nadia Calviño in Brdo. She says the eurozone needs "new rules that work." Her Belgian counterpart agreed. The national debts in both countries currently stand at over 100% of GDP. The same is true of France, Italy, Portugal, Greece and Cyprus.

Officials there will be keeping a close eye on the German elections — and the subsequent coalition negotiations. Along with France, Germany still sets the tone in the EU, and Berlin's stance on the brewing conflict will depend largely on what the coalition government looks like.

A key question is which party Germany's next finance minister comes from. In their election campaign, the Greens have called for the debt rules to be revised so that in the future they support rather than hinder public investment. The FDP, however, wants to reinstate the Maastricht Treaty rules exactly as they were and ensure they are more strictly enforced than before.

This demand is unlikely to gain traction at the EU level because too many countries would still be breaking the rules for years to come. There is already a consensus that they should be reformed; what is still at stake is how far these reforms should go.

Mario Draghi on stage in Bologna

Prime Minister Mario Draghi at an event in Bologna, Italy — Photo: Brancolini/ROPI/ZUMA

Time for Draghi to step up?

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive. That having been said, starting in January, France will take over the presidency of the EU Council for a period that will coincide with its presidential election campaign. And it's likely that Macron's main rival, right-wing populist Marine Le Pen, will put the reforms front and center, especially since she has long argued against Germany and in favor of more freedom.

Rome is putting its faith in the negotiating skills of Prime Minister Mario Draghi, a former head of the European Central Bank. Draghi is a respected EU finance expert at the debating table and can be of great service to Italy precisely at a moment when Merkel's departure may see Germany represented by a politician with less experience at these kinds of drawn-out summits, where discussions go on long into the night.

The Stability and Growth pact may survive unscathed.

Regardless of how heated the debates turn out to be, the Stability and Growth Pact may well survive the conflict unscathed, as its symbolic value may make revising the agreement itself practically impossible. Instead, the aim will be to rewrite the rules that govern how the Pact should be interpreted: regulations, in other words, about how the deficit and national debt should be calculated.

One possible change would be to allow future borrowing for environmental investments to be discounted. France is not alone in calling for that. European Commissioner for Economy Paolo Gentiloni has also added his voice.

The European Commission is assuming that the debate may drag on for some time. The rules — set aside during the pandemic — are supposed to come into force again at the start of 2023.

The Commission is already preparing for the possibility that they could be reactivated without any reforms. They are investigating how the flexibility that has already been built into the debt laws could be used to ensure that a large swathe of eurozone countries don't automatically find themselves contravening them, representatives explained.

The Commission will present its recommendations for reforms, which will serve as a basis for the countries' negotiations, in December. By that point, the results of the German elections will be known, as well as possibly the coalition negotiations. And we might have a clearer idea of how intense the fight over Europe's debt rules could become — and whether the hopes of the southern countries could become reality.

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