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France’s free speech dilemma

Terror attacks have frightened teachers and pushed a country to reevaluate its freedoms

France’s free speech dilemma

French Prime Minister Jean Castex, second from right, and Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer attend an homage to slain history teacher Samuel Paty in November at a school near Paris. (Thomas Coex, Pool via AP)

Marie Dautry’s 11-year-old son came home from school in November in Beaucourt, France, upset about a lesson. His teacher had shown the class a caricature of Jesus originally published in satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. Dautry’s son, a Christian, didn’t like it. 

The image was part of a lesson to honor teacher Samuel Paty, who was beheaded in October. Police killed his murderer, and in January French anti-terrorism police detained seven more suspected contacts of Paty’s killer. 

The beheading rattled a nation plagued by terror attacks. Since the founding of its public school system, French society has considered teachers the primary conduit to pass on the country’s values: liberty, equality, fraternity, freedom of speech, and freedom of religion. Now the country is grappling with how far those rights go.

The French Parliament is considering a controversial religion law that would curb foreign financing of religious institutions and impose stricter registration rules on the institutions. Inspired by Paty’s assassination, legislators also proposed amendments to protect teachers. One would outlaw the publishing of teachers’ personal information online. “Almost half of our teachers don’t teach certain subjects for fear of the consequences from students or their parents,” argued National Assembly deputy Annie Genevard, the amendment’s author. 

A study released in January and commissioned by the Jean Jaurès Foundation and Charlie Hebdo found that 42 percent of French teachers admitted to self-censorship during lessons about religion. That figure rose to 70 percent in socio-economically challenged schools of the suburbs surrounding Paris and other large cities. Also, 19 percent of teachers said they had students who refused to respect the ceremony honoring Paty and some who insisted Paty deserved to die. That percentage rose to 34 percent in the suburbs. 

Paty taught history in a Parisian suburb and with his class had been discussing the then-ongoing trial of the 2015 Charlie Hebdo attackers, who killed 12 and wounded 11 in a shooting rampage at the satirical magazine’s Paris offices. The magazine routinely mocks politicians and religious leaders and had published caricatures of Muhammad that Islamic separatists considered offensive.  

After giving students a chance to leave the room, Paty showed his class the cartoons that prompted the attack. The father of a student who had left the classroom posted an angry diatribe on Facebook that went viral after reposts by a local firebrand cleric. Days later, an 18-year-old Chechen refugee beheaded Paty. Police killed the man in a confrontation later.

Some teachers feared returning to classes. Weeks after Paty’s murder, a man threatened his child’s teacher over a lesson on freedom of speech. The teacher quit and changed jobs. In January a school in Nimes closed after a student’s father threatened a teacher and administrator with “a fate worse than that of Samuel Paty.” Police charged the man with assaulting school personnel with death threats. Courts recently sentenced him to probation.

After Paty’s murder, some politicians called for all teachers to show the controversial caricatures to their students as a sign of solidarity. But some disagree with Paty’s method. 

Nancy Lefèvre, jurist for the National Council of French Evangelicals (CNEF), says it conflicts with laicité, the French principle insisting on the state’s neutrality. She thinks teachers should show caricatures of several religions’ figures, not just one. “If the Ministry of Education wants to educate French pupils about freedom of expression, they can use caricature, but they should do it in a pluralist way,” Lefèvre said.

But Lefèvre distinguishes between the neutrality that’s required of teachers in public schools and the freedom of speech guaranteed to private citizens. The CNEF launched a campaign called Libre de le Dire (Freedom to Speak) to spell out citizens’ rights. French law makes a distinction between criticizing a religion and attacking its adherents because of their faith. In an atmosphere of political correctness, it’s important for Christians to know and exercise their rights, says Lefèvre, whether that’s criticizing another religion or commenting on current social trends, like same-sex marriage and transgenderism. 

The so-called “right to blasphemy” has exceptions: public defamation; publicly excusing terror attacks; and inciting others to racial, ethnic, or religious hatred, violence, and discrimination. Incitement to terrorism or public justification of terrorism, including online, is punishable by up to seven years in prison. 

But Lefèvre stresses the courts decide what violates law, not vigilantes. In 2007 Charlie Hebdo was already tried on charges of crossing the line with caricatures of Muhammad. Judges found the magazine acted within the law, which allows for artistic expression. 

Dautry, whose son was offended by the caricature of Jesus, admits that to some extent terrorism has worked: “If I were a teacher, I’m not sure I would talk freely, because I know very well there is a risk. So in that sense, I’m part of the population that’s ‘terrorized.’” 

“We’re on the front lines. The government expects much from us in passing on the values of the republic,” said Laurent Brabant, a history teacher in Chirens. “Those values are currently a subject of tension with a small part of the student population and with their parents, who are increasingly contesting certain values.” 

Brabant says it’s a challenge to make students understand that civil laws also apply online. Students react quickly and emotionally to posts, and it’s easy to disseminate misinformation with inflammatory results, as in Paty’s case. 

In his own classroom, Brabant emphasizes the need for thoughtful discussion. “What I teach my students is not to use their freedom of expression for blasphemy, but for respectful dialogue,” Brabant said. “We can disagree, we can express it. You can say things that may offend your listener, but that doesn’t prevent dialogue.”

Dautry guesses her son’s teacher used a caricature of Jesus in his class to avoid conflict with local Muslims, assuming there wouldn’t be such a threat from Christians. She plans to speak to the teacher privately. But she says her son’s school experience promoted good discussions at home about protecting offensive speech: “If Charlie Hebdo doesn’t have that right, that means we no longer have the right to free speech in our churches.”


Jenny Lind Schmitt

Jenny Lind Schmitt

Jenny is a correspondent for WORLD Radio and WORLD Magazine. She is a World Journalism Institute and Smith College graduate. She is the author of the novel Mountains of Manhattan and resides in Porrentruy, Switzerland, with her family. Follow her on Twitter @jlindschmitt.