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There's a Model for How France Should Treat Its Muslims. It's How France Treats Its Jews.

Jeff J. Mitchell/Getty Images

In the aftermath of the gruesome murder of the twelve journalists at Charlie Hebdo’s Paris headquarters last week, an uncomfortable irony has emerged: At the same time that 40 world leaders and more than 1.6 million people descended on the French capital to affirm emphatically and triumphantly the satirical magazine’s freedom of expression, 54 people have been arrested for the crime of “apology for terrorism.” In other words, the martyring of journalists for exercising free speech has been followed with the suppression of precisely that right. 

Despicable though their hateful and bigoted comments are, the 54 arrested have ultimately been detained for practicing a similar type of speech to that which the millions who purchased the latest issue of Charlie Hebdo seek to venerate. In France, speech is less protected than in the United States: The French Pleven Act of 1972, for instance, prohibits incitements to hatred, discrimination, and racial insults, and the Gayssot Law of 1990—passed largely in response to Robert Faurisson’s notorious Holocaust denial—does the same for any speech blatantly anti-Semitic, racist, or xenophobic. The aftermath of Charlie Hebdo, then, has exposed what many consider a double standard: as it turns out, French law, unlike Charlie Hebdo, is not an equal-opportunity offender, and it selectively protects the dignity of certain communities and minority groups more than others. 

Unfortunately, the quiet disparity in protected types of speech corresponds to the larger structural disparity France’s Muslims have historically faced before French law and continue to face in French society today. There is, after all, a long and tragic history of legal principles enshrined in the métropole that never applied to French colonial territories. As Arthur Asseraf has pointed out, France’s 1881 law on the freedom of the press, still enforced today, applied to all French citizens but not to subjects, i.e., the millions who resided under colonial rule in Southeast Asia, the Maghreb, West Africa, and the Caribbean. Under another piece of legislation also passed in 1881, these so-called indigénat populations were prohibited altogether from publishing newspapers and even from speaking in public.   

In short, the French Republic, otherwise a bastion of the abstract freedoms of expression and speech, deliberately excluded Muslim—and other indigénat—voices from public discourse: Silence went hand in hand with a colonial subjectivity that persisted even into the métropole. In the aftermath of last week’s attack, a bitter reality is that these same historically marginalized voices are being made to declare their allegiance to a Republic that—through applications of laïcité—has long effaced their capacities for individual autonomy and has now sacralized the public humiliation of their religion. Nous sommes tous Charlie, after all.

By contrast, perhaps out of shame for the long and terrible history of anti-Semitism in France and atonement for the disgraceful, eager complicity of the Vichy government in deporting some 76,000 Jews to Nazi concentration camps during the Holocaust, the French state—today, at least—defends (where possible) its Jewish community with a solicitude that can only be described as parental. Holocaust denial is punishable by law, and so are certain types of anti-Semitic speech, as evinced in the affair of the anti-Semitic “comedian” Dieudonné M’bala M’bala last year, when he devised the “quenelle” gesture, a play on the Nazi salute, which ultimately led the government to ban some of his shows and to attempt an unsuccessful online suppression of his sketches.    

As has been widely reported, there has been a harrowing increase in anti-Semitic attacks in the past year, and thousands of French Jews have indeed left France for Israel and elsewhere in recent years—more than 6,000 in 2014 alone. A heightened vulnerability has fallen on this community. To its credit, however, the French state—as it should—takes this new reality very seriously. As French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius and Minister of the Interior Bernard Cazeneuve put it in an op-ed for The New York Times this past July: “The French government has demonstrated its absolute determination to fight anti-Semitism by every conceivable means.” 

The state shows little similar determination, however, for its Muslim community, confined to urban fringes as if it does not exist. As the sociologist Didier Fassin observed in Le Monde, Prime Minister Manuel Valls has stated that without the Jews of France, France is no longer France. France’s Muslims, he wrote, “dream of the day when the head of the French government dares to pronounce these words: ‘Without the Muslims of France, France would no longer be France.’” That day doesn’t seem likely to come anytime soon: Valls has also said that he refuses even to use term “Islamophobia,” given that, in his view, it is too often used to silence critics of Islamism.

In the meantime, the disparity between acceptable types of speech runs the risk of a dangerous exploitation. As it happened, one of the 54 arrested was Dieudonné himself, ever insolent and ever shameless, detained this time for expressing his sympathy with one of the terrorists. “Je suis Charlie Coulibaly,” he wrote on his Facebook page, playing on the surname of the man who killed four French Jews at a kosher supermarket just outside Paris last Friday. If Dieudonné stands trial, as prosecutors have said he will, the comedian, a master of theater, will undoubtedly use the spotlight for his own ends. As he has done on countless occasions, he is sure to style himself a victim of “Jewish power.” Dangerously, if he is penalized, Dieudonné may be able to vindicate his anti-Semitic pathology in the malleable minds of his un-reflective followers. That should not be tolerated.

France is home both to Europe’s largest Jewish and Muslim populations, and these are precisely the times when unfounded mythologies about particular groups must be condemned and rejected as the vindictive, divisive sophistries they are. As reprehensible as it may be, policing certain types of offensive speech—while heralding others—helps no one. In fact, it only exacerbates tensions between communities in the very moment when French society as a whole would be better served with a united front against terrorism and radical extremism. If not everyone is Charlie, everyone, surely, is France.