Hypocrisy in France

Last week there was a horrific shooting at the French satire magazine Charlie Hebdo. Since then, there has been international support for the victims and outrage at the violence, which many people see as a direct attack on free speech. The French president called the dead “heroes”, and the Parisian mayor said that they perform an essential function by talking about awkward subjects. Nearly every international government has come out in support of the satirists and their right to free speech. One of the largest marches in French history, nearly 1 million people gathered in Paris on Sunday to show their support for the victims and their continued belief in the value of free speech.

And yet just this week nearly fifty people have been arrested for speech the government deemed “defense of terrorism.”

Most publicly, the comedian Dieudonné was arrested on Wednesday night for posting a Facebook status that read “Tonight, as far as I’m concerned, I feel like Charlie Coulibaly.” Coulibaly was a gunman who killed five people in other shooting attacks. What’s notable is that Dieudonné is a man of color, while all of the Charlie Hebdo employees who were victims of the attack were white.

We don’t have hard evidence about why Dieudonné was arrested but Charlie Hebdo is being valorized, but protection of free speech requires more than simply nodding in agreement when someone says murder isn’t an appropriate response to speech. The harder questions of free speech are the ones that ask when the government has the right to step in, what kind of speech constitutes harm, or what speech is a threat to the public. These are the concerns that Dieudonné’s arrest should push us to address.


Olivia is a giant pile of nerd who tends to freak out about linguistic prescriptivism, gender roles, and discrimination against the mentally ill. By day she writes things for the Autism Society of Minnesota, and by night she writes things everywhere else. Check out her ongoing screeds against jerkbrains at

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  1. Olivia,

    Excellent post. We have to protect the rights of people to say whatever they want, regardless of how disgusting it maybe.

  2. I’m not sure what the legal protections for free speech are in France, but even in the U.S., which in general has stronger legal protections for free speech than most of Europe, the right to free speech isn’t absolute, and a lot could hinge on the context. Direct threats of or incitements to violence, for example, are not necessarily protected speech, though the standard is pretty high. (If I understand correctly, saying “Alex Doe deserves to die” is generally protected, but “I will kill Alex Doe” and “Go kill Alex Doe” are not. But, context matters, and as humor not intended to be taken literally these statements may still be protected.) For the most part, my moral compass on the limits of free speech aligns pretty closely with the legal theory in the U.S. (though I think the legal practice is not always so commendable). In general we should be permissive even of speech we find abhorrent, but there are reasonable limits when speech infringes on others’ right to safety (among other things).

    I think a lot hinges on the context of Dieudonné’s statement and whether it is reasonable to interpret it as an actual threat to commit a violent act like Coulibaly’s. My bias not knowing anything about the specifics is to guess that given that Dieudonné is a comedian, this is probably a overreaction by the French authorities and an infringement of his rights. “Defense of terrorism” sounds exactly like the sort of vague label that would get applied to anyone expressing any form of sympathy or agreement with the terrorists who attacked Charlie Hebdo or their motivations, which (while I might find it repellent) ought to be protected speech (speaking now from my moral opinion, not French law of which I am ignorant). But if there’s more to the story than that then it could be a reasonable response to an actionable threat of violence.

    1. I think most anything announced on Twitter would count as free speech. If he were a mob boss hidden in a basement telling one of his soldiers to “kill that guy” it would be a different matter, but there was no imminent lawless action connected to his speech.

  3. Dieudonné is a racist, anti-semitic asshole, who deserves nothing but contempt and scorn. Seems he is vastly popular with neo-nazis and islamist thugs. Whether he is worthy of arrest is another matter.

    Fred Phelps and David Duke never faced arrest for their toxic spewings either. France and Germany do have speech laws, many around Shoa-denial, neo-nazism, and soliciting hatred/violence. Our laws are better, in theory.

    And the victims at Hebdo included at least two ‘of color’ folks. The knee-jerk claims of ‘racism’ show a bubble mentality that makes Fox News watchers seem informed and enlightened.

    1. There were some mildly racist stereotypes that were portrayed in some of Hebdo’s cartoons. But yeah, even the worst of the Hebdo cartoons weren’t as bad as some of the cartoons that were published ‘in solidarity’ with them.

      Whether Hebdo cartoonists were better people than Dieudonné isn’t the question. They almost surely were, but people aren’t (or shouldn’t be) punished for thought crimes. Both Hebdo and Dieudonné offended with their work/art, but only one was arrested for it. It’s a huge stretch to say that Dieudonné’s facebook post was an incitement to violence.

      (Of course, only Hebdo was killed for their work — and obviously killing people for drawing cartoons is a terrible thing to do.)

      1. I just can’t have sympathy for what I am now referring to as NoCs (Nazis of Color) who claim their speech is being oppressed because racism. And believe me, until we’re willing to look at who our self-styled ‘allies’ are, well, the standard you walk by is the standard you accept.

        I mean, seriously? Look at the Salaita case. I didn’t know a single Indian who was in support of Salaita. Obviously, there may have been one or two, but most of us were decidedly against him. (Still stinging from the fact that we knew Ward Churchill was a wannabe for decades, but it took “little Eichmanns” to get him fired.) Most tellingly, he defined ‘indigenous’ as having been in a location ‘for a very long time’. Which means that eventually white people will be indigenous to North America. And that I cannot accept.

  4. Olivia > Hypocrisy in France

    Based on what you wrote, I assume you don’t know the whole story about Dieudonné, dating back to how he driffted since he split with former stage partner Elie Sémoun in 1997.

    Anyway, I’d be curious to know if there is a single democracy where people are totally free to say whatever they want, even if it’s hate speech and its conscequences.

    Besides, nazism is still fresh in people’s memories, and France has to deal with the presence of millions of Muslims originating from former colonies and half a million Jews. Add mass unemployment among Muslims and far-right agitators like Le Pen to the mix , and you can understand it’s anything but an easy situation to deal with.

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