By Karina Piser
On July 16, French politician Anne-Sophie Leclère received a nine-month prison term and 50,000 euro fine for publicly comparing Justice Minister Christiane Taubira, a black woman, to a chimpanzee last December. Leclère’s remark provoked outcry from across the political spectrum and resulted in her exclusion from her own party, the far-right Front National (FN). She promised to appeal the decision and attempted to soften accusations of racism by referring to her numerous “black friends.”
As France continues to grow into a heterogeneous nation, social issues regarding racism have become important. Politicians are pulled between two seemingly opposing forces: upholding the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen and creating social cohesion in an evolving society. Leclère’s punishment is symptomatic of a reactionary, biased judicial system that often impinges on civil liberties while striving to protect political correctness.
A decision last year to ban controversial comedian Dieudonné M’Bala M’Bala’s show, known for anti-Semitism, created a similar controversy regarding censorship of racism and profanity. He was convicted at the end of 2013 for inciting racial hate, notably for coining the term “shoananas,” a combination of the Hebrew word for Holocaust and the French word for pineapple, and for inventing a gesture called the “quenelle,” which many believe to be an inverted Nazi salute. Human Rights Watch labeled the decision a breach of freedom of expression, noting that, while Dieudonné’s remarks were undoubtedly offensive, deeming his show a “threat to public order” contradicts France’s alleged commitment to human rights and democratic values.
While Leclère and Dieudonné’s comments deservedly ignited a debate over racism and xenophobia in France, public figures should avoid legal intervention. These incidents, however troubling, must not translate to prison sentences. But as France grapples with its national identity amidst an increasingly multicultural population, its leaders use judicial measures to control and shape the public’s views on the nation’s changing face.
Along with these cases of profanity censorship, the Interior Ministry recently banned a pro-Palestinian demonstration after a violent protest the week before. As usual with the volatile Israeli-Palestinian conflict, reports on the incident presented conflicting evidence, with both sides accusing the other of being the aggressor. The Interior Ministry’s decision to ban a protest in a country with a constitutionally enshrined right to public manifestation—taken directly from the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen is more than problematic. It violates the country’s founding principles.
Dieudonné’s canceled show, Leclère’s sentence, and the banned protest all differ in scope and gravity, but shed light on the French struggle to adapt to a changing national landscape, characterized by large immigration flows, high youth unemployment, and an increasingly reactionary and popular right wing.
Against this backdrop, France—a country deeply tied to its perception of freedom and its duty to protect public liberties—finds itself only selectively defending free speech, letting ideology serve as a barometer for what can and cannot be said.
From a strategic perspective, France’s attempt to quell hate speech through censorship only fuels the fire. Canceling Dieudonné’s show strengthened his following, uniting otherwise disparate social groups around a rejection of the French establishment. And those who argued that Leclère’s sentence is disproportionate to her crime, however racist, may have a point.
Will Leclère’s exaggerated punishment deter other public actors from engaging in offensive speech? Possibly. But it could also galvanize this right wing fringe that is already gaining steam in France and across Europe.
On the other end of the ideological spectrum, banning the pro-Palestinian protest in Paris did little to quell public displays of discontent and only increased tension between police and the nation’s often politically and socially marginalized Arab and Muslim communities. Protests have continued since in defiance with the ban, resulting in reported police crackdowns. And riots in the suburb of Sarcelles, known as “Little Jerusalem” for its sizable Jewish community, turned violent as demonstrators targeted Jewish-own businesses and a synagogue on July 20. Against this backdrop, the ban increasingly seems to have deepened already vibrant hostilities, particularly as a pro-Israel protest on July 31 was not subject to a ban.
Unlike other Western European countries, France has taken pains to avoid implementing “race-conscious” policies in a sort of prolonged recovery from the Vichy regime’s complicity with Nazi Germany. And although a ban on Holocaust denial and other anti-racist laws have functioned relatively uncontested, this zero-tolerance approach to combating racism seems to be clashing with the country’s social reality.
France must strike a balance between maintaining public order, appeasing politically interested social groups, and upholding its stated commitment to free speech. Its legal crusade against racism, while grounded in a genuine commitment to combatting hate speech, risks obscuring judicial objectivity.
Karina Piser is a contributor to World Policy Journal. She holds a master’s degree in International Security from Sciences Po in Paris, France.