Five years after Charlie Hebdo attacks, is France becoming less tolerant of blasphemy?

A sign reading "Reserved for Charlie Hebdo newspaper" in the courtroom prior to the opening of the trial, on Aug 27, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

PARIS (AFP) - Their nation born of revolt against Church and Crown, the French have long cherished provocation and irreverence as part of their revolutionary identity.

And with it the freedom to blaspheme.

But a deep-rooted tradition of unapologetically poking fun at men and gods alike may be in peril five years after the deadly Islamist attacks on satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, the national flag-bearer of outrageous commentary, observers say.

As many as two million people and 40 world leaders marched in Paris after the massacre in January 2015, in a fierce defence of freedom of expression eternalised by the rallying cry: "I am Charlie".

But as 17 suspects go on trial over the attacks next week, some seem to have lost their appetite for affront.

Only half of French respondents to a survey conducted by pollsters Ifop for Charlie Hebdo in February this year said they supported the "right to criticise, even outrageously, a religious belief, symbol or dogma".

Most opponents were under 25.

"In a world that calls itself secular, a France that describes itself as less and less religious, blasphemy has paradoxically become a major taboo," said Prof Anastasia Colosimo, a professor of political theology at the Sciences Po university in Paris.

"Anti-clericalism or atheism is increasingly seen as offensive. It is no longer fashionable."

This is a shift for the first country in Europe to decriminalise blasphemy - officially in 1881, but in practice already in the aftermath of the 1789 revolution.

"The refusal of the concept of blasphemy is imprinted in the very origins of the (French) republic," political historian Jean Garrigues told AFP.

"It is linked to the history of the Church, to the supremacy of the Catholic Church in French society and (its) association with the monarchy" overthrown by revolutionary republicans.

"It is something that truly goes to the heart of French identity."


But some have pointed to a creeping tendency to self-censor, driven partly by fear of violent retribution of the kind unleashed on Charlie Hebdo by brothers Cherif and Said Kouachi five years ago.

The attack, in the name of "avenging" the Muslim prophet Muhammad, claimed the lives of 12 people, including five cartoonists.

"With the attack of 2015, the reality of risking one's life resulted in even stronger self-censorship," said Prof Colosimo.

Charlie Hebdo, a fiercely secular and anti-racist publication, prides itself on being an equal-opportunity offender of bigots and religious leaders of all persuasions.

But it came in for particular criticism for some of its Muhammad drawings, and not only from Muslims.

For Mr Garrigues, a growing tendency to pull punches was driven largely by a desire on the political left to "not appear hostile" to minority groups.

According to Charlie Hebdo itself, the results of the February Ifop poll revealed "huge confusion between insult against a religion and its symbols - which is legal - and a call to hatred against believers - which is punishable by law".


Charlie Hebdo has continued to draw Muhammad and critique Islam.

But some say it has lost its zest, and one of the publication's most outspoken journalists, Mr Zineb El Rhazoui, quit in 2017 claiming it has gone soft on Islamist extremism.

Cartoonist and Charlie Hebdo editor Laurent "Riss" Sourisseau, who lost the use of his right arm but survived the 2015 attack by playing dead, told AFP in January there was a general tendency in France for political cartoons to be "extremely consensual".

"There is not much editorial risk-taking on the part of the newspapers and the drawings are becoming a bit insipid," he said.

Critics say freedom-of-expression protections have progressively been watered down.

In 1972, the so-called Pleven Law, in a bid to fight racism, created the offences of insult, defamation, and incitement to hatred, violence or discrimination.

Holocaust denial has been illegal in France since 1990.

"Since the Pleven Law, we have only toughened prohibitions, increased penalties and reduced... rights," said Colosimo.


In January this year, a renewed debate about freedom of expression erupted when a teenager received death threats for calling Islam "a shitty religion" in an expletive-laden Instagram rant.

France's then Justice Minister Nicole Belloubet, while decrying the threats against the girl, came in for widespread criticism for saying she had committed an "insult to religion".

President Emmanuel Macron came out in a strong defence of the teenager, Mila, and the right of all French people "to blaspheme, to criticise, to caricaturise religion".

"Freedom of expression does not exist to protect pleasant discussions," said Prof Colosimo.

"It is there to protect discussions which offend, which shock, which alarm."

And without a protected public platform for heated discussions, she warned, "we may encounter them in a different manner, in words that are even more violent, or in actions".

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