In France You Go to Jail for Saying 'They Were Right to Do That'

A law against condoning terrorism prescribes prison for rash remarks.



The New York Times reports that French authorities are investigating "up to 100 people" (including the comedian Dieudonné M'bala M'bala, who was arrested on Wednesday) for "making or posting comments that support or try to justify terrorism." Yes, that is a crime in France, where "publicly condoning" terrorism can get you five years in prison and a €75,000 fine. If you do it online, the maximum penalty rises to seven years in prison and a €100,000 fine. Pro-terrorism speech was criminalized in November, but the law was not enforced until after last week's attacks on Charlie Hebdo and a kosher market in Paris.

Condoning terrorism is distinct from inciting terrorism, which involves directly encouraging people to commit acts of violence. All that is necessary to be guilty of this new crime is to speak approvingly of terrorism. Dieudonné, for example, wrote this on Facebook after last week's attacks: "Tonight, as far as I'm concerned, I feel like Charlie Coulibaly." He is scheduled to be tried next month, and presumably the only question will be whether he meant to condone terrorism when he combined the name of the newspaper that was attacked with the name of the man who murdered four people at the market.

In other cases there is less ambiguity. The Times says "a 28-year-old man of French-Tunisian background" got six months in jail for shouting this as he passed a police station in Bourgoin-Jalieu: "They killed Charlie, and I had a good laugh. In the past they killed Bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, Mohammed Merah, and many brothers. If I didn't have a father or mother, I would train in Syria." The Times also notes that "a 34-year-old man who on Saturday hit a car while drunk, injured the other driver and subsequently praised the acts of the gunmen when the police detained him was sentenced Monday to four years in prison." According to Le Monde, the drunk driver allegedly said, "There should be more of Kouachi [the Charlie Hebdo gunman]. I hope you will be the next….You 're a godsend for terrorists."

It's not clear how much of that four-year sentence was for the drunken remarks, as opposed to the drunken driving. Le Monde reports that "the glorification of terrorism was…an aggravating circumstance: he refused to submit to a breathalyzer test, was re-offending and the accident caused unintentional injuries." The paper, which counted 69 criminal investigations involving approval of terrorism as of Wednesday, also cites a case in which a man got a one-year sentence for shouting, "I am proud to be a Muslim. I do not like Charlie. They were right to do that." A 21-year-old man got 10 months for saying at a train station, "The Kouachi brothers is just the beginning. I should be with them to kill more people."

The fact that people have already been sentenced for speech crimes committed last week shows how determined French officials are to squelch expressions of support for terrorism by ramming these cases through. The Times notes that "the criminal justice system [has been] greatly accelerated, moving from accusations to trial and imprisonment in as little as three days." On Wednesday the Ministry of Justice urged prosecutors to target "words or acts of hatred" with "utmost vigor."

Prosecutions like these would never pass constitutional muster in the United States. In the 1969 case Brandenburg v. Ohio, which involved a Ku Klux Klan leader who advocated terrorism, the Supreme Court said such speech can be be punished only when it is directed at inciting "imminent lawless action" and is likely to do so. "They were right to do that" and "I feel like Charlie Coulibaly" clearly do not meet that test.

The ban on condoning terrorism is just one of many restrictions on speech in France that would be barred by the First Amendment if attempted in the United States. It is also a crime in France, for example, to insult or defame people based on their race, religion, ethnicity, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, or disability; to incite hatred, discrimination, or violence based on those criteria; to deny the Holocaust or defend war crimes; and to insult the head of state. As Le Monde explains, "freedom of expression is an absolute principle in France," but "it can be regulated." A lot. So when the French government says, as it did after the Charlie Hebdo massacre, that "artistic freedom and freedom of expression stand firm and unflinching at the heart of our common European values," that should not be interpreted to mean that people cannot be sent to prison for saying offensive things.

The many exceptions to freedom of speech in France lend weight to complaints that the government is quick to arrest Muslims for seeming to condone terrorism (or for making anti-Semitic jokes) but gives a pass to material, such as Charlie Hebdo's Muhammad cartoons, that offends Muslims. Alexander Stille tries to explain this apparent double standard in a recent New Yorker essay. "You can ridicule the prophet," he writes, "but you cannot incite hatred toward his followers." That is why a legal challenge to the Muhammad cartoons failed, Stille says, but Brigitte Bardot was convicted for saying, with reference to French Muslims, "We are tired of being led around by the nose by this population that is destroying our country." Stille suggests that the distinction between attacking ideas and attacking people also explains why the novelist Michel Houellebecq was not punished for calling Islam "the stupidest religion."

This explanation is not very convincing, since it is a crime in France not only to incite hatred but merely to insult individuals or groups based on their religion, and what counts as an insult is highly subjective. Judges disagreed, for example, about whether the Jyllands-Posten cartoon showing Muhammad wearing a turban shaped like a bomb should be considered an attack on Muslims in general or merely on Muslim extremists. The more you delve into the reasoning of these decisions, the clearer the fuzziness becomes.

"These kinds of exceptions, selective restrictions, and ambiguities in France's freedom-of-expression laws have left the country vulnerable to charges of political favoritism," Stille writes. "France might consider either a broader conception of free speech—the notion that the answer to bad speech is more speech—or doing a better job of clarifying what is allowed, and why." The latter option seems hopeless, because distinguishing between tolerable and intolerable offensiveness is inherently subjective. In addition to violating freedom of speech, these restrictions undermine the rule of law because it is so hard to predict which words will make you a criminal.

NEXT: Watch: Anthony L. Fisher on "Red Eye" Discussing Pope Francis, Oscar Snubs, and Government Assaults on Free-Range Parents

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  1. It would appear that France is fervent to do everything except what might be a morally appropriate action which would actually reduce the incidence of terror in the country: that is, to limit immigration from majority-Muslim countries to only those people who have provided a compelling reason to believe that they will be a good fit for existing French society.

    Surely violating the rights of French citizens (Muslim or otherwise) will do nothing but rightly inflame anger and persecution complexes amongst the citizenry.

    1. Okay, so now we are violating rights if a government, facing a horrifying, dire threat to public safety, takes drastic, symbolic measures aimed at suppressing speech that appears to be tied to a wave of anti-semitic attacks and terrorism. Oddly, in New York they criminalize speech for far less: see the documentation of America’s leading criminal satire case at:


      Listen to the NYC prosecutor’s documented words in that case: the accused parodist “knows how to twist language, stir up controversy. As a result, what he can do is devious and disturbing. There is no way to sugarcoat this, the defendant is a menace.” This American assault on free speech and free debate, in which an inappropriately deadpan email parody was prosecuted as an act of “identity theft,” has taken place, it would appear, virtually without comment in any of the major venues where one might expect it to be discussed. At least in France they are confronting an emergency. It’s hard to see what justifies a trial in New York in which speech with academic value is criminalized for the sole purpose of protecting the dignity and reputation of a well-connected department chairman at NYU.

    2. Sheer nonsense.

      All the three perpetrators of the last terrorists attacks were not immigrants but French citizens born and raised in France.
      Mohammed Merah who killed six peaople three years ago in Toulouse was also born and raised in France, Medi nemmouche who killed three people in the jewish museum in Brussels was also born and raised in France.

  2. The only speech that shouldn’t be protected is speech that is used to violate someone else’s rights. For instance,…

    Fraud shouldn’t be protected.

    Threatening to shoot someone if they don’t empty the cash register shouldn’t be protected.

    I’m starting to wonder if all true free speech advocates are somehow latent libertarians–because we seem to be the only ones who can see the line between free speech and crime clearly.

    1. Nonetheless, Standard and Poors , for a while, successfully advocated free speech to avoid fraud charges in subprime related trials.

  3. Surprisingly, most of the comments on the NYT story are derp-free. Then there’s this twat:
    At the Swiss National Exposition of 1964, in one of the pavilions there was a banner line stating (in French, if I remember the wording exactly) “Ta liberte a a ses limites la liberte des autres”. Translated into English this means: Your freedom has as its limits the freedom of others.” This is fundamental to the survival of democratic society, extremist views about the viability of unbridled freedom notwithstanding. Cartoons that lampoon religion, politics, the corporate elite or whatever do not limit anyone’s freedom and do not threaten survival. Hate speech and public endorsement of mass murder does. That is where the French are drawing the line and they have every reason to do so. Good for them.

    1. gotta love how people glom onto rules that others have to live under, rules they themselves would bitch about. Suggest putting limits on what one might say about tea partiers, conservatives, libertarians, military members, and the rest of progtards’ parade of horribles and the reaction would not be submission.

    2. Yeah, well if French laws prohibiting women from wearing burqas in public didn’t make the terrorists back down, I’m sure the prohibitions on hate speech will.

      Al Qaeda and ISIS may be crazy, but I doubt they’re crazy enough to defy the hate speech laws of the French government!

      1. Were I one of those women, I’d think about going out in a Guy Fawkes mask. It performs the same function (& I suspect a Muslim cleric would approve), while making fun of the rule!

      2. Burka or any Muslim attire as such is not specifically prohibited in France.

        In France it is simply prohibited to hide one’s face in the street except for safety reasons (helmets) or during traditionnal festivals ie carnival.

  4. OT: Derp and the whole world derps with you


    Yet the Heritage Foundation, one of the backbones of the conservative movement in Washington, DC, invited Paul to speak at length on the Constitution and the role of the judiciary earlier this week. If the audience was upset that voters sometimes elect leaders who disagree with the Heritage Foundation, they were no doubt enraptured by Paul’s vision for the courts. Senator Paul’s speech was a repudiation of democracy, and he called for the Supreme Court to assume a dominant role in setting American policy that it abandoned three generations ago. Under Paul’s vision, the minimum wage is forbidden and union busting is constitutionally protected. The New Deal is an illegitimate expansion of federal power, and more recent efforts to ensure that no one dies because they cannot afford health care are an abomination.

    “I’m a judicial activist,” Paul proudly proclaimed.

    1. I’m sure these Think Progress writers are still livid about Roe v. Wade.

      1. I’m just stumped by the absolute team blindness such a piece shows. It’s a masterpiece of “It’s okay when we do it” lunacy.

        1. Par for the course for ThinkProgress and its readership.

      2. “I’m sure these Think Progress writers are still livid about Roe v. Wade.”

        Don’t forget Miranda v. Arizona, Shapiro v. Thompson (equal right to welfare benefits for recent migrants to a state), Goldberg v. Kelly (welfare recipients suspected of being unqualified for welfare nevertheless get to keep collecting welfare until their case is resolved by a final decision), Romer v. Evans (once gays get “civil rights” protections, including the right to tell private companies what to do, this “protection” cannot be withdrawn by something so vulgar as a referendum).

    2. Of course. Judicial activism is good when used for good policies, bad when it’s used for bad policies. So sayeth the partisan.

    3. Unions are constitutional right?

    4. I think I’m in love with Sen. Paul. And I’m not even gay.

  5. ‘The paper, which counted 69 criminal investigations involving approval of terrorism as of Wednesday, also cites a case in which a man got a one-year sentence for shouting, “I am proud to be a Muslim. I do not like Charlie. They were right to do that.” A 21-year-old man got 10 months for saying at a train station, “The Kouachi brothers is just the beginning. I should be with them to kill more people.”‘

    Clearly when these two guys get out of jail in a few years they’ll be far less radical. Nothing stops radicalism like throwing fundamentalist Muslims into a general prison population for a couple of years, ruining their life prospects due to a conviction, and then releasing them with no hope for the future.

  6. I believe in freedom of speech but I find oblique Marilyn Manson references to be jejune.

    I believe in freedom of speech but I could really use a sandwich.

    I believe in freedom of speech but why does the radio keep playing the same dang twenty songs???

    I believe in freedom of speech but it’s 5 O’clock somewhere.

    I believe in freedom of speech but the root of suffering is desire.

  7. If you want to know where this sort of thinking leads, you have only to look at how Muslim countries themselves treat speech that offends Islam.

    It’s sort of ironic, though, that a man who desires a state where drawing a picture of Mohammed would be punishable by death is complaining that his free speech rights have been violated. No?

    1. *MY* rights get violated. *YOUR* rights are constructs.

      1. Only Muslims have rights, because only muslims are actually people.

    2. A Frenchman, burning Charlie Hebdo while wrapping himself in the American Constitution.

      Boy, this is a confusing scenario.

    3. Historically, many victims of censorship would have been happy to censor others.

      Eg, the Commies who were repressed by America’s cold-war Smith Act and other measures, the Klanspersons affected by Brandenburg v. Ohio, the Illinois Nazis who wanted to demonstrate in Skokie, etc.

      1. The heroic 7 bishops who signed a petition against King James’ religious-freedom decree…

  8. ‘Stille suggests that the distinction between attacking ideas and attacking people also explains why the novelist Michel Houellebecq was not punished for calling Islam “the stupidest religion.”‘

    This is so fucking stupid it makes my head hurt.

    If you call Islam the stupidest religion, that’s okay. If you say that people are stupid for believing in this stupid religion, you’ll get penalized for hate speech.

    Even though saying ‘Islam is the stupidest religion’ and ‘people who believe in Islam are stupid’ mean the same thing.

  9. Huh, so in France, Obama supporters could be thrown in the clink. Who knew?

    1. Not to mention the Pope. I’d pay to see that.

  10. Book written by stereotypically-sexy French Male apparently says ‘un-constructive’ things about Islam

    “Houellebecq’s latest novel…is called Soumission, or Submission in English. Even before its publication last week, it was generating publicity. It’s set in France in 2022, when a fictional Islamist party wins the presidential elections.”

    Apparently PKD-style alternate reality stories are not popular with politicians

    “French leaders are echoing that message of inclusiveness. “France is not Houellebecq,” Prime Minister Manuel Valls said last week, “it’s not intolerance, hatred and fear.””

    Uh, yes you are. When you arrest people for speech, that’s fear.

    1. Also, i know this is wrong on a number of levels… but it has to be done =

      Prime Minister Manuel Valls insists = “France ain’t no Houellebecq Girl

  11. So. . . the people who shot up Charlie’s office were merely imitating the State, but on a greatly expedite schedule.

    They didn’t wait for the arrests and 3-day kangaroo courts – they went straight to sentencing.

    I guess the sham of 3-day kangaroo courts makes punishing people for what they say a completely moral act. . .

    Which makes me wonder – did France elect the government using seniority rules? The guy who spent the most years riding the short bus is the winner?

  12. Reason supports holocaust denial so why shouldn’t they cluck approval at eliminationists antisemites? Hell! They are six million Jews or so in Israel. If they’re killed by your Muslim terrorists heroes, you’ll again feature people that deny these six million Jews died just as you did before in that issue you’re trying to pretend never existed.holocaust denial”Reason Magazine and holocaust denial

  13. my buddy’s half-sister makes $66 an hour on the computer . She has been without a job for five months but last month her payment was $19090 just working on the computer for a few hours. browse around this site……….
    ????? http://www.cashbuzz80.com

  14. This mass suicide shut “Charb” up the only way it could be done but made “CH” a martyr and made speech and satire unsafe for many.
    I never planned to visit France anyway. I do not care what happens in the French regime as long as …. Well, I have never cared in the past and this only ensures it is impossible to care about now.

  15. Magnificent! Not only in its argument, but also in its language; “the clearer the fuzziness becomes” is downright Pogoian.

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