Civil Liberties

France Dishonors Charlie Hebdo By Policing Hate Speech

To grant the state the authority to police hatred is to open the door to the policing of thought, conscience, and morality.


Two months after the massacre at Charlie Hebdo, the French state has just taken a massive merde on the graves of those who were killed.

It has decided to honor their memory, or dishonor it, by instituting what promise to be the most stringent anti-hate speech laws in Europe. It has declared an "unmerciful battle"—the Justice Minister's actual words—on anything on the internet that insults religious groups or ethnic minorities.

In other words, its response to those gun-wielding Koran-thumpers who declared an unmerciful war on cartoonists for blaspheming against Muhammad is to extend that unmerciful war to cover other forms of offensive speech, too. "Je Suis Charlie," crowed every French politician eight weeks ago, but now we know the complete opposite is the case—the leaders of France are actually finishing the job started by the Charlie-killers, the job of crushing with force "hateful" speech.

The Justice Minister, Christiane Taubira, has announced that the government is gearing up for "unmerciful battle" against online hate speech, especially racism and anti-Semitism. She wants to ensure that France's severe hate-speech laws are applied as strenuously to online blather as they already are to offline stuff like newspaper commentary or speeches in public squares. "Crimes recognised in public spaces must also be recognised as such on the internet," she says.

Her big idea is to give the state new powers to unilaterally remove dodgy material from the web without even requiring the approval of a judge. As France 24 reports, she wants the authority to "shut down websites hosting content that is deemed illicit, without prior court approval." This is alarming. It would make the state the judge, jury, and executioner of public debate, the sole policeman of the parameters of acceptable thought. It would remove even that thin, unconvincing veneer of democracy that gets attached to hate-speech clampdowns in Europe—the bothersome task of having to go through a court case to prove that certain words were indeed racist or something-phobic and therefore should be punished—and would instead allow officialdom to strike from the public sphere, and shove down the memory hole, anything it "deemed illicit."

This unmerciful dispatching of hate-policers across the internet hasn't come out of the blue. In the two months since the Muhammad-mockers at Charlie Hebdo were gunned down at their desks, the French authorities have arrested loads of people for the crime of saying nasty things—the same "crime" the Charlie Hebdo folk were executed for.

In the seven days following the massacre, 54 people were arrested for hate speech or apologizing for terrorism. One man was arrested for saying to some cops, "There should be more Kouachis [the brothers who carried out the massacre]. I hope you'll be the next ones." The anti-Semitic comedian Dieudonne M'bala M'bala was arrested for a Facebook post in which he said he was less Charlie and more Coulibaly—the name of the guy who carried out the post-Charlie murder of Jews at a kosher deli. 

It isn't only apologists for terrorists who have felt the mouth-covering long arm of the law. At the end of January, a French court found three people guilty of anti-gay hate speech after they managed to get the hashtag #gaysmustdiebecause… trending on Twitter. A French gay-rights group, pre-empting Christiane Taubira's declaration of an unmerciful battle against online spite, cheered the conviction of the tweeters, saying it hoped this would "send out the message that the internet is not a place… where you can do whatever you want." Or say whatever you want. Express your feelings on the web in France, and you could be arrested.

This darkly ironic post-Charlie rounding-up of people who simply said wrong or bad things reflects how strictly speech is controlled in the alleged land of liberté, égalité, fraternité. The 1881 Law on the Freedom of the Press (more dark irony) forbids the incitement of discrimination or hatred against any racial, religious, or sexual group. Do that, and you could be locked up for a year or fined 45,000 Euros. The 1990 Gayssot Act makes it a crime to deny the Holocaust. The French penal code outlaws the defamation of any group on the basis of its race, religion, nationality, sex, or sexual orientation.

This vast battery of thought-policing laws doesn't only chastise the sort of stuff we can all agree is repulsive—like using the n-word to describe black people—it also polices and punishes moral convictions: people's deeply held, if not very mainstream, beliefs. So poor Brigitte Bardot has been arrested five times for expressing her serious animal-rights view that the Islamic method of slaughtering meat is "barbaric." The novelist Michel Houellebecq was hauled before the courts for describing Islam as "the most stupid religion," an entirely legitimate viewpoint. 

Those cases should remind us that one man's hate speech is another man's profoundly held belief. Some people believe that Islam is barbaric, or that the Holocaust is a hoax, as fervently as you might believe that cannabis should be decriminalized or Hillary Clinton is an asshole. And their punishment for thinking those things, however batty and fact-free they might be, is every bit as outrageous as if the police turned up at your door and dragged you to court for saying "Marijuana should be legal" or "Clinton's a bitch." The punishment of any belief, whether it's a decent liberal belief or a barmy prejudiced one, is equally wicked, equally authoritarian, and equally wrong.

To grant the state the authority to police hatred—which is nothing more than an emotion, words, a feeling—is to open the door to the policing of thought, conscience, and morality. So in France you can be arrested not only for writing about "niggers," but also for saying "Islam is shit." And in order to prevent the latter, the expression of a moral viewpoint, from being a crime, we must also demand that the former, the expression of blind prejudice, should not be a crime either.

And yet now, not content with policing the press and the utterances of novelists and actresses, the French state wants to spread hate-watchers across the web and shut down anything it considers foul and unacceptable. In the process, it isn't only denigrating the memory of those killed at Charlie Hebdo, who were self-consciously foul, and definitely unacceptable; it is also denting the very values upon which the French Republic was built. Terrifyingly, it is also sending to all the citizens of France the very clear message that "hate speech" is wicked and sinful and must be punished. You know who will fervently embrace that message? The kind of people who shot up Charlie Hebdo; super-sensitive and censorious Islamists who think anyone who takes the mick out of Muhammad or riles their religion is a "phobic" who should be reprimanded. Well done, France—you have just inflamed the very offense-killing sentiment that motored the Charlie Hebdo massacre; you have just given the green light to others who also want to launch an "unmerciful battle" against those who defame or diss their beliefs. Only their merciless war might not be as blood-free as yours.