As the world mourns the categorically horrific terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris, conversations about "freedom of expression" are ubiquitous.
French President Hollande justifiably called the murderous attack an "attack on free speech," but this raises questions about the French government's own censorship of the media.
Unbeknownst to many Americans, "free speech" and "freedom of the press" do not mean the same in France as they do in the United States. And while these latest terrorist attacks are in no way related to the French government's media censorship, the sad irony is that France is far from a champion of the universal right to free speech.
A 2008 New York Times article exploring then-President Sarkozy's questionable oversight of the media noted that, "Press freedom has long been an uneasy subject in France, a country where many newspapers rely on government subsidies and where defense contractors control large swaths of the print and broadcast media."
As President from 2007-2012, Sarkozy kept such a tight grip on the media that he earned himself the moniker "Téléprésident."
In 2009, for instance, Sarkozy pushed through Parliament new laws that made France Télévisions exclusively dependent on the government. These laws (1) eliminated commercial advertising, resulting in exclusive reliance on state funding, and (2) granted the government (read: the President) the right to name the CEO of France Télévisions, rather than leaving the public stations under the purview of an independent body. Later on, in 2012, Sarko also tightened his grip on the Internet, criminalizing citizens "who habitually consult websites that advocate terrorism or that call for hatred and violence."
Current French President Francois Hollande has even been linked to media censorship. In September 2013, l'Agence France Presse (AFP) posted a gloriously unflattering photo of Hollande, which the editors immediately retracted, citing "an editorial decision."
Reporting on l'AFP decision, the International Business Times cited critics who "accused the agency of self-censorship, saying AFP may have wished to avoid losing Hollande's goodwill, particularly as it depends largely on the French state to stay in business. Analysts said they feared the photograph had been withdrawn on the orders of the president's office."
The French government does not only censor the press. The French government also censors citizens...
Five years ago, on June 4, 2010, French Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux was tried by a Paris tribunal correctionnel for "public injuries committed towards an individual because of his race, his religion or his origin, by speech, writing, image or means of communication to the public by electronic voice."
Hortefeux, previous Minister of Immigration and close friend to Nicolas Sarkozy, had been under fire since September 2009, when he was caught on video at a private meeting commenting, "We always need one [Muslim]. It's when there are lots of them that there are problems." After the video aired on French news site, Le Monde, Hortefeux was not only asked to resign as Minister of the Interior, he was forced to pay a €750 fine in addition to a €2000 conciliatory payment to French anti-racism group, MRAP: Mouvement Contre le Racisme et pour l'Amitié entre les Peuples (Movement Against Racism and for Friendship Among Peoples).
According to article R 625-4 of the French Penal Code, individuals who insult others based on their race or origin are subject to fines and trial in French court. In 2010, when reporting from Paris for political news site FrumForum, I interviewed a French official who claimed that, while freedom of speech exists in France, "the limits are different than in the U.S., as far as insults, defamatory comments, or propagation of hatred are concerned."
As stated in my previous article, these institutionalized restrictions do not apply solely to public figures. The same French official claimed that "any citizen can be exposed to this, except if the comments were confidential. In public, it becomes un délit (an offense)." Theoretically, article R 625-4 applies to everyone, regardless of whether or not they happen to be in the majority or minority race, religion, or ethnicity. However, the fact remains that if you're having a private conversation over lunch at a Paris café, and you're overheard making an offensive comment, you could be brought to court and charged for doing so.
In fact, according to the aforementioned official, in 2008 alone, there were "350 sentences for racial offenses, including for racial insults."
Given how rigidly the French government restricts and controls both speech and the media, the important role of Charlie Hebdo -- and other publications like it -- is even more poignant. In fact, Charlie Hebdo editors are known for defying the government's recommendations and publishing material deemed "controversial."
"Charlie Hebdo has always kept its insolence, and since the caricatures crisis, it has become a symbol of press independence," said Bruno Patino, director of the journalism school at the Institut d'Études Politiques de Paris, known as Sciences Po, in a recent New York Times article. "The debate about caricatures overlapped others in France about freedom of speech and religion. It became the most visible."