Show Notes for Episode 51: Secularism and Free Speech in France

Category: French Culture

Brief Recap of Events

What you just heard is not the normal opening music but rather the French Parliament singing La Marseillaise a few days ago. Singing La Marseillaise in this circumstance is really unusual, it hadn’t happened since WWI. I’m releasing this episode on January 17th 2015 in the wake of the attacks on the Charlie Hebdo weekly satirical paper that took place on January 7th.  Because you may be listening to this episode a long time from now, let me recap briefly. 17 innocent people died in the attacks of that day, and the attacks took place in three places:

  • Charlie Hebdo headquarters (12 killed)
  • A Kosher Grocery Store in Paris (4 killed)
  • A female police officer was shot and killed on the street (1 killed)

There were also hostages taken a little north-east of Paris while the brothers were trying to flee, but none of them died
As far as we know so far, there were 3 perpetrators, two brothers who worked together and one gunman who worked alone, but they knew each other and had coordinated their attacks. The lone gunman’s girlfriend was involved in the planning, but she did not participate in the attacks, she’s in Turkey or Syria right now. All of them claimed responsibility (they even called a TV station while the events were taking place), one of them had Al-Quaeda training in Syria, the other said he was doing this to help ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) which French news organizations call by its Arabic acronym (Daech) because it annoys them. So these are the facts we know.

These Attacks Will NOT Silence the People

If the idea was to silence Charlie Hebdo, it’s not going to work: the weekly used to print 40,000 copies only in French, this week they printed 3.5 million copies in 18 languages. Today an acquaintance of mine sent me a Tweet message saying she couldn’t get her hands on a copy of the magazine in all the places she knows. Now you need to know that this woman is totally blind. So even if the blind want a copy of the cartoon magazine, you know bombing them didn’t work!

10,000 members of military forces have been assigned to the protection of Jewish and Muslim religious sites and businesses. There are wanna be Jihadists trying to attack Jews and also retaliation attempts on Muslims all over the country. Too many to recount here, none lethal thankfully.  Now there are going to be 10,000 more police watching over these yahoos.

Demonstrations over the week-end were so big they surprised everyone a little bit (1.5 million people in the streets in Paris alone, even small French towns had significant gatherings), and when 40 or so world leaders came to Paris to march in solidarity, that was also unprecedented. (I said 60 on Facebook, but that was based on an over-estimation while the demonstration was going on.)

What was Charlie Hebdo? What was their Schtick?

Charlie was—and will continue to be—a weekly that seeks to be disturbing and rub people the wrong way, and occasionally make you laugh, but laughter was not usually the point. I find some of what they did tasteless, but they never killed anyone, and they dished it out quite evenly over the whole spectrum of political and religious views. They probably drew more nasty cartoons of right-wing French leader Le Pen than they ever did Mohamed. They probably made fun of motherhood, apple pie, and sweet kittens too. They found a way to draw breasts and male genitals dozens of times in every issue. No doubt, their Schick was not everybody’s cup of tea. But that’s freedom of speech, right? Unsettling.

So why did French people react so strongly in the defense of Charlie Hebdo? When Theo Van Gogh was killed you didn’t see that big of a blow-back. There was a blow-back, but not like that.This is where I get into the meat of today’s topic. French people were outraged because we believe strongly two values: free speech and secularism.

The Role of Secularism in the French Revolution

The French Revolution was fought against both the King and the Clergy. During the French Revolution Cathedrals were sacked and used as stables, churches were closed, nativity scenes had to be miniaturized and brought inside the home because it was not cool to do it outside any more, clergy was persecuted and killed right along with noblemen. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen which was directly influenced by the ideas of Thomas Jefferson and General Lafayette, was passed in 1793. This declaration sets as alienable rights “liberty, property, security and resistance to oppression”, this is to say resistance to feudalism, the king, and the priest. It is still to the day the first Article of the French Constitution. Revolutionaries guillotined Louis XVI and they also actively sought to tamp down the power of the Catholic Church, which was considerable for centuries in France.

Can There Be Free Speech Without the First Amendment?

We don’t have a First Amendment in the French Constitution, we don’t have a spelled out right to free speech, but we have all the rights spelled out in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen. For instance in article 4 it says “La liberté consiste à pouvoir faire tout ce qui ne nuit pas à autrui » (Freedom means you can do anything that doesn’t harm others). Speaking your mind is OK so long as you don’t hit them kinda thing. In article 10 it says “Nul ne doit être inquiété pour ses opinions, même religieuses, pourvu que leur manifestation ne trouble pas l’ordre public établi par la Loi. » (people are free—and should not be persecuted for—any opinion, even religious opinions, so long as they do not hinder public order as defined by the law). Article 11 « tout Citoyen peut donc parler, écrire, imprimer librement, sauf à répondre de l’abus de cette liberté dans les cas déterminés par la Loi. » (any citizen can speak, write, print freely, unless they have abused this freedom in cases determined by the law)—getting murky here, but a document such as a Constitution always is. Anyway, the French have Freedom of Speech even if it’s not spelled out the same way as it is in the American Constitution.

Separation of Church and State in France

Complete separation of Church and State has been in French laws so long that I couldn’t figure out the very first time for sure and dropped it. Free expression and a free press has also been in our laws forever, and for the most part—the Vichy régime being a notable exception—freedom of the press has been respected in France.

But there are strong differences between France and America here. When Americans say separation of church and state they mean that the state cannot interfere with religion. When French people say separation of church and state they mean that the church cannot interfere with the state, and as a matter of fact we don’t really have a problem with the state interfering with religion in France in ways that I will explain in a minute.

The point is for French people it’s been clear for a LONG time that you can criticize clergy in books and in the press. Same for your government or any other government. French people always dislike whoever is in power. They like the guy, get him elected, as soon as he starts doing things he drops in the polls, sometimes all the way to 20% approval rating within a month of being elected.

How Separation Of Church and State Happens in France

We learn in school that France is a secular country. What does that mean really? How does it manifest?

There is no official state religion in France—whereas neighboring countries have official religions: in England the queen is the head of the Anglican church, making it an official state religion. In Germany, Austria, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Italy and Sweden they have a Church Tax, which is a tax imposed on you in exchange for the right to declare yourself a member of that church. You don’t pay the church tax you don’t get a church funeral. According to Wikipedia, in Germany the Catholic church gets 9.2 billion euros each year from that church tax. And it’s a tax which you pay just like your income tax!!! Not a suggested contribution, a tax.

That would never fly in France. You can donate to any church and belong to any religion, but the state collects no funds for any church. There are no official days or prayer, no chaplains in parliament, no in God we trust on the money, it’s all secular.

Vive la France NOT God Bless France

The French President will never utter the words “God Bless France” because that would really antagonize a lot of the public. The Pope says that whenever he visits France and that’s fine, he is the Pope. But if a French politician said it, we’d all know he’s gone over to the dark side. I’m not kidding! American politicians on official visits to France don’t say that either, they know how ridiculous they’d sound. To a French person it sounds like that person is wearing their religion on their sleeve and that makes them, by definition, someone who cannot be trusted. You may have heard of the Molière play Tartuffe ou l’Imposteur performed for the first time in Versailles in 1664. The main character, Tartuffe, is an impostor who wears his religion on his sleeve to manipulate and con people. 1664! We learn that play in French school to this day.

Voltaire and Free Speech

And while I’m talking literature, how about Voltaire? The phrase “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Was incorrectly attributed to Voltaire, but he completely fought for secularism and freedom of speech his whole life. And he brought the tongue-in-cheek spirit to his writings, for instance he said “”Les Français ne sont pas fait pour la liberté, ils en abuseraient.” Totally ironic, of course, like much of his writing. You want to read  strong arguments in favor of freedom? Read Voltaire.

The Cornerstone and French Secularism: the Law of 1904

In 1904, the French passed a law that put secularism at the heart of French life. With that law all religious buildings (churches, temples, synagogs, mosques) built before 1905 were nationalized. They became public domain. They now belong NOT to the priest or the imam or the rabbi, they belong to the village or town where they are.

It’s a fact that we have churches everywhere in France, Catholic mostly, but others too. And if you’re a people who don’t trust the church, what do you do? You control it! Owning the building is how the French state decided to control religion. Religious leaders still get to do their thing inside, but they have to play nice with the secular powers and NOT the other way around. Catholics hated this and fought it at the time, they lost. Protestants were more open to it, the fact that the State now paid for all expense and they still got to use the building seemed reasonable to the Protestants from the get-go.

So, as a French taxpayer I contribute to the upkeep of the church in my village. Mayors decide how much or how little they want to do in their church. Some churches have even been sold to be turned into homes or concert halls. It’s up to the Mayor. In my village the church is kept very nicely, it’s lit at night, the bells ring every ½ hour (not at night) and renovations happen when needed, they guy who’s been the Mayor since the dawn of time clearly likes the church. In other villages the church is completely abandoned, it falls to pieces and nobody cares. That’s why you don’t find lovely churches everywhere in France, some of them are falling apart and it’s a political decision on the part of the local elected officials.

When I was the president of the local kid’s choir, whenever I organized a concert, I had to run it both by the mayor and the priest. It never created any problem, they like kid’s choirs, it got done, no charge to the choir. Sometimes they even turned on the heaters before we got there!

So there you have it, the most secular state in the world owns thousands of churches! Actually, it’s the villages and towns, but you get my meaning.

This 1904 law also says that the state cannot subsidize religion by helping out religious associations — I talked about how in France there are a million associations, sports, arts, you name it. Cities and villages fund those associations in large part. So if you’re the president of a basketball club, the city charges you rent for the gymnasium, but then donates the money so you can pay the rent! It’s kinda silly, but it ensures that even if your club uses that building for 100 years, it still belongs to the city.

Anywhere in France—other than 3 departments in the Alsace-Loraine—if you’re an association that has to do with religion (religious education, missionary work, charity that includes preaching) you cannot get funds from your village or city.
Why not Alsace-Loraine? I’m not sure, I didn’t have time to look into it much, but it was grandfathered in from previous laws, and as you know, Germanic people are much more accepting of religion than French people. There really is something cultural there.

In 2004 the French passed another religion that turned the screws even more on religion, but I’m not going to go into that today, I’ll save it for another time as this podcast is going to be plenty long without that.

So, France takes secularism very seriously, we even have two words for it: “sécularisme” and “laïcité”. There are distinctions, but that goes way beyond the scope of this episode of the podcast.

Most of these marchers and people who say “JeSuisCharlie” in France are basically secular people. They may not even realize it, it’s part of our culture. With secularism comes freedom of speech.

How Charlie Hebdo Came to Be

Then How did Charlie Hebdo come to be and how did it become a martyr to the cause of free speech? When I was little, the outrageous cartoon weekly in France was called Hara-Kiri. (Hara-kiri is is the name for the ritualistic suicide by disembowelment in Japan, also called Seppuku. ) That weekly certainly lived up to its name!

They really went all out to be disturbing, abrasive, and if it was funny also, even better. Offensive never bothered them in the least. Hara-kiri hardly made any money, and then one week there was a fire in a dance hall which killed a lot of people, the press went crazy on how many people died and what a tragedy, graphic testimony and photos (which of course sells papers), the press, TV really milked it.

If you watch CNN or Fox News or any news outlet today you KNOW how they milk tragedy to keep you watching and seeing their ads, right? That’s their whole business model! Get lots of eyes so you can sell ads for more money. Right or wrong, it’s the business model for a lot of “free” things, such as TV news and even now newspapers on the internet. We don’t pay for that, so they have to make money somehow. OK, I accept that. But Hara-Kiri didn’t.

Hara-Kiri wanted to lampoon that business model which they found tasteless and despicable and on their cover the following week they put “Bal tragique à Colombey, un mort.” It was a critique of how the press rushes to the site of a disaster to milk it and sell papers. By saying “one person died” they meant that the press sells their soul by emphasizing coverage of graphic events that nobody can do anything about (the fire happened, the people died, what’s the point of going on and on about it other than selling papers?) They were saying this attitude is killing the press. Unsurprisingly most people didn’t get it and that was the beginning of the end for Hara-Kiri.

A few years later, many of the same people started Charlie Hebdo. And their shtick is to lampoon and poke fun and bring to light things that are uncomfortable and we’d rather not think about. Charlie was never a super popular weekly. It did better than Hara-Kiri, but most people find it distasteful and don’t buy it. It’s not even that funny out loud most of the time because it’s not trying to be. It’s trying to make you think. Some people get it, most people don’t. Clearly fundamentalists of all stripes, be they religious fanatics or political leaders who don’t want to think outside the box do NOT get it. Instead they get outraged and go on the attack. But French people, culturally, think it’s important to keep that sort of critique alive.

The Right to Blaspheme in France

French people believe it’s OK to blaspheme. It’s OK to be tasteless. It’s OK to use stereotypes. It’s OK to say racist things. So long as all you do is talk or print. Political correctness does not reign supreme in France, not by a long shot!

I would venture that even serious Francophiles who listen to the show and know a ton about France wouldn’t get most of the jokes in Charlie Hebdo. They are all second and third degree. I don’t get some of those jokes! These guys were intellectuals who draw cartoons with a strong penchant for sexual innuendo. Think New Yorker cartoons go tasteless in the extreme. That would not fly in America, and for most people it doesn’t in France either, except that these guys have been made into martyrs now.

Even if you don’t like tasteless either, you have to understand that when fundamentalists (and again not just religious fundamentalists, it can be political also, or both!) react violently, in my opinion the react on an impulse that is both human and totalitarian. They get mad and want to control what others say and hopefully what they think too. I think it’s largely about controlling people. A cartoon, no matter how tasteless never hurt anyone and they know that. They lash out because they are control freaks. That’s why so many French people are in the streets: we despise fundamentalism and totalitarianism. I know, big words, I can’t even say them quite right, but we saw what the Nazis could do, we saw how we gave in to it, and we don’t like that. Religious crazies are just another flavor of Nazi, but it all comes from the same impulse.

Limits to Freedom of Speech in France

So, since we’re so enamored with free speech in France, does that mean anything goes? NO. We are a country of many paradoxes, there are things you can’t say in France. Let me explain it to you as it was explained to me by my niece who is a law student. In France you cannot deny the holocaust or any genocide that’s been recognized as such by the International Court of Law. Why not? Because when France finally accepted responsibility for the deportation of Jews during the Second World War under the Vichy regime, it was a big step forward as there had been a lot of opposition to this recognition. They had to wait for a lot of reactionary political leaders to die off before they could finally say yes, we were involved and we’re sorry. Now the issue is let’s not ever slide backwards and deny this crap. So if you’re a public personality (sports, entertainment, politics, famous author, etc.) you will get fined if you start using anti-semitic language or deny the holocaust. I’m not famous and have a very small circle of influence in the grand scheme of things, I’d probably get away with it. But if I were famous and if I were to mouth off anti-Semitic things (a lot of hypothetical there!) I’d get slapped with a fine and if I did it again I may even do some jail time.

Brigitte Bardot, former actress, animal rights activist and of late right-wing wacko  published invitations for her followers to hurt Muslims over their treatment of lambs during the Eid al-Adha celebrations. She got slapped with a fine. She published it again and got slapped with another fine. Famous people have to watch what they say in France. You cannot call for violence as a public person.

And if you get drunk and belligerent, you can’t scream that you’re in favor a jihad and you’re going to come back with a Kalashnikov. You cannot threaten people and expect to left alone. This has happened many times in French cities following these attacks. Young men get angry for whatever reason, sometimes it’s just because a figure of authority asks to see their bus ticket, and they start ranting, throwing punches, and say some very hateful things. They get arrested, investigated by the police and are brought to a prosecutor immediately to answer both for their words and their actions. Most of them just get a slap on the wrist, sometimes a fine, they really didn’t mean to hurt anyone, but there is a sense that we shouldn’t let them get away with it at this time. There’s a very controversial French performer called Dieudonné who makes anti-semitic remarks all the time—also an attention seeker who would say he’s using his right to free speech—and he was just arrested for praising terrorism and calling for terrorist acts. He’ll probably spend the night in jail away from his creature comforts and let’s see if that helps sort out his crazy brain. It is not a good time to push the limits of the police patience right now.

Agressive Investigations

It is very clear that anyone who’s had anything to do with these terrorists will be investigated and hassled. We don’t have Guantanamo Bay, but I would guess that it’s not going to be pleasant. A couple of days ago in the paper I read about a man originally from Haiti who lived in France for a time and he just got arrested in Bulgaria because he had called the brothers several time over the last few months. A few calls and boom you’re on the hot coals. Some of these arrests are going to turn out to have been frivolous, but I don’t think very many people care at this time, and doing due diligence is going to be important.

This week there was an arson fire at a German newspaper that reprinted some Charlie cartoons the fundamentalists find objectionable. I’m afraid that is not going to stop no matter how much pressure the police put on fundamentalists. To stop them you’d have to convince them that they are doing wrong even by their God, and I won’t hold my breath on that.

America’s Reaction

The press in America won’t touch this stuff with a 10 foot pole, their excuse is that reprinting those cartoons goes against their standards or that what Charlie was doing was hate speech. No it’s not. They don’t get it and they don’t want to get it. Why should they? So they find themselves on the wrong end of a Kalashnikov? It’s cowardly, and they’re rather not go there. I get it. I’m not that brave myself.

There is a wonderful American cartoonist who’s been living in France for decades, his name is Robert Crumb. He gave an interview to the New York Observer where he said some wonderful things that show he gets it. He’s famous for Fritz the Cat and the Keep On Truckin Guy and Mr Natural. The French Newpaper Libération asked Robert Crumb to draw a cartoon in reaction to the Charlie Hebdo attack, and he did, and he drew a great gutsy picture, the man’s almost French by now, right, even though he says his French sucks.

Here’s what he says in this interview that I liked so much, I’ll put a link in the show-notes if you want to read the whole thing: Aline [his wife is the cartoonist Aline Kominsky-Crumb] saw something on the internet…All the big newspapers and magazines in America had all agreed, mutually agreed, not to print those offensive cartoons that were in that Charlie Hebdo magazine. They all agreed that they were not going to print those, because they were too insulting to the Prophet. Charlie Hebdo, it didn’t have a big circulation. A lot of French people said, “Yes, it was tasteless, but I defend their right to freedom of speech.” Yeah, it was tasteless, that’s what they say. And perhaps it was. I’m not going to make a career out of baiting some fucking religious fanatics, you know, by insulting their prophet. I wouldn’t do that. That seems crazy. But then, after they got killed, I just had to draw that cartoon, you know, showing the Prophet.  The cartoon I drew shows me, myself, holding up a cartoon that I’ve just drawn. A crude drawing of an ass that’s labeled “The Hairy Ass of Muhammed.”  That’s a good man and a brave man.

And then you have the newspapers that are not so good, like for instance the ultra orthodox Jewish paper who edited female world leaders out of their picture of the Charlie Hebdo march. WHAAAAT? I’ll put a link in the show notes. Like I was saying, it all comes out of an effort to control what you see and what you think. It doesn’t matter who does it, it comes from a totalitarian impulse. Sure, people have a right to believe whatever they want, but some people push it so far it’s insane. So there you have it. Crazy all around.

So in France we’re siding with secularism because we hope it’ll keep the crazies under control.

Religion and the French Census

The French state doesn’t want to know your religion. There are estimates and polls on how many belong that what religion, but it’s against the law for a census taker to ask you, and it’s not on the census forms.  Why not? What I was told is imagine if Hitler had had the name and address of every Jewish family in Germany or France!!! That’s actually a good point. BUT, it’s also sticking our heads in the sand a little bit. Hitler was a long time ago, maybe we can reconsider now. But it’s a hard sale in France.

I think that people have religions and those religions influence them more or less depending on how seriously people take it. And 99.9% of people really like their religion, but they’re not nuts, they won’t kill for their religion, so I say let them be. You can have any religion you wish in France. Some of the most bizarre cults have come out of France–that would make for a fun show, wouldn’t it?!

Restrictions on Religion in France

So yes, in France we have freedom of religion, but we also have restrictions on religion.

You can be a Scientologist in France, but they got slapped with heavy fines for deceptive practices. You can still go and buy their books in hopes of becoming a superman, but the French state is not helping them by granting them tax-exempt status on donations or buildings. Tax them and fine them is the attitude.  See this article.

If a person refuses medical care for their child based on religion, the doctor has to listen, but can decide to go against the will of the parents without getting in very much trouble.

Because of the 2004 law you can’t wear overt religious symbols in French schools or public buildings. Walking in the street it’s OK, but you can’t hide your face entirely for safety reasons. That’s such a large kettle of fish, I may get to that on  another show, but not any time soon, I think.


So there you have it. French people think being secular is a basic value of the Republic. And most French people have zero problem with this. Even churches by now. I think if my Mayor called the local Bishop and said here, take you church building back, the Catholic church wouldn’t want it back. By now it’s become normal. I didn’t make that clear before, this is any church building built before 1905. Religious building built after 1905 are privately owned.

Learn More: French Culture, French History

white dove and hand with black birds up against a blue sky

Subscribe to the Podcast
Apple Google Spotify RSS
Support the Show
Tip Your Guides Extras Patreon Audio Tours
Read more about this show-notes
Episode Page 

Category: French Culture