When I arrived in Paris after the January 2015 terrorist attacks, I was surprised to find that life in the French capital seemed to have gone back to normal. But upon returning a year later, a few months after the Bataclan massacre, I couldn’t help but notice a real change. The state was, and had been since November 13, in an official state of emergency and returning to the city I had grown up in, I found armed policemen and soldiers patrolling the streets and bomb threats regularly shutting down metro stations.
In this uneasy atmosphere, the new year started with tributes to the victims of the Charlie Hebdo killings and those who died more recently in the November terrorist attacks. For days this story dominated the French news with thousands of people gathering at the Place de la République on January 10 for the unveiling of a commemorative plaque by President Francois Hollande.
On January 7 it had been a year since the Kouachi brothers had burst into the Charlie Hebdo headquarters in eastern Paris. To mark this anniversary one million copies of the satirical magazine’s ‘one year on’ special edition were distributed to news stations across France. The front page depicted God wielding a machine gun and fleeing with blood splattered on his arms. The headline read ‘the assassin is still at large’.
A year after ‘Je Suis Charlie’ banners flooded the Parisian streets, the hashtag ‘Je Ne Suis Pas Charlie’ started to gather momentum on Twitter . Another cartoon by Riss depicting the Syrian child Aylan who was found dead on a beach last summer as a potential sexual attacker added to this sentiment. Some French politicians began to distance themselves from the slogan which had united so many. The centre-right Les Républicains presidential contender Alain Jupé declared on Europe 1 that when he opened Charlie Hebdo, he was not always Charlie.
I wondered where the solidarity of the marches had disappeared to. For me, the slogan ‘Je Suis Charlie’ did not mean I agreed or endorsed the magazine’s views. Neither did it mean I found the satirical cartoons funny but rather that I supported its right to publish them. When people gathered at the Place de la République in 2015 declaring ‘Je Suis Charlie’, they were standing up for the cartoonists’ right not be the victims of attacks for asserting their rights to an opinion and freedom of expression.
The Observatore Romano, the Vatican’s daily paper, also called out against the front page as disrespectful to all faiths. Shortly after the January attacks Pope Francis had indeed condemned killing in God’s name but also warned religion could not be insulted. Quoted in an article in the Guardian he said “each religion has its dignity” and “there are limits”. He also said: “If a good friend speaks badly of my mother, he can expect to get punched, and that’s normal. You cannot provoke, you cannot insult other people’s faith, you cannot mock it.”
It now seemed that the right to offend so closely tied up with freedom of expression was being brought into question. On the anniversary of the January attacks, PEN International released a statement with 78 signatories underlining their commitment to the defence of freedom of expression. It read: ‘Under international law, the right to freedom of expression also protects speech that some may find shocking, offensive or disturbing. Importantly, the right to freedom of expression means that those who feel offended also have the right to challenge others through free debate and open discussion, or through peaceful protest.’
This view was shared by Roy Greenslade who wrote in his Guardian opinion piece that free speech should be allowed to provoke. Even though it might offend and could engender prejudice, for him, this was the price we must be prepared to pay for the right to freedom of expression.
One of the main arguments for freedom of expression is that it fosters a genuine debate whereby speech is not controlled or silenced for being inappropriate or politically incorrect, but rather is countered by more speech.
But this is no mean feat, and some may ask where do you draw the line as to say we believe in freedom of expression arguably asks us to allow everyone to benefit from it no matter how repugnant we may find their views. This was what Spiked editor Brendan O’Neill brought into focus when he wrote that hateful people must be as free as decent people to express their beliefs. For him, if we are serious about free speech, we should also be saying ‘Je Suis Dieudonné’. For O’Neill, this comedian and political activist notorious in France for his unpleasant and even anti-semitic views must be allowed the same freedoms as those granted to the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists.