By Martine Cerf
The case itself and its many twists and turns have continually challenged the understanding of freedom of expression, the identification of the victim and the role of the State. Let us try to review these questions and the errors of judgment that they sometimes unveil.
Some people believe death threats are legitimate
To threaten with death a person who does not recognize their religion or criticizes it. These people place their belief above the common law and are ready to take justice into their own hands regardless the law in force in the country they live in. They ignore others’ freedom of thought and expression. According to them, the latest could only be exercised within the framework that suits them. This is an attitude of denial of the Rule of Law, and consequently of democracy itself.
A willingness to blur reality through a victimizing stance
As illustrated by the General Delegate of the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM) on Sud Radio: “She asked for it it, she must take responsibility for it”. Such willingness leads to consider that the person threatened with death would not be the victim, but rather the aggressor. By his/her freedom of speech, the latest would have triggered a violence for which she is responsible. Just like women who are raped and that are long considered responsible for the aggression they suffered, because men are subject to impulses that they cannot not repress. Here, believers are absolved in the name of a hurt sensibility that could no longer stand to reason. The call for murder is thus justified by the « victim status » of the person offended (and a victim must necessarily be defended), while freedom of criticism is castigated and ranked among reprehensible behaviours.
What about these lawyers that are unable to clearly distinguish between the victim and the aggressor, despite the clarity of the texts?
The judiciary is confused and inconsistent with the law and the Constitution. Before partially backing-off, the Minister of Justice initially declares that the person’s remarks are “an insult to religion, [which] is obviously an infringement of freedom of conscience”, while denouncing those who utter insults and threats. At the same time, a prosecutor deems it appropriate to open two investigations: one against those who one may be described as offenders, and the other against the victim herself in case she incited racial hatred. The second investigation was quickly closed without any further action, and it is not certain that the judiciary would have closed it so quickly had it not been for the outraged reactions of many lawyers, well-known individuals and associations. It is fearsome to see that the offence of blasphemy was applied by the minister, who maintained her disapproval, whereas both the Council of Europe and the European Union recommend that it be abolished wherever it still exists.
In France, the offence of blasphemy was abolished by the law of 1881 on freedom of the press, and more recently in 2016 in the local law of Alsace and Moselle, where it still appeared. It is true that this was covened on the initiative of the Senate, because the government has always refused to apply legal clarifications on the grounds that such sections had fallen into disuse. Current events show us that this is not the case, and that they could very well have been used in the near future had not they been repealed.
The government has shown a lack of consistency on constitutional concepts that should have been unanimous from the outset.
What about these lawyers that are unable to clearly distinguish between the victim and the aggressor, despite the clarity of the texts? What is this confusion that consists in thinking that a religious belief is a race? On the top of everything, what about the political willingness to take into consideration as a legitimate claim the one of “hurting one’s convictions”, which would justify imposing on others not to express themselves on such convictions? Since when is one a victim when « one’s convictions have been hurt”?
Much later, the Minister of Justice finally set the record straight by clearly stating that the offence of blasphemy did not exist in French law. However, the delay in making this clarification can only reinforce the impression that the Minister was struggling to make a clear analysis of what was at stake.
A weak institutional response
Certainly, the government has re-established the reality of the law through the Minister of the Interior, who spoke clearly before the National Assembly. “There will never be blasphemy offence under the authority of this government. The very freedom of expression in our country allows each one and everyone to criticise a religion”, then through the Keeper of the Seals.
Today, Mila cannot go to high school because many of her classmates are angry with her, threaten her with violence or death
However, this response seems weak, because the government has shown a lack of consistency on constitutional concepts that should have been unanimous from the outset. This illustrates that two major groups coexist in the presidential majority: genuine republicans determined to defend the values on which the republic is founded, and supporters of a “soft republic” that would accept without reluctance the recriminations of those whose religious sensibilities are hurt and would recommend everyone to refrain from criticizing Islam.
As long as the Minister of Interior’s words do not materialise into strong actions, they will only highlight the weakness of a government (and it would not be the first one) that claims but does not take action in accordance with its positions.
Worrying political concessions
Can we really say the Minister of Justice’s remarks are just a blunder, as she herself put it? Shouldn’t we rather read in it a political will to calm all minds, even at the price of some unreasonable accommodations with the fanatics? For example, by showing them that they are not completely wrong, by recognising their indignation as legitimate, even if one admits that death threats go too far.
No one asks what is being done with the young people who think they are allowed to take on the hateful messages against Mila on social networks.
The responsibility of the State for the protection of citizens
Today, Mila cannot go to high school because many of her classmates are angry with her, threaten her with violence or death, and there is no place in her academy where her safety can be guaranteed. No one asks what is being done with the young people who think they are allowed to take on the hateful messages against Mila on social networks. No one to consider educating on the concept of Rule of Law, on protection it provides to citizens, on why the death penalty should be abolished, just as the offense of blasphemy…
In principle, a “satisfactory” solution has been found to put Mila back in school. However, will we be satisfied with that? Would we yield to the observation that some students would represent a danger for the teenager and that it would be up to her to leave her school, not to those who threaten her? So it would be up to them somehow to decide who can go to their high school and who can’t?
Will we once again, refuse to defend the republican and human rights values that are the foundation of our Rule of Law?
For a proactive policy on education and justice, now
Mila’s is a familiar story, like the one of the Jewish students who left public schools in large numbers, because nothing was done against the wannabe Nazis and anti-Semites of all stripes who made life impossible for them. The young Jews fled these schools to retreat either to private faith schools or to schools deemed “safe” for them. The national education system has passively witnessed this phenomenon instead of triggering a large-scale educational action based on republican values and on the rejection of the scapegoat phenomenon that led to the Shoah in the past.
Are we once again, giving up the ground to fanatics? Will we accept that they are the ones who dictate the law? Will we once again, refuse to defend the republican and human rights values that are the foundation of our Rule of Law? How much will the state have to protect from these freethinkers who dared to express critical thinking without acting systematically against aggressors?
It is a far-reaching policy that must be designed, one that combines education and sanctions in the case of non-compliance with the law. Without delay. Now. Because the signals that show the need for it are getting stronger and more worrying every day.
Martine Cerf is Secretary General of French organisaiton Égalité Laicité Europe (EGALE), member of the European Humanist Federation. She is co-editor of the « Dictionnaire de la laicité » (Armand Colin, 2011, reprinted 2016) and co-author of « Ma liberté, c’est la laïcité », (Armand Colin, New edition October 2015).
“After studying mathematics, I worked in the world of marketing and media where I held team management and general management positions in France and Belgium. During a second career, which began in my forties, I created a training company, after further training in negotiation in the United States.
It was quite late in life that I became aware that the secularism that I thought had been definitively established was not yet consolidated in France. When, in the 2000s, I realized what this meant in terms of threats to our freedoms, I participated with Gérard Delfau and the other founders in the creation of EGALE.
I am leading this fight for secularism and equality so that no one can ever impose on any of my children and those of their generation what they should believe and how they should think.”