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French ambassador: Free speech is our best defense against hate crimes

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The past few weeks have been harrowing for France. You will have seen the news, read the newspapers: France once again is experiencing a challenging time following the brutal beheading of teacher Samuel Paty in Conflans-Saint-Honorine, near Paris, and then the murder of three people in Nice, all by violent extremists. This is how we thought these events would have been covered since it all started on Oct. 16. 

We have received messages of solidarity from our American friends, and these were deeply appreciated. But some coverage has been painful, too. Instead of the reassuring words we would expect, French people, myself included, have witnessed damning remarks online or in newspapers, inferring a dubious form of causality between these brutal murders and the exercise of the freedom of speech or the organization of relations with religions in our country. 

Every day, my compatriots, here in the U.S. and in France, have called me to ask: “Why are our American friends blind to our national grief? How can that be, when America is our longstanding partner in the fight against terrorism all over the world, when we’re fighting together in the Levant and in the Sahel? Why single out France when this is not just a French issue but a collective threat posed by terrorist networks — as the shooting in Austria just reminded us?” 

I’m not saying that we French cannot accept criticism. Debate is valued in France precisely because we have a deep commitment to free speech; we are not trying to gloss over the situation in our country. We know we have work to do, like many countries, in order to build a more inclusive national community. But beyond the pain we felt in the face of the harsh assumptions of some commentators, I’d like to highlight some key facts regarding our defense of free speech and our French republican model. 

What we are talking about are intolerable hate crimes. Many Americans know very well why their families emigrated here: to escape religious discrimination and persecution. Our modern laws on “laïcité” were aimed specifically at avoiding such religious conflict. We refer to “laïcité” and not “secularism” because, while they may seem the same, they actually are quite different. As linguists know, strict comparisons between culture and history are impossible; the same is true for vocabulary. Our history led us to choose to implement, in 1905, a specific form of separation of church and state — “laïcité” — guaranteeing, over the long term, the peaceful and equal prosperity of all French citizens, able to freely exercise their religion with a fundamental commitment to the “republican school.”  

This is our history. It can’t be undone, in the same way that Americans would not give up on the work of the Founding Fathers and the Constitution with its First Amendment. In France, our fundamental freedoms are strongly rooted in our Constitution and resonate powerfully in our motto, “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité.” In this case, it means the liberty to believe or not to believe, equality between faiths, and fraternity among believers of all faiths and non-believers — the principle of living together. 

Over the past few days, we’ve seen our republic react as one, protecting our core values. We are fighting Islamist extremists — never Islam. Some young Muslims in cities around France have sought instinctively to symbolically “protect” cathedrals and believers, reminding us that they are a part of the national community. Muslim intellectuals in France have opposed any “boycott France” campaign and strongly condemned hate speech around the world. 

Muslim federations and the highest Muslim authorities in France remind us that “the vast majority of Muslims in France are integrated into French society. According to the French Council of the Muslim Faith, “The values of the republic (liberty, equality, fraternity) allow us, Muslims of France, as well as all our fellow citizens, to freely exercise our worship or not to exercise any worship, to build our mosques and to fully enjoy our rights. No, we Muslims are not persecuted in France. We are full-fledged citizens in our country. Like all our fellow citizens, we have guaranteed rights and duties to fulfill. … As in any plural society, the common rule applicable to all is the law of the republic.”  

As France’s President Macron explained to Al Jazeera, violent extremism has no place in France and never will. This is why France is committed to regulating hate speech, especially on social media, where hatred spreads so fast. We welcome the growing support in the U.S., given that the terrorist who killed Samuel Paty found out about him because he was “flagged” on social media.

I remind my dear American friends that freedom of speech is a strong value which we have shared with the United States for two centuries. It means freedom for an independent satirical journal to publish cartoons and freedom for commentators to criticize our policies. Of course, what is published can be unpleasant; it can even shock us. And it is perfectly acceptable to express criticism in public debate. What is absolutely not acceptable, however, and must be fought against is to kill or to legitimize violence through messages of hate. That’s the bottom line: Freedom of speech ends when it comes to incitement to hatred. Denying the Holocaust is considered in France to be incitement to hatred; there are French laws on this. Denying a historical fact is different from publishing caricatures mocking different faiths, as blasphemy is not illegal in French law.

I hope that Americans will not allow biased views to separate us. We each have played an important role in the other’s history, and so we are well aware that the history of each of our countries is different, with different outcomes. But let us not lose sight of what’s important: freedom and the eternal will to defend it, on both sides of the Atlantic. 

Philippe Etienne is France’s ambassador to the United States. He has served as an ambassador or a diplomat in numerous countries, including Germany, Romania, Russia, Serbia and the French mission to the European Union, and he was diplomatic adviser to French President Emmanuel Macron from 2017 to 2019.

Tags attacks Emmanuel Macron Islamic terrorism in France Murder of Samuel Paty

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