Watch what you say

A conjuncture of events this week that adheres to the line of the French parental admonition — Watch what you say! (Fait gaffe à ce que tu dis!) – brings into the focus the difference between the ideas of freedom of speech in France and the United States. Broadly, in France that freedom is limited, and in the United States it is absolute. So this week, when a French comedian named Dieudonné M’Bala M’Bala (Camerounian father, French mother, Paris born: such a name is necessarily followed by a pedigree) got slapped down for grossly anti-Semitic attempts at humor, the state leapt into action. The Interior Ministry issued “guidelines” for cities to block the comedian’s performances, and President François Hollande urged the authorities to “be vigilant and inflexible” (as opposed to their usual what?). He added that the “principles of the Republic” dictate that “no one can use a show […] for the provocation and promotion of overtly anti-Semitic themes.”

French law, beginning in 1881 but refined in 1972, forbids encouraging hate or violence against an individual or group because of their ethnicity, origin, nationality, race or religion. Steep fines and prison sentences have been brought to bear against those who issue deliberate public slurs, particularly against writers or artists. Dieudonné has been convicted eight times already on charges of anti-Semitic comments.

Gad Elmaleh, a Jewish comedian and actor, said this week in an interview that Dieudonné should be charged with hate speech crimes, that he has gone too far. An artist has a responsibility to the public sphere; being in the spotlight augments the power to seduce or instruct and thus bears additional responsibility, not the excuse of his ‘art’, Elmaleh said. He noted that Dieudonné’s public, which has been seen giving Nazi salutes and shouting anti-Jewish slogans, is “profoundly ignorant of the phenomenon [of anti-Semitism]” and lumps together Jews, Israel, Zionism, as well as Muslims and Islamists, unable to distinguish differences.

Given France’s history of collaboration in WWII, judging that hate speech poses a real danger to society is perhaps correct. But it also is an extension of the nanny-state methodology in which the government decides for its citizens on nearly every level of life. So when an American journalist took a swipe at the nanny state this week, the blowback was bitter. Journalists across the political spectrum accused Janine di Giovanni of “French-bashing” and jumped on some silly errors to discredit the theme of the article, which was that things aren’t going very well in France these days. The French press reports this on a daily basis, but they do it in fractured little stories that don’t add up to a synthesis indictment. They stop short of connecting the economic dots, of delivering the verdict that even for douce France, the years of cozy privilege and economic fat are over. Meanwhile the government is trying to peel some padding from the budget while keeping the public attention on anything but what it is doing. Media storms such as the Dieudonné scandal and the di Giovanni article are perfect distractions for the children while the nanny state tries desperately to keep its head above the rising debt level: at 96% of GDP, there’s not much room to breathe. But let’s talk about the price of a liter of milk instead.

If the youth of France are confused about religious identities, is it because there is no discussion of them? Talking about sensitive topics such as Zionism or Islamism is not easy, but if left to people like Dieudonné, the discussion is not going to be edifying. Nor is pretending that no sacrifices will have to be made to revive the economy, leaving workers confused about the difference between right and privilege (and kidnapping and negotiation, but that’s another story). It does bring to mind Beaumarchais’ situation in 1783 with The Marriage of Figaro. He had to move the action to Spain in order to open the discussion of right vs. privilege. Could we do better now, or do we need another revolution?

Posted by: Ellen Hampton

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