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Laïcité, liberté d’expression et liberté de religion

Debates on an issue that frequently arouses passions in France, religions and secularism, were again very lively in November. They are also complex and very intertwined, since they are intertwined with other debated elements of French social and political life, and because passions around personal convictions are strong. In addition, the confinement and restrictions due to the health crisis make the social climate particularly difficult.
The debate started with the issue of freedom of expression, at the very moment when the trial of the perpetrators of the attack on the editorial staff of Charlie Hebdo newspaper in 2015 is being held. It was amplified by several tragic events.
The first of these events was an attack on 25 September by a young Pakistani man who stabbed two people standing near the former premises of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo.
This attack was followed on 16 October by the assassination of Samuel Paty, a history and geography teacher at the college in Conflans-Sainte-Honorine (Parisian greater suburb). A few days after a class on freedom of expression, during which the teacher allegedly showed the students various cartoons, including some about the Prophet Muhammad, Samuel Paty was killed and then beheaded on his way home from school by an individual who claimed to be acting in the name of the Prophet of Islam.
Very quickly, the public discussion soon turned into a debate between, to express it in a very simplified manner, supporters of freedom of expression whatever the circumstances and proponents of respect for religious beliefs.
Thus, the president of the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM), Mohammed Moussaoui, stirred up controversy by calling for the use of cartoons of Mohammed in education to be "controlled". He will go back on his words a few days later, regretting what he called a clumsiness. Some Catholic bishops (e.g. Nicolas Brouwet, Bishop of Tarbes and Lourdes) made a similar speech, as did the High Representative for the Alliance of Civilizations of the United Nations, Spain’s Miguel Angel Moratinos, who called in a communiqué for "mutual respect of all religions and beliefs".
Generally speaking, the French position has been rather badly perceived abroad (see for instance Bulgaria), particularly in the United States, whose press has been strongly criticized in France for the way in which it has presented the situation. The New York Times shocked strongly when it entitled its article "French police shoot and kill a man after a murderous knife attack" (the title has since been changed) ; but Americans often find it difficult to understand the French situation.
President Macron, who defended the right to caricature at the national tribute to Samuel Paty on 26 October, has also sparked criticism and calls for boycott in many Muslim-majority countries. The President then went on to explain his position, defending freedom of expression, saying he understood that the cartoons might be offensive but reiterated that can never justify violence. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, for its part, called for stopping these demonstrations, which come from a "radical minority".
Emmanuel Macron seems to reflect French people’s opinion on the right to caricature religious figures, which has evolved in recent years : 59% of French people believe that newspapers had " reason " to publish this type of caricatures " in the name of freedom of expression ", whereas only 38% were of this opinion in February 2006 (IFOP survey Les Français sont-ils encore Charlie ?).
On 29 October, a few days after the murder of Samuel Paty, a knife attack in a Nice basilica left three people dead.
These events triggered strong actions by the French state, measures that are part of what President Emmanuel Macron calls the fight against separatism which he outlined on 2 October in a speech on separatism and secularism.
As a result, more than fifty associative structures accused of links with Salafism or the Muslim Brotherhood, including the CCIF (Collectif contre l’islamophobie en France, an association aiming to combat Islamophobic acts), and the NGO Baraka City, have been dissolved, as well as about fifty associative structures. The mosque of Pantin, accused by the authorities of having relayed remarks that led to the assassination of Samuel Paty, has been closed for 6 months.
One element of Samuel Paty’s assassination is therefore taking a back seat, while raising equally important questions : the role of social networks. It was in fact following a denunciation that went viral on social networks, an accusation that proved to be false, that the teacher became a target.
The Minister of Justice, Eric Dupond-Moretti, submitted on Wednesday 18 November to the Council of State a new proposal aimed at more quickly repressing the dissemination of hate messages in the public space, particularly through social networks. Some see this proposal as yet another restriction of freedom of expression.
Freedom of expression and freedom of religion, the debates raised by these freedoms are not nearing their end.

D 23 novembre 2020    AAnne-Laure Zwilling

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