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Recent Charlie Hebdo Attacks Bring Freedom Of Speech To Forefront In France


Recent attacks in Paris linked to cartoons published by the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo have intensified the debate among comedians in France about freedom of expression.



SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

France is having another debate about free expression. It follows the killing of a middle school teacher in Paris after he showed students cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad and another attack last month when two people were stabbed outside the former offices of the magazine Charlie Hebdo, which originally published the cartoons that some Muslims found offensive. As Rebecca Rosman reports, the attacks have unsettled many people in France, including comedians who ask, can’t you make fun of everything?

REBECCA ROSMAN, BYLINE: If you’re asking the legal question in France, the answer is actually no.

DAN SHEFET: There are limits to what you can, under French law, make fun of.

ROSMAN: Dan Shefet is a Paris-based lawyer with an office not too far from the Champs Elysees. He says you can make fun of religion, as in the case of Charlie Hebdo.

SHEFET: It may be poor taste, but it’s not illicit.

ROSMAN: But it is illegal when those comments can be deemed as racist, anti-Semitic or homophobic.

SHEFET: If somebody makes an illicit remark against a protected group and says in court, I made that because I wanted to be funny, he should probably get another lawyer.

ROSMAN: Those are not opinions, the French government says. They’re offenses.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DIEUDONNE: (Speaking French).

ROSMAN: The most famous example of a comedian crossing this boundary is Dieudonne, who has made a career out of anti-Semitic jokes. Dieudonne has been convicted eight times in French court on anti-Semitism charges, the latest time being last month when he was slapped with a 10,000 euro fine for jokes poking fun of Holocaust survivors. He was also banned from Facebook, TikTok and Instagram.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking French).

ROSMAN: At a recent roundtable about freedom of expression and comedy, an audience member asked the question, where does Dieudonne fit in all this? Can his jokes be funny? Alain Degois, a comedian and director better known as Papy, took a deep sigh before responding.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ALAIN DEGOIS: (Speaking French).

ROSMAN: He was a friend of mine, he said, but I feel like he lost himself. He stopped being a comedian and started acting like an ideologist.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HAROUN: (Speaking French).

ROSMAN: Haroun, another comic known for pushing the limits, agrees it’s about intention. Once you stop being a comedian, he says, and start acting like a politician, you’ve crossed the line. We met up at a cafe where he elaborated.

HAROUN: If we can see that your intention is nice, your intention is to laugh about racism but not being racist, it’s OK.

ROSMAN: But at the same time, Haroun says he doesn’t support the existing French law that sets limits to freedom of expression.

HAROUN: I don’t like what Dieudonne do at this time, but I don’t like that the law tried to tell me what I have to hear or think. I think that people are free.

ROSMAN: Dan Shefet, the lawyer, says Haroun is missing the point. He says traditional free speech is strong in Europe.

SHEFET: I should be able to say whatever I want against anybody who wields power over me, but it’s a logical fallacy to say that ergo, I can say whatever I want against you – two completely different things.

ROSMAN: The real threat to free speech today isn’t the law, Shefet says, it’s cancel culture.

SHEFET: If we look back in history, artists who have made a difference are artists that were very, very politically incorrect. And you need that. You need people that will challenge what everybody believes is true.

ROSMAN: Part of the continuing debate in France about where to draw the line between challenging the status quo and breaking the law. For NPR News, I’m Rebecca Rosman in Paris.

(SOUNDBITE OF EZRA COLLECTIVE’S “SPACE IS THE PLACE”)

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Written by Harry Rosen

Harry Rosen is an accomplished explorer, photographer, creative director, speaker, and author.

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