The thing I really don’t understand about people’s reactions to the attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo is…

In terms of its laws, France isn’t actually all that committed to including the freedom to say offensive things in freedom of speech.

These are the main exceptions to freedom of speech in the US:

  1. Child pornography specifically, and other “obscene” sexual things, more vaguely defined.
  2. Speech that very immediately provokes or incites someone to break the law. You can advocate doing something illegal if you say it in a general way.
  3. Genuine threats against a person’s life or physical safety. Threatening things other than physical harm is okay. Threats that are obviously joking are okay.

And the footnotes are:
In some circumstances, you can be punished for lying, and freedom of speech doesn’t protect you from that– e.g. if someone sues you for defamation*, or if you sell a product and lie in your advertising.
Freedom of speech doesn’t let you use someone else’s copyrighted words/music/etc. without permission.
Certain groups of people can have other limitations put on their speech– e.g. government employees and people serving in the military.

*Slander, libel, and defamation all mean deliberately lying in a way that harms a person’s reputation.

I can’t seem to find a similar complete list for France, but here is a list of the exceptions that I’m here about: France has a number of laws that outlaw bigoted or hateful speech. This isn’t about slander– it’s not about whether it’s true or whether it affects the person’s reputation, it’s specifically about insulting someone based on their belonging to a marginalized group. Denying the Holocaust is also specifically outlawed. And these laws actually do get enforced– there’s a list of cases in that article, although a lot of the ones about religion end with a ruling that it wasn’t actually hate speech.

But racism is apparently a different matter. I remember reading about this case when it happened:

Jean Marie Le Pen, the former leader of French extreme-right group the National Front, has been fined €5,000 for suggesting Romanians were “naturally” inclined to steal. … The French politician has repeatedly been convicted under France’s racial hatred laws, as well as for Holocaust denial after he described the Nazi gas chambers as a “small detail” of World World Two in a BBC Hardtalk interview.

And when I searched for “French politician fined for racist remark”, because I couldn’t remember Le Pen’s name, I also came across this:

A former far-right candidate in France’s recent municipal elections who likened the nation’s justice minister, who identifies as black, to a monkey was sentenced to nine months in jail for hate speech. The National Front, a party that has often come under fire for its leaders’ incendiary comments about the nation’s immigrant populations, was fined almost $68,000 and the candidate, Anne-Sophie Leclere, was fined more than $40,000 on top of her prison sentence.

In October 2013, Leclere, the National Front’s candidate for the northern municipality of Rethel in March’s elections, posted a photo of Socialist Justice Minister Christiane Taubira — originally from French Guiana, a French overseas department in northern South America — next to a photo of a monkey. … “I prefer to see her swinging in a tree than to see her in government,” Leclere told TV channel France-2 in an interview, echoed across French media.

So the woman who called Taubira a monkey went to prison for it, meanwhile Charlie Hebdo published a caricature of her as a monkey and we celebrate satire and freedom of speech.

I can’t actually comment on whether Charlie Hebdo was in fact using satire to protest racism, not trying to promote it. I don’t know enough French to be confident of fully understanding whatever they said about that cartoon, and actually if there was a longer article accompanying it, I can’t find it because the link to the part of their website that might contain such a thing now redirects to a page about the attack.

Regardless, my point is, “You have freedom of speech even if you want to say hateful things” is not actually a principle that’s particularly supported by French laws. I don’t think it’s necessarily bad to have laws like these about hate speech. But a strong committment to freedom of speech it’s not.

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