Zemmour a symptom of France’s political malaise
French employers “have the right to refuse Arabs or blacks” and “all Muslims, whether they say it or not, consider (Islamist terrorists) to be ‘good Muslims’” — these wild assertions are not from the chat room of a far-right website, they are the public statements for which French presidential hopeful Eric Zemmour has previously been convicted. Last week, he was again found guilty by a Paris court of inciting racial hatred during a television appearance in September 2020. The latest ruling was significant in that his comments were deemed to have “crossed the lines of freedom of speech.”
In the run up to an election that will be won or lost based on the politics of identity, the court’s decision — and the fact that two racist firebrands are among the leading candidates — is indicative of the opposite directions in which France is being pulled.
Seven years ago, on a cold January weekend, 17 people were murdered in Paris. This act stunned France and Europe as a whole and was met with mass marches and other public shows of unity. The heinous terrorist attack was in response to provocative cartoons of Prophet Muhammad published by the magazine Charlie Hebdo. Afterwards, “Je suis Charlie” (I am Charlie) became a rallying cry for those who saw the magazine’s staff as martyrs in the defense of free speech. The Paris Tribunal of First Instance and the Paris Court of Appeal had previously found the editor of the magazine, who had been sued by various Muslim organizations, not guilty of libel in connection with the publication of the cartoons.
The editor-in-chief of the controversial magazine, Gerard Biard, subsequently called for full secularism in France. And the publication was unequivocal in communicating its right to publish inciteful material, emboldening the likes of Zemmour to single out immigrant communities as the source of France’s woes.
Last May, a French court acquitted far-right leader Marine Le Pen and a party colleague of breaking hate speech laws, citing freedom of expression. Last week’s decision was, therefore, momentous in that it marked a change in the attitude of the French judiciary toward increasingly controversial comments that seek to deliberately pull at the seams of French society.
Following the 2015 attacks, Biard rejected accusations of racism, Islamophobia and the provocation of Muslims by Charlie Hebdo. His stance heralded an increasing radicalization of the French right that is typified by Zemmour. During his recent trial, prosecutors argued that, by referring to young Pakistani immigrants as “thieves, murderers and rapists,” Zemmour’s comments were “contemptuous” and “outrageous,” and that “the limits of freedom of expression have been crossed.”
Zemmour’s lawyer, Olivier Pardo, called the verdict “ideological and stupid,” saying it was contrary to free speech and democratic debate. These predictable remarks ignored key elements of the Charlie Hebdo verdict, which — though overlooked at the time — have come to greatly influence thinking around freedom of expression.
French voters must show their disapproval of such mainstream sensationalism.
Zaid M. Belbagi
Though the courts found the magazine’s editor not guilty of public libel against a group of people on the basis of their religion, they considered whether alleged abuse may be tolerated in the name of freedom of expression against a double test of: One, a balance between the exercise of the freedoms and rights involved and, two, the nature and definition of the offense in question. The court importantly concluded that freedom of expression may be restricted if “it is exercised in a manner which is gratuitously offensive to others without contributing in any way to a public debate which may encourage the progress of humankind.”
Those on the French right to whom the Charlie Hebdo trial offered carte blanche to publicly attack France’s Muslim population failed to realize that the judgment actually provided an important precedent for restrictions on the freedom of speech. These controls were upheld in the context of Zemmour’s latest verdict.
What is more troubling is how Zemmour is running for the presidency of a country that is a UN Security Council permanent member and one of the world’s oldest democracies. His candidacy is symptomatic of a wider malaise in French politics, which is the increasing prevalence of identity politics over the long-term, inclusive policies France needs. Zemmour now faces another court challenge regarding comments he made defending the Nazi-allied French Vichy government. French voters must show their disapproval of such mainstream sensationalism in their politics and make sure that Zemmour is kept some distance from the Elysee Palace.
- Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator and an adviser to private clients between London and the GCC. Twitter: @Moulay_Zaid