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  • Matthew Stern

Terror again in France: Has the battle for free speech gone too far?

Updated: Dec 14, 2020

A News Education's Brexit Editor, Matt, is currently based in the South of France. Here are his thoughts in the wake of last week's terror attack in Nice.


Walking through the streets of Nice on Thursday morning, there is a clear tension amongst the local population. Police cordons have been set up and the military has been called in to help police the surrounding area. The city is on edge. Just a couple of hours earlier, a knife wielding assailant had rampaged through a basilica in the heart of the southern French city, killing three people, one of whom was almost decapitated.

This was not France’s first terror attack either. Far from it. Since the first Charlie Hebdo attack in 2015, there have been 70 terrorist attacks in France, killing 274 people and injuring hundreds more. Therefore, it is no surprise the country is anxious.

Nice terror attack 2020 freedom of speech

Arguments are breaking out in the surrounding areas of the basilica between residents and the police, who have cordoned off a large area surrounding the church and are refusing to let people enter the residential area without sufficient paperwork proving they live in one of the nearby apartment blocks.

It is clear from travelling on public transport that morning that people are wary. The increased police presence reminds everyone of the events that took place earlier in the day. Only the evening before, Emmanuel Macron, the French President, addressed the country implementing a second nation-wide lockdown starting from Friday, to try and tackle Covid-19.

Therefore, many more people are outside, preparing for lockdown by stocking up on food or seeing friends one last time before confinement begins. The increased activity in the city centre and on public transport has led to a higher sense of alert amongst the police as well as the locals.

Nevertheless, these attacks are becoming a far too common occurrence in France. While there were of course significant terror attacks prior to 2015, many of the attacks in France since then have cited Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical cartoon magazine, as a reason for their anger and hatred towards France.

Charlie Hebdo terror attack freedom of speech

In the past, Charlie Hebdo has published depictions of the Prophet Mohammad which is deeply offensive to Muslims. Since the attack at the magazine’s offices in Paris in 2015, the majority of the country has rallied around the satirical magazine in defence of free speech. Charlie Hebdo, determined to not be deterred by these attacks, continued to publish depictions of the Prophet Mohammad.

However, a debate has emerged about whether Charlie Hebdo should continue to publish these cartoons and, better still, whether they should ever have published them in the first place.

Legally, there is no problem. France, like the vast majority of Western countries, values freedom of speech and there are no laws which prevent a magazine from publishing a certain cartoon.

However, this debate goes beyond the law. Islam is a religion practiced by almost 2 billion people worldwide and by releasing a publication which knowingly provokes and angers most Muslims could be viewed as a poor error of judgement from the magazine. For example, would Charlie Hebdo have published a cartoon that was incredibly racist towards black people? And would the magazine have received the same outpouring of support? Some will argue yes, including the cartoonists, who see themselves as a publication which provokes everyone, regardless of race and religion.

Others argue that Charlie Hebdo would never publish something that provoked black people to the same extent they have provoked Muslims, and highlight that Islam has been a preferred and regular target of the magazine.

In truth the controversial satirical magazine has poked fun at almost all religions in the past, however their depiction of the Prophet Mohammad was arguably more offensive than anything else they had done in the past.

Nice terror attack October 2020

With each violent attack, Charlie Hebdo and the vast majority of the French population become even more entrenched in their defence of free speech. This ultimately leads to more offensive cartoons being published in defiance of these attacks, believing France and freedom itself is being threatened. At the same time, the more these offensive cartoons are published, the more unwavering the Muslim world becomes in believing that France and Charlie Hebdo are enemies of Islam.

Neither are correct. Despite only having lived in France for a short time, it is clear that the country welcomes people of all religions with open arms; France has taken more refugees than any other European country in recent times.

I have spoken to many first and second-generation immigrants who love living in France and would not live anywhere else. Every French city is incredibly diverse and the vast majority of the time everyone lives harmoniously, appreciating the value different cultures add to society.

There is no doubt that a vicious cycle needs to be broken. France needs to release themselves from the mindset that by not publishing offensive cartoons they are letting the terrorists win and compromising their freedom. While the Muslim world has to understand that France is a country that is open to all religions, and has welcomed and continues to welcome many Muslim refugees with open arms.

Until this cycle is broken, I fear we will see more terrorist attacks across France with more innocent people losing their lives and more division spreading across the country.

Interested in the use of free speech? Take a look at our article on Fake News and the Free Speech Debate.

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