In the shadow of terror: France still on edge

Defiant: slogan adopted after 12 people were killed at the offices of Charlie Hebdo magazine. © Getty

Is the freedom to offend essential? In France, the fifth anniversary of its deadliest terror attack sees renewed tensions over questions of blasphemy, terrorism and religious tolerance.

Five years ago today, gunfire drowned out the music in a Paris concert hall. In the middle of a performance by the Eagles of Death Metal, three men carrying machine guns stormed into the Bataclan theatre and opened fire.

Ninety people were killed – but that was only part of the horror. Five other attacks were carried out in Paris, including a suicide bombing outside the Stade de France. In total, there were 130 deaths.

ISIS claimed responsibility for the attacks, capping a year of extremist violence that began that January, with the deadly attack on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. Twelve of the magazine’s staff were murdered for publishing cartoons mocking the Prophet Muhammad, whose depiction is forbidden in Islam.

This year, in September, Charlie Hebdo republished those cartoons in a show of defiance as the trial of 14 people accused of planning that attack began.

France has since faced further attacks, and has seen the revival of an argument about the freedom to offend religious sensibilities.

In October, a schoolteacher, Samuel Paty, was murdered by an Islamist terrorist. Paty had shown the cartoons to students in his class as part of a discussion of freedom of speech.

Paying tribute to Paty, French President Emmanuel Macron reaffirmed his commitment to the French principle of Laïcité, and, notably, to the cartoons themselves, saying, “We will not disavow the cartoons, the drawings, even if others recoil.”

Following this speech, there have been other attacks in France, including the murder of three people in a church in Nice.

This latest cycle of outrage echoes not just the 2015 Charlie Hebdo attacks, but the 2005 protests in response to Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad; and the 1988 fatwa against Salman Rushdie.

For some, like Macron, no matter how much offence such publications cause, nor how predictable the outcome, the priority is to defend the right to be offensive. To such people, for the country of Voltaire to disavow anti-clerical images would be to surrender to the assassin’s veto.

Others take a different view of free speech and offence. French law, as in many other European countries, prohibits hate speech and “apology for terrorism”. Macron has recently announced plans for the state to regulate the training of foreign Imams. For his critics, this is a sign of hypocrisy about permissible speech.

Some argue that if such cartoons are identified with French secular values – not simply tolerated, but celebrated – it is harder for those who feel insulted by them to feel included in the republic. Muslims, they say, are being asked to tolerate offence, without themselves being shown much tolerance.

The verdict for those accused of planning the Charlie Hebdo attacks was meant to be due today. It has now been postponed because of Covid-19.

So, is the freedom to offend essential?

No offence

It is essential, say some. To police offensive speech is to allow those who claim offence the power of censorship. As John Stuart Mill once argued, any strong enough refutation of our beliefs is liable to offend us, and a healthy culture cannot allow our beliefs to go untested.

Not so, say others. Certain kinds of offensive speech deprive the offended of their dignity. Hate speech, for example, is widely considered unacceptable. Arguments that certain people don’t belong in the country, or are inferior, create an atmosphere where they cannot express themselves as equals. In such a case, offensive speech becomes a kind of censorship of its own.

You Decide

  1. If I shout over you so that you cannot be heard, is that a violation of your freedom of speech or the expression of mine?
  2. Should employers be allowed to fire their workers for offensive comments made from private social media accounts?


  1. Caricature, the drawing of a portrait with exaggerated features, has been an important part of political culture in Europe for at least two hundred years. Have a look at some political cartoons and then try to draw a caricature of yourself.
  2. Imagine someone is ejected from a party for offending the host. They complain that this violates freedom of speech. After briefly reading about theorists of freedom of speech, such as John Stuart Mill, write a letter explaining why their ejection does or does not violate their free speech.

Some People Say...

“Opinions have caused more ills than the plague or earthquakes on this little globe of ours.”

Voltaire, (1694-1778) French philosopher

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is widely agreed that free speech is an essential democratic principle. The Ancient Athenian term for free speech, “Isegoria”, enshrined the equal right to speak publicly as a fundamental component of democracy. The American revolution made free speech the first right in its bill of rights, and freedom of expression is article 19 of the Universal declaration of Human Rights. The testing of opinions against each other is the underpinning of most liberal notions of how democracy works.
What do we not know?
One key debate is whether some speech prevents the democratic participation of others. In Athens, Aristotle condemned those who “speak evil”, and the condemnation has rung out ever since. Some countries have laws against “hate speech”, and a UN resolution in 2006 censured the “defamation of religion”. The UK government recently stated that the teaching of certain viewpoints on race was illegal. Many people support some limits on speech, but hardly anyone can agree what those limits should be.

Word Watch

Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (sometimes ISIL or Daesh). The terrorist group Islamic State, who sought to establish as the name suggest, an Islamic state, have waned in power and influence recently. They have not claimed involvement in any of the recent killings.
While Sunni Islam forbids the visual representation of the Prophet, Shia scholars are less strict on the subject. Most Muslim authorities agree, however, that the kind of mocking portraits found in Charlie Hebdo are unacceptable.
The term is generally used to refer to those who advocate for a politics centred on a fundamentalist form of Islam, often achieved through violent means.
The French concept of secularism was officially established in 1905, by a law separating the church and state. Prior to that, Catholicism was the official state religion, though Church and state had been separated before during the first Republic following the French Revolution.
A fatwa is simply a judgement by an Islamic religious scholar, but the judgement made by Iran’s highest-ranking cleric, the Ayatollah Khomeini in 1988, was that Salman Rushdie should be executed. The reason for this judgement was the portrayal of the prophet Muhammad in Rushdie’s novel, “The Satanic verses”. As a consequence, Rushdie was in fear of his life for many years.
The 18th-century French writer and author of “Candide” is often credited with the phrase “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”. However, this is actually a summary of his opinions on free speech in a book by Evelyn Beatrice Hall.
Against priests. The French have a particularly lively tradition of satire against religious authority. Many have argued that Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad fit into this tradition, while others claim that they are more akin to racist caricature.
Assassin’s veto
The phrase was coined by the historian Timothy Garton Ash, discussing the Charlie Hebdo cartoons. It is an update of the “heckler’s veto”, an American legal principle that says that the state cannot censor an event or utterance for fear that opponents of the event might cause disruption, as this would be to grant a veto power to the heckler.

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