NICE, France – When satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo republished cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in early September, it sparked a series of events that included two knife wounds, protests in Muslim nations, boycotts of French goods, and criticism from allies. Tensions mounted when a young Islamist extremist beheaded a teacher near Paris this month and another slit the throat of two people and this week fatally stabbed another in a church in the southern city of Nice.
But French officials have not only defended the right to republish the cartoons, some have gone even further – including regional leaders who have announced that a leaflet containing these images will be distributed to schoolchildren to “defend the values of the republic . ”
In the tortured 14-year history of cartoons in France, the reaction to the images there has undergone a profound change. Previously denounced by the head of state for provoking and disregarding Muslims and later kept at a cautious distance by other officials, the same drawings are now fully accepted throughout the political establishment – often in connection with France’s commitment to freedom of expression.
The cartoons have brought France to a dangerous impasse, widening the gap with Muslim nations and alienating many French Muslims. For Muslims outside France and some inside France, the cartoons are simply provocative and unfounded insults related to their beliefs. One drawing shows the Prophet Muhammad wearing a bomb in his turban.
The tightening of the French defense of the images has also set them apart from the United States and other Western democracies, which, in the face of increasingly diverse societies, have become more cautious of speech that might be viewed as offensive, particularly towards racial, ethnic, religious or religious other minorities. Many French view these attitudes as a form of American political correctness that threatens French culture.
On Friday, the day after a 21-year-old Tunisian migrant killed three people in the main basilica in Nice, police announced they had arrested a second suspect. About 50 people gathered outside the church to pay tribute to the dead. What began as a moment of solidarity was interrupted by some residents who blamed Islam for the attack – in protest from bystanders. A veiled woman urged people not to bring Muslims into conflict with terrorists.
The Mayor of Nice said the constitution should be amended to allow France to properly “wage war” against Islamist extremists. France’s tenacious Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin set the tone, declaring: “We are at war with an enemy who is both inside and outside.”
The fighting language reflects a general hardening of the French view of radical Islam. The fierce defense of the caricatures has placed the French in a position with little room for maneuver, where any compromise could be viewed as falling below a core value – France’s strict secularism known as Laïcité.
Pierre-Henri Tavoillot, philosopher and Laïcité expert at the Sorbonne, said the conflict over the cartoons had “fallen into a trap” in France.
“In fact, they have become symbols and that makes the situation a conflict,” he said. “But it’s a conflict that I think is inevitable: if the French Laïcité gives up this point, they will have to give up everyone else.”
He added: “If we give up caricatures for a French person, we give up freedom of expression, the ability to criticize religions.”
In 2015, the attack on Charlie Hebdo and the murder of a dozen people – including cartoonists and columnists – led to a mass mobilization in Paris under the banner of “Je suis Charlie” or “I am Charlie”.
Representatives of Muslim countries such as Lebanon, Algeria, Tunisia, Jordan and Qatar took part in this march against terrorism and for free speech. But all of these countries have criticized the republication of the cartoons in the past few days, arguing that they insulted Muslims.
Charlie Hebdo editors republished the same cartoons to mark the start of a long-awaited trial of alleged accomplices in the 2015 attack. They affirmed French democracy.
The republication was quickly followed by a high profile speech by President Emmanuel Macron, in which he detailed his plans to fight Islamism and the government’s widespread crackdown on what it termed Islamist individuals and organizations – measures aimed at changing perspectives abroad contributed.
“The publication and republication are not the same,” said Anne Giudicelli, a French expert on the Arab world who worked for the French Foreign Ministry. “Charlie Hebdo’s republication is seen as a tenacious will to continue to humiliate. This is different from 2015. Now there is a feeling that France has a problem with Islam, while France fell victim to terrorists in 2015. “
Annoyed by the republication, a Pakistani asylum seeker stabbed two people in front of the magazine’s former offices, and a Chechen refugee beheaded a middle school teacher who was showing cartoons of Mohammed in second grade, including one depicting him naked on all fours.
Freedom of speech – or the freedom to say blasphemous things about religion – is considered a tenet of French democracy, created by the eradication of the power of the monarchy and the Roman Catholic Church, and which has become a pillar of French secularism, or laïcité.
Rooted in a law from 1905 – when France did not have a significant Muslim community – French secularism separated church and state – and was based on the idea that belief is a private matter and therefore must be restricted to the private sphere, Mr Tavoillot, the philosopher said.
Jean Baubérot, a leading historian of French secularism, said the idea was to give priority to the state. “Modern France believes it has established itself against religion,” he said.
France’s strict secularism was also indirectly strengthened by the increasing secularization of French society. According to a 2016 report by the Paris Montaigne Institute, only 8 percent of French people practice their faith regularly today.
But how Laïcité is lived and enforced has tightened in response to the rising number of Muslims in France, Baubérot said. Today around 10 percent of the French population is Muslim and they are much more religious than their Christian or Jewish counterparts. The report found that 31 percent of Muslims visit a mosque or prayer hall once a week.
French secularism has the right to criticize all religions – even if not believers. The line is often difficult to draw and many Muslims feel personally offended by the publication of caricatures of Muhammad.
To make matters worse, France restricts freedom of expression – for example, it prohibits attacks on people because of their religion or skin color and prohibits denial of the Holocaust.
The decapitated teacher had used two cartoons of Muhammad from the Charlie Hebdo pages in a class on freedom of expression, which angered many Muslim students and parents. The government viewed his assassination as an attack on the state because public school teachers played a key role in teaching secularism.
A few days after the murder, the leaders of the 13 regions of France announced that they would publish a school leaflet containing the Muhammad cartoons.
“The art of caricature is an ancient tradition that is part of our democracy,” said Iannis Roder, a middle school history teacher and member of the Council of Wise Men, which the government founded in 2018 to strengthen laïcité in public schools.
He added that he was having increasing difficulties teaching freedom of expression and the right to caricature because “many students who call themselves Muslims become more intrusive”.
However, Mohammed Moussaoui, the president of the French Council on Muslim Faiths, said that offensive satire should be limited when it comes to religious beliefs. Restricting the publication of cartoons by Muhammad avoids fueling extremism, he said.
“I don’t think this is the right way to explain freedom of expression to children,” Moussaoui said in an interview with France Info about the cartoons. “The duty of fraternity obliges everyone to renounce some rights.”
In a subsequent statement, Mr. Moussaoui said his suggestion to “waive some rights” was inept. But he added, “If freedom of expression gives the right to be satirical or humorous, we can understand that cartoons depicting a prophet who is fundamental to millions of believers in suggestive and degrading attitudes are not covered by that right can fall. “
As the cartoons have gained strong symbolic significance since the 2015 attacks, it has become politically difficult to ask questions.
Clémentine Autain, a far-right lawmaker for France Unbowed, said the debate on terrorism and secularism “is emotionally dominated and no longer rational”.
Some politicians use Laïcité to “lock out all Muslims,” she said. “I worry that in this way a number of Muslims will be sent back into the arms of radicals.”
Antonella Francini contributed research from Paris.