France is no champion of free speech, Amnesty says

France is no champion of free speech, Amnesty says
Muslims' freedoms of speech and religion are not defended in France, Amnesty International said this week.
3 min read
14 November, 2020
In the name of free speech, France has defended cartoons condemned by many Muslims [Getty]
France is not the champion of free speech it has claimed to be in the wake of a series of extremist attacks, Amnesty International said this week.

French officials' defence of controversial caricatures of Islam's Prophet Mohammed has exposed a double standard in the country's record on freedom of speech, the United Kingdom-based rights organisation said on Thursday.

"While the right to express opinion or views that may be perceived as offending religious beliefs is strenuously defended, Muslims' freedoms of expression and religion usually receive scant attention in France under the disguise of Republican universalism," Amnesty said in a statement.

"In the name of secularism, or laïcité, Muslims in France cannot wear religious symbols or dress in schools or in public sector jobs," the rights organisation added.

Amnesty highlighted the case of four 10-year-old children who were aggressively interrogated by French police earlier this month.

The children were questioned on suspicion of "apology of terrorism" following the murder of school teacher Samuel Paty. 

The children had questioned Paty's decision to show caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed during a class.

They were then "terrorised" by armed police who questioned them about their religious practices and views, a father of one of th children said this week.

"The French government is not the champion of free speech that it likes to think it is," Amnesty said, citing examples of two men convicted for burning an effigy of President Emmanuel Macron, several activists jailed for campaigning for a boycott of Israeli goods, and proposals for a new law to criminalise the publication of images of law enforcement officials on social media.

"It is hard to square this with the French authorities' vigorous defence of the right to depict the Prophet Mohammed in cartoons," the human rights group said.

While such depictions are protected under freedom of speech, Amnesty said, opposition to the cartoons should also be protected.

'Separatist' or devout Muslim?

"Being opposed to the cartoons does not make one a 'separatist', a bigot or an 'Islamist'," the organisation added, referring to French officials' condemnation of "ambigious" concepts such as "separatism" and "radicalisation".

Such concepts were previously used "as a euphemism for 'devout Muslim'" in the wake of the 2015 Paris attacks, Amnesty said, warning that innocent people could be subjected to "abusive and discriminatory raids" due to their faith.

Furthermore, the French Ministry of Education has also impinged on freedom of expression with its "war against multiculturalism and critical race approaches".

The ministry "has argued that attempts to tackle entrenched racism are based on ideas 'imported from the US' and that they are a fertile ground for 'separatism and extremism'," Amnesty said. 

"But it is not extremist to note that Muslims and other minorities are victims of racism in France. It is factual, and to say so is a right protected by freedom of expression."

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