Freedom, But… : French Reactions to the Muhammad Cartoons

Posted by John Rosenthal

In its Thursday edition, France Soir, under the title “Help Voltaire! They’ve Gone Crazy”, defended its decision to publish in its previous day’s edition the Jyllands-Posten cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad.

Islam prohibits its faithful from depicting the Prophet in any way…. The question is the following: Are those who are not Muslim required to respect this prohibition?… Religious freedom is the freedom to believe or not to believe, the freedom to practice one’s faith undisturbed. But it should never be transformed into the freedom to impose on the entirety of society the norms deriving from one sole faith.

Wednesday night, Jacques Lefranc, the editor of France Soir and the presumptive author of the above lines, was fired by publisher Raymond Lakah.


Mr. Lakah called his decision a “strong sign of respect for the beliefs and intimate convictions of every individual”. Judging from their reactions to the France Soir publication of the Jyllands-Posten cartoons, French authorities presumably agree.


French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin commented as follows: “We are very attached to the requirement of freedom, to the requirement of democracy that is the foundation of that on which our country is based [sic!], but also to that of respect.” [source: Le Figaro] President Jacques Chirac echoed the sentiments of his Prime Minister, pleading for a greater “spirit of responsibility, respect and moderation”.


French Foreign Minister Phillipe Douste-Blazy went so far as to brandish the possibility of legal action against France Soir. Douste-Blazy noted that “freedom of expression is one of the founding principles of the Republic, but within a framework, a limit: that of the laws of the Republic.” He added: “Those who feel they have been caricatured [sic.] can make queries to the judicial system. That’s their liberty.” [source: Le Nouvel Observateur]


Note that the French press is making much of the fact that a State Department spokesperson, Justin Higgins, is supposed to have made similar “freedom, but” remarks, even going so far as to describe the cartoons as “incitation to religious and ethnic hatred” – an assessment, incidentally, that none of us can either confirm or reject without precisely seeing them. These alleged remarks by Mr. Higgins – similar remarks are attributed in an AP story to State Department spokesperson Janelle Hironimus – have been stylized by both Le Figaro and Le Nouvel Observateur into the official position of the United States as such. (Thus Le Nouvel Obs: “The United States has condemned the publication of the controversial caricatures… as an ‘unacceptable’ incitation to religious or ethnic hatred.”)


The France Soir website is presently inaccessible.

Update: a report from EUPolitix suggests that an EU “response” to the affair, in the form of a new EU-wide “media code”, may be forthcoming.

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