The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen
Liberty consists in the freedom to do everything which injures no one else; hence the exercise of the natural rights of each man has no limits except those which assure to the other members of the society the enjoyment of the same rights.
Lately, politics in France seems to follow a parallel track with politics in the US.
▶▶▶ A couple of month ago the French Embassy in Libya was bombed.
▶▶▶ Marriage equality has been in the news.
▶▶▶ The public is dissatisfied with the leadership of President François Hollande, reflected in dismal poll numbers.
▶▶▶ There’s anxiety about the mainstreaming of far right extremism.
▶▶▶ And there’s talk about civil liberties. While these topics sound familiar in the US, discussion about them in France is not at all the same.
Take the civil liberties issue, for instance. It came up partly because of a politician’s controversial statement. In December 2010, Marine Le Pen, leader of the far right political party, Front National, compared the sight of Muslims praying on the street to the occupation of France by Nazi Germany during World War II. Now it appears likely that she will lose the immunity from prosecution she enjoys as a Member of the European Parliament because of her remark. What she said was obviously offensive to Muslims but prosecution for it seems odd in the US where such statements are considered business as usual.
Le Pen’s drama was overshadowed on June 5 with news that Clément Méric, a student activist, was beaten and killed by right-wing skinheads in a busy part of Paris. The next day, Jean-Luc Mélenchon who leads the Parti de Gauche (Leftist Party) was interviewed about the situation. Mélenchon is a man who doesn’t mince words and he takes shit from no one. Even if you don’t understand the language, you can see that Mélenchon expresses himself forcefully. Next to him, American politicians look like they’re sleepwalking. And what he says here sums up a fundamental difference between the French and Americans.
On June 11, Prime Minister Ayrault announced that proceedings had begun to ban two extreme right-wing groups: Jeunesse Nationaliste Revolutionaire (Revolutionary Nationalist Youth) and Troisième Voie (Third Way.) An investigation had found that their leader and members were responsible for Méric‘s death.
Mais si ces groupuscules sont dangereux, il faut les interdire. Si on ne les interdit pas, il ne faut pas s'étonner qu'ils aient les activités prévues dans leur statut . . . Parce qu’en France, le racisme n'est pas une opinion, c'est un délit depuis la loi de 1972. Il est puni.
If these factions are dangerous, they should be banned. If they aren’t prohibited, don’t be surprised about the activities that they planned in their charter . . . Because in France, racism is not an opinion, it’s a crime since the Act of 1972. It’s punishable.
The French have freedom of speech. It’s outlined in Article XI of The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, adopted in 1789 during the French Revolution.
The free communication of ideas and opinions is one of the most precious of the rights of man. Every citizen may, accordingly, speak, write, and print with freedom, but shall be responsible for such abuses of this freedom as shall be defined by law.
Unlike the Bill of Rights, The Declaration doesn’t leave its list of freedoms as absolutes without defined limits. The document’s title identifies people as citizens, placing them in the context of a civilized society with rules for interaction with equals.
Americans adamantly resist the idea that free speech can have a dark side. Prosecuting a politician like Le Pen for her offensive words, piles a second offense on top of the first. The same goes for the government banning right-wing groups. The government is just as bad as those it targets when it criminalizes ideas that it dislikes, as Glenn Greenwald wrote in the Guardian a few months back.
The French see it differently. A neutral acceptance of all behavior and ideas equally is foolish and absurd to them. It gives cover to malevolent interests while leaving society defenseless. It’s not a crime to disagree. And bigotry isn’t an intellectual disagreement. It’s a destructive practice that endangers others by directly opposing one of the founding principles of the Republic, equal rights for all.
The French don’t doubt their own ability to distinguish between persecution of political opponents and the steps they believe are necessary to protect society from a danger. It helps that they aren’t possessed by the toxic mistrust of government that runs rampant in the US. And they like to believe that reason and logic are in their blood as a legacy inherited from René Descartes.
With no hope of France and the US ever seeing eye to eye on the preservation of civil liberties, does either one have bragging rights?
Despite their courageous efforts, France still has right wing extremists who demonize Muslims, and all immigrants, as well as the European Union, gays, and Socialists. Clément Méric’s murder made it very clear that the danger of bigotry is more than rhetoric and it persists.
In the US, boundless freedom doesn’t equate to a robust competition of ideas or the free flow of information. In fact, boundless freedom hasn't always equated to boundless freedom for all people at all times, either. The typical media personality tip toes carefully around politicians on camera while the French show no such deference in their interviews.
The promise and the potential of civil liberties in the US don't compare well anymore with their current status after the recent reality check. Maybe it's not possible to fully appreciate what has been taken for granted. John Kerry spoke about freedom in America to a group of German students earlier this year. It may not get any more real than this.
In America you have a right to be stupid — if you want to be.
---Secretary of State John Kerry