And with it the freedom to blaspheme.
But a deeply rooted tradition of shamelessly mocking men and gods could be in jeopardy five years after jihadists’ deadly attacks on satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, the national flag bearer of outrageous comments, observers say.
No less than two million people and 40 world leaders marched in Paris after the massacre of January 2015, in a staunch defense of freedom of expression perpetuated by the rallying cry: “Je suis Charlie”.
But while 17 suspects will be tried in the attacks next week, some seem to have lost their appetite for the affront.
Only half of French people questioned in a survey conducted by Ifop pollsters for Charlie Hebdo last February said they supported the “right to criticize, even outrageously, a religious belief, symbol or dogma”.
Most of the opponents were under 25.
“In a world that calls itself secular, a France that describes itself as less and less religious, blasphemy has paradoxically become a major taboo,” said Anastasia Colosimo, professor of political theology at the University of Sciences Po in Paris.
“Anti-clericalism or atheism is increasingly seen as offensive. It is no longer in fashion. ”
This is a change for the first country in Europe to decriminalize blasphemy – officially in 1881, but in practice already after the revolution of 1789.
“The rejection of the concept of blasphemy is part of the very origins of the (French) republic,” political historian Jean Garrigues told AFP.
“It is linked to the history of the Church, to the supremacy of the Catholic Church in French society and (its) association with the monarchy” overthrown by the revolutionary republicans.
“It’s something that really goes to the heart of the French identity. ”
– Fear of punishment –
But some have pointed to a creeping trend towards self-censorship, driven in part by fear of violent reprisals of the type unleashed against Charlie Hebdo by brothers Cherif and Said Kouachi five years ago.
The attack, in the name of “avenging” the Muslim prophet Mohammed, claimed the lives of 12 people, including five cartoonists.
“With the 2015 attack, the reality of risking one’s life translated into even stronger self-censorship,” Colosimo said.
Charlie Hebdo, a fiercely secular and anti-racist publication, prides itself on being an equal opportunity violator of fanatics and religious leaders of all stripes. But he was particularly criticized for some of his drawings of Muhammad, and not just from Muslims.
For Garrigues, a growing tendency to fire punches was driven largely by the desire of the political left to “not appear hostile” to minority groups.
According to Charlie Hebdo himself, the results of the February Ifop poll revealed “enormous confusion between insulting a religion and its symbols – which is legal – and a call to hatred against believers – which is punished by law “.
– “Consensual” cartoons –
Charlie Hebdo continued to attract Mohammed and criticize Islam.
But some say he has lost his enthusiasm, and one of the publication’s most outspoken journalists, Zineb El Rhazoui, resigned in 2017 saying he had become soft on Islamist extremism.
Charlie Hebdo cartoonist and editor-in-chief Laurent “Riss” Sourisseau, who lost the use of his right arm but survived the 2015 attack by playing dead, told AFP in January that he There was a general tendency in France for political cartoons to be “extremely consensual”.
“There isn’t a lot of editorial risk taking on the part of the newspapers and the cartoons are getting a bit bland,” he said.
Critics say protections for free speech have been gradually reduced.
In 1972, the so-called Pleven Law, with the aim of combating racism, created the offenses of insulting, defamation and incitement to hatred, violence or discrimination.
Holocaust denial has been illegal in France since 1990.
“Since the Pleven law, we have only tightened the bans, increased penalties and reduced… rights,” Colosimo said.
– ‘Insult’ to religion –
In January of this year, a renewed debate over free speech erupted when a teenager received death threats for calling Islam a “shit religion” in a swear words on Instagram.
The then French Minister of Justice, Nicole Belloubet, while denouncing the threats against the young girl, was widely criticized for having declared that she had committed an “insult to religion”.
President Emmanuel Macron spoke out in favor of a strong defense of the teenage Mila and the right of all French people “to blaspheme, to criticize, to caricature religion”.
“Freedom of speech does not exist to protect pleasant discussions,” Colosimo said. “He is there to protect discussions that offend, what a shock, what an alarm. ”
And without a protected public platform for heated discussions, she warned, “we might meet them in a different way, in even more violent words or in actions.”