Obscurantism vs Freedom of Speech: the resurgence of the fatal clash in France

Hannah Martinez (her/she) is a second year War Studies student. She is deeply interested in current political events and international relations that she finds particularly challenging in our contemporary time. Also, she is that girl who officially is too snobbish to watch certain Netflix shows and goes to art galleries but secretly loves KUWTK.

[Featured Image: Candles and Roses lit in Nice, France following the string of terrorist attacks in France in October 2020. Source]

            This year, France did not celebrate Halloween because of the generalized lockdown imposed by the government on the 29th of October, but if you would excuse my inappropriate metaphor, the country has had its fair share of horrors this month starting with the machete attack in late September. That Friday morning, two journalists smoking in a street of the 11th arrondissement, where the Charlie Hebdo headquarters once were, were attacked and severely injured by a terrorist who claimed to defend Islam and the Prophet. Exactly three weeks later, about 20km away from that first crime scene, a middle school history and geography teacher was decapitated on his way home from work in a small, calm and suburban city. On the morning of the 29th of October, three were killed in a Catholic church in the middle of Nice. That same day, a man carrying a  butcher’s knife was arrested in the middle of Lyon, and the same phenomenon happened on the 30th of October in Avignon.

            However absurd the cruelty of the attacks may seem, they can be understood or at least explained in the context of the opening of the Charlie Hebdo trial on the 2nd of September during which the people accused of participating in the conduct of the 2015 January attacks were judged. The highly mediatized cover of the trial caused the mass publishing and the resurgence in the public sphere of the Charlie Hebdo caricatures whose content were designated by the terrorists as the cause of the attacks. Samuel Paty, the murdered teacher, was executed, according to the terrorist’s claims, because he had shown the caricatures to a class of 8th graders on the 6th of October. He had shown the caricatures in the context of a class on Freedom of Speech after inviting all students whose sensibility might be hurt by the drawings, to leave the class if they wished. However, regardless of the objectivity and carefulness of the teacher during his class, his action was severally condemned by several parents of students who filed a complaint against him for showing pornographic images to children and denounced his actions on social media; It has yet to be judged if those videos posted by a father, whose daughter was not even in the class at that time, are an incitement to hatred or not. However, regardless of the goal of those denunciation videos, the father who published them on Facebook was in contact with the terrorist that would murder Samuel Paty on the 16th of October for teaching his students about Freedom of Speech and Secularism.

            Terrorist attacks by radical Islamists are not a new threat in France, however the murder of Samuel Paty is different, first of all because a specific person was targeted and the goal of the attack was not to shoot into the masses to terrorize. Indeed, the republican figure of the teacher was murdered because he posed a threat to radicalism and hatred of any sort the moment he taught children the principles of Freedom and Secularism, principles that are at the core of the French republic. This terrorist attack is also different because it was not planned or committed by a terrorist organization. The murderer had never been recruited or indoctrinated by a specific group; He was an 18 year old young man. His family had sought asylum in France a generation ago and even if he was born in Moscow, he had attended French public school his whole life. He was a regular young adult, who after coming across a video on Facebook, decided to hunt down and murder a man who lived 80 km away from him in order to “avenge the Prophet“. This attack frightfully reveals that today, notably because of the broadness and anonymity on social media, anyone can indoctrinate himself and become a terrorist. What is maybe even more frightening is the reaction of some people to those attacks. Many people disapprove of the perpetrator of the attacks, the executioner, but also the victims. Indeed, a certain legitimization and tolerance of the attack can be detected in some, as they condemn the offensive caricatures and the showing of them in class by the teacher. Indeed, Samuel Paty could have not showed them, and Charlie Hebdo could have not published them in 2006, but that would be giving into oppression and the death of secular values. A certain number of people tolerate and understand the attack, a phenomenon that can be verified on social media, and a speech that could easily slip into violence and that actually has, as four consecutive attacks or threats of attacks since the 29th of October have occurred.

            Since those attacks 4000 more soldiers have been deployed in the cities of France, and particular attention and protection have been accorded to schools and places of worship. Moreover, the hommage to Samuel Paty in every French school on the 2nd of November has been moved for security reasons. Every parent right now is scared to let their children walk the streets to go to back to school on Monday, because we are all threatened by a global pandemic that contaminates more than 49 000 people a day and because an unpredictable and domestic threat of murder stalks everyone of us. Furthermore, this situation of violence is only aggravated by the denunciation and call for Boycott of French products by several heads of States after Emmanuel Macron claimed his support to the publishing of the caricatures.

            I believe that I can easily assure you that France has never seen such as dark time since the beginning of the 21st century, and I unfortunately do not see how it can get better. Indeed, these multiple attacks either by Muslim citizens (16th of October attack) or foreign nationals ( 25th of September attack, 29th of October attack) easily nourish the racist and xenophobic speech of the French Far Right, another form of hatred, violence and obscurantism. In the wake of the 2022 presidential elections, the Rassemblement National leader Marine LePen, amongst others, has woken up and jumped to the occasion to pursue her political agenda of gaining as much support as possible, and these attacks provide the perfect opportunity for her to denounce the threat Islam supposedly poses to France and its citizens. This speech of amalgame and islamophobia has even spread to the government when, in a interview on the 20th of October, the French minister of the Interior, well known for his controversial opinions, affirmed that he was “personally shocked“ by the presence of Halal and Kosher food in Supermarkets.

            Maybe it’s my seasonal blues, or the prospect of a never ending pandemic, but my optimism and faith in people has only declined. As a French citizen, I ache to see my country’s values, the ones of the Enlightenment period, of the French revolution, being threatened and more gravely, causing the murder of others. Today, many teachers, a profession that is the foundation of any republic, are frightened, and rightfully so, to teach children the rights to Secularism, to Freedom of Speech and even of Blaspheme. Our society is progressively dividing itself to a point of no return and obscurantism is creeping into every side of the political spectrum.

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