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Freedom of Speech and Expression: A Tempest in France

Freedom of speech and expression is regarded as the first stipulation of liberation. It gives individuals the freedom to criticize or speak up in favor of authorities, to express without having to face restrictions or repression by the government, and should be protected at all costs. Freedom of speech is assured not only by the constitution or statutes of various states but also by various international conventions like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, European Convention on Human Rights and fundamental freedoms, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Despite the fact that it is the protector of all rights and liberties, it’s necessary to draw a line in order to avoid misuse, but what happens when that line becomes blurry? Recent complications regarding the protection of such lines and their distinction in France have taken the world's attention as they continue to pile. What consequences shall this leave behind? Here’s more on this by Perspectoverse’s Sanskriti Kundra.


The horrific and saddening murder of the french teacher Samuel Paty led to a difficult discussion amongst the streets of France regarding freedom of speech and expression and who should have the right to exercise it. On October 16th 2020, Samuel Paty was beheaded by an 18-year-old Russian immigrant. Paty was teaching a class on freedom of speech and expression in which he showed a cartoon of prophet Muhammad from the magazine ‘Charlie Hebdo’ as an example. According to Islam, prophet Muhammad shouldn’t be visualized, they even go as far as to forbid it. Not only did Charlie Hebdo visualize prophet Muhammad, they also depicted him in a way that related terrorism to Islam.

Were Paty’s actions deserving of such a severe penalty? Where does the French government stand on this?

According to the French government, “Freedom of expression is enshrined in the Declaration of the Rights of Man, but it has limits." On 15th of the March of 2004, French national legislature passed a law, "Loi no 2004-228 du 15 mars 2004 encadrant, en application du principe de laïcité, le port de signes ou de tenues manifestant une appartenance religieuse dans les écoles, collèges et lycées publics", which literally translates to "Law #2004-228 of the 15th of March, 2004, concerning, as an application of the principle of the separation of church and state, the wearing of symbols or garb which show religious affiliation in public primary and secondary schools". As the law does not mention any specific religious symbols or merchandise, it leads to the ban of them all. Many argue that this law is very clearly compromising freedom of expression and is targeting French minorities, such as Muslims and Jews.

France’s record on freedom of expression in other areas is just as bleak. Thousands of people are convicted every year for “contempt of public officials”, a vaguely defined criminal offense that law enforcement and judicial authorities have applied in massive numbers to silence peaceful dissent. In June of 2021, the European Court of Human Rights found that the convictions of 11 activists in France for campaigning for a boycott of Israeli products violated their free speech.

Not to mention that France also has a long history of censorship dating as far back as the 16th century when Francis I of France declared that all religious books need to be approved by the faculty of theology and banned the printing of the Bible in French. Although the constitution of France does guarantee freedom of press, indirect pressures are sometimes applied to prevent the publication of materials against the interests of the government or influential industries. Involvement of the government and major industrial groups, sometimes with political ties, with certain press organisations sometimes raises questions as to the ability of the press to remain truly independent and unrestricted.

Freedom of speech means nothing if it isn’t applicable for every french citizen. The French government headed by Prime Minister Jean Castex, seems to be hiding behind the notion of “free speech” and continues to play the puppet master and do what’s in its best interests. While the idea of promoting nation over religion isn’t a bad thing, the marginalisation of minorities is not the way to go. The ‘freedom’ that the French constitution claims to provide shouldn’t just exist on paper or in favour of the authorities already in power.

As France's esteemed 17th century philosopher, Voltaire, once said, “I may not agree with what you have to say, but I'll defend to death your right to say it.”

Written by Sanskriti Kundra

Illustrated by Anushka Doshi






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