The Charlie Hebdo Hypocrisy


            On January 7, 2015 two masked gunmen entered the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a French humor magazine that had been criticized for running pictures of and mocking the Prophet Mohammad, and killed 12 people while injuring another 11, four critically.  It was the worst terrorist attack in France in fifty-two years.  The world responded with outrage and millions of French people and leaders from around the world came to Paris to attend a march proclaiming “We are Charlie.”


            I abhor this massacre and am a firm believer in freedom of the press.  However, any fair minded person would have to understand the rage and frustrations of Muslims when the legerdemain toward press treatment of the Prophet Mohammed is compared, say, to the laws punishing comments about the Holocaust.  How many front cover ridicules of the Holocaust, the justification for the creation of Israel and its taking of Arab lands and water, have been published by Charlie Hebdo?


            In 2002, France held a presidential election.  President Jacques Chirac was slated to face his prime minister in the cohabitation government, Lionel Jospin, in the second round of the French election and had agreed to debate him.  Surprisingly and unfortunately, the French voters on the left were so fragmented, that the results of the first round of voting saw the far right perennial candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen squeak into second place by a mere 200,000 votes, putting him, rather than Jospin, in the run-off with Chirac.


            So, what did the French President, the leader of Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité do?  He refused to debate Le Pen.  Like the We are Charlie demonstrations, a million people marched in Paris to express their hatred of Le Pen and the obnoxious views he represented, and support the President in his refusal to debate. In other words, censorship by mob rule. The more than four million voters who supported Le Pen were ignored. The result was an unprecedented landslide for Chirac, 82%.


            But does France really have a “free press?”  Well, that depends on what you want to say.  France, along with fifteen other countries mostly in Europe, have laws against “Holocaust denial.”  Le Pen had run for president several times before 2002 and had been elected to both the French Assembly and the European parliament.  In 1987, he was arrested and fined for making provocative statements concerning the Holocaust.  He said, “I ask myself several questions.  I’m not saying the gas chambers didn’t exist.  I haven’t seen them myself.  I haven’t particularly studied the question.  But I believe it’s just a detail in the history of World War II.”  He was condemned under the Gayssot Act and forced to pay 1.2 million francs (about $250,000).


            In 1997, Le Pen was a member of the European Parliament which removed his parliamentary immunity so that he could be tried by a German court for comments he made at a December 1996 press conference.  Echoing his 1987 remarks, Le Pen said, “If you take a 1,000 page book on World War II, the concentration camps take up only two pages and the gas chambers 10 to 15 lines.  This is what one calls a detail.”  In June 1999, a Munich court found this statement to be “minimizing the Holocaust, which caused the deaths of six million Jews,” and convicted and fined Le Pen for his remarks.


            Now, I do not agree with almost any of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s positions.  But any fair minded person should compare the exquisite sensitivity of the law to comments about the Holocaust to the alleged “freedom of the press” where the sensitivities of Muslims are concerned.  There has been a successful campaign in France, under the banner of separation of church and state, to outlaw the burka.  Both the United States and France profess to support separation of church and state; but the United States protects the individual from the state, while in France, the separation protects the state from the individual.  This is due to the historical roots of the issue in both countries because France once did have a state religion. Therefore, while it would probably be illegal to prevent a woman from wearing a burka in the United States, it is now illegal for a woman to wear one in France.


            Also, the history of French relations with Muslims is not good.  France fought a bloody war in Algeria in the 1950’s and ‘60’s that cost hundreds of thousands of Algerian Muslim lives. On October 17, 1961, the police in Paris actually deliberately tortured and murdered Algerians who were peacefully demonstrating in favor of Algerian independence.  In their enthusiasm, the police killed Tunisians, Moroccans and even some Italians by mistake.  This is not to say that the Algerian FLN was not planting bombs and targeting police.   In 1992, when the Islamic Salvation Front won a sweeping victory in the first round of parliamentary elections and was poised to take control of the government after the run-off round, the military in Algeria with the backing of the French cancelled the second round, setting off another civil war that killed about 200,000 more.


            Currently, both the United States and France are bombing the Islamic State in Syria.  Certainly, any fair minded person can see that, when it comes to freedom of the press or freedom of action, Islam and Muslims are discriminated against constantly and in major, lethal ways.  Now, I like a good joke more than most and find nothing offensive in Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons. But it is not hard to understand how a Muslim could become enraged at the double standard when hyperbole in discussing the Holocaust is a punishable crime while mocking the Prophet Mohammad is protected by press freedom.  And the arrogant, outrageous, insulting, and inflammatory, behavior of Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu on his trip to France for the We are Charlie demonstration  makes Muslim rage even more understandable.       


            French freedom of the press is highly selective in areas other than the Holocaust.  When Valérie Giscard d’Estaing was Minister of Finance, he liked to go hunting in the Central African Republic.  While there, he accepted some gifts of diamonds from the President Jean-Bedel Bokassa.


            The diamonds became public knowledge and a major issue in Giscard’s re-election campaign that he lost.  By that time, however, the French president had used the armed forces to assist in the overthrow of Bokassa.  Bokassa went into exile, first in the Ivory Coast, and then in France itself.


            While in France, Bokassa tried to rehabilitate himself and get back at his enemies.  He wrote a book, Ma Vérité.  For what happened next, let me quote from Dark Age: The Political Odyssey of Emperor Bokassa by Brian Titley, a book that is almost impossible to obtain.


                        “On 8 May 1985, ten thousand copies of Ma Vérité rolled off the presses.  The book was 218 pages long, with 54

                        photographs, and its shiny black hardcover featured a golden eagle in a circle of stars. But the bookstores never

                        had the chance to stock it.  Warned of the unpleasant nature of its contents, Giscard d’Estaing acquired a copy

                        before it went on sale, and on 11 May his lawyer obtained a court injunction blocking publication on account

                        of the book’s ‘odious and grotesque assertions.’


“’I have been slandered once; it will not be done a second time,’ said the ex-president with his habitual air of indignation. ‘I will not allow a fallen sovereign to attack my honour and reputation in order to avenge himself.’

Two days later the Tribunal de grande instance de Paris not only forbade the sale of Ma Vérité, but ordered all ten thousand copies destroyed. And so it was done. The French public never had the chance to read the truth according

To Bokassa or the ‘odious and grotesque assertion’ he had made about his former ‘dear cousin.’” P. 172-173


            The point is that when it comes to protecting the prestige and reputation of the President of France, books can be banned and ordered destroyed.  But when it comes to ridiculing the prophet Mohammed, then it’s “freedom of the press”.  It is not difficult to understand how Muslims living France might be enraged and upset by this clear double standard and hypocrisy.


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Contact: Joshua Leinsdorf