Judging by France’s past responses to terror, denial is a river that runs straight through the heart of Paris as well as Egypt. However, in the weeks following the attack on Charlie Hebdo and the Hyper Cacher supermarket, France (or at least the French government) has finally admitted that it has a problem.
President François Hollande has acted decisively to clamp down on incitement, notably arresting anti-Jewish “comedian” Dieudonné for publicly expressing sympathy with Charlie Coulibaly, the murderer at Hyper Cacher. Last week he also appeared in court for the first time over an earlier expressed regret that a prominent French Jewish journalist had not died in the gas chambers. Meanwhile, French security forces have been conducting raids all over the country in an attempt to break up violent groups in various stages of formation. French Prime Minister Manuel Valls announced the hiring of 2,600 new counter-terrorism officials, of whom more than a third will be dedicated snoops. The Hebdo attacks demonstrated the woeful inadequacy of existing French anti-terror resources. The Kouachi brothers, after all, were known to French security services; they lost track of them to focus on seemingly more high priority cases.
France’s anti-extremist measures will come as cold comfort to those who, for years, have been shouting about the no-go zones for police around many French cities, the decade-long low-level war against the Jews, and, more recently, the departure of far more than a handful of young men and women for Jihad training or Jihad tourism in Iraq and Syria. It turns out that the problem is much bigger than “alienation,” to be discussed on talk shows or addressed through expensive state-sponsored, state-run initiatives like new public housing in difficult neighborhoods, or building new museums and libraries in these neighborhoods that almost no one visits. Still, better late than never. So far, France agrees, having met these measures with somewhat muted approval.
Not so in America. Here in the land of the Bill of Rights (and their postmodern interpretation), most opinion, especially when it comes to freedom of speech, has turned against the French response. To the New York Times, increased surveillance will “do little to protect…citizens but do a lot to infringe on civil liberties.” Possibly for the first time in the last few generations, Commentary agreed with the New York Times: Seth Mandel argued that France should rather forcefully protect the expression of Dieudonné, however repugnant. “Censoring and criminalizing anti-Semitism,” he wrote, is “incompatible with a free society.” In the Weekly Standard, Sam Schulman made an intelligent case for the revocation of French speech laws.
Are Americans right to take umbrage at France’s aggressive stance on “Islamist” speech and deed (a word uttered by Manuel Valls, a first for a French politician)? Take the question of speech first, about which the American reaction is to a certain degree natural. With the possible exception of their cousins in the Anglo parliamentary systems, Americans are blessed with the finest political institutions in the world and a degree of civic comity that, even in this very partisan moment, is unrivaled. The guarantees of free speech in the American Founding depended on Jefferson’s assertion that “we are all Federalists, we are all Republicans.” In other words, free speech operated in a context of acceptance of the principles enshrined in the Constitution. As the Constitutional scholar Edward Erler has shown, the view that all and any speech should be protected is a fairly recent innovation; the “free” in free speech originally meant speech in accordance with a free society—i.e. not absolute.
Even today, free speech in America operates within a political consensus that, if not accepted by all, is still accepted broadly. However much Republicans and Democrats now differ on principles, compare this situation to the divisions in France, which boasts: comical but still self-proclaimed communists, true believer socialists, a strengthening populist “anti-globalization” party (Marine Le Pen’s Front National), and various kinds of “realistic” conservatives who have little idea of what they want to conserve except “European unity,” whatever that means. To a greater or lesser extent, this describes the political makeup of most continental European countries. Add to that a small but discernible dose of Islamist politics, and there’s almost no comparison with U.S. politics. It is awareness of this reality that should color any consideration of speech laws as a general problem. In America, robust speech does not shatter the social pact. In France and on the continent in general, it very well may.
Critics of all stripes often retort that speech laws have been both arbitrary and useless. Why should anti-Semitic speech be banned and not communistic or fascistic speech, both of which could also shatter civic comity? Meanwhile, France’s law against Holocaust denial, instituted in 1990, preceded a marked increase in both Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism over the years. There is some truth to both of these points, though the growth in anti-Semitism in France over the past few decades has little to do with speech laws. Nevertheless since World War II general French restrictions on harmful speech have done more good than harm. Yes, they were designed and implemented by a self-serving political class hoping to entrench its kind of politics and its kind of people on a population that was less than perfectly willing—hardly the kind of politics we would hope for.
Yet the goals of the post-war political elite with respect to hate speech laws were humane. Whether it’s “hypocritical” to focus on anti-Semitism, anti-Semitism in France, as elsewhere, has never been only about the Jews. Indeed, from Dreyfus to Vichy, it has shown itself quite capable of tearing apart an already fragile social fabric. While speech laws are clearly not up to the task of defeating anti-Semitism once and for all, they have at least had the effect of deterring Dieudonné and the movements he might one day inspire: If you think Dieudonné is bad now, imagine if he had a political party. The French Interior Ministry’s action earlier this year in canceling performances by Dieudonné due to incitement could never have happened in the United States. And yet this strong move seemed to put Dieudonné and his followers on the defensive and, at least for a while, to push them back underground.
What about the boost to French domestic spying and anti-terror operations? I have no doubt that much of the French intelligence-gathering work leading up to the recent wave of anti-terror arrests would fail to match the high standards for due process set by American and common law. The sweeping powers given in laws and statutes of the French Fifth Republic to security forces on the matter of “public order” make even the NSA’s congressionally approved programs seem the very model of restraint. Provided anyone notices, this too might provoke some anger from Brussels bureaucrats and civil libertarians—except in France, where there aren’t any. The key point to consider, again, is the difference between the common and civil law. The modern French state—even the medieval one—has always possessed extremely wide scope to suppress domestic violence without pesky oversight by juries, congresses, and councils, as in the Anglo systems. And if you believe that modern France is too refined for this kind of work, you should read up on France in Algeria (which included operations in France) in the 1950s and 1960s.
Few honest observers of the two systems could, I believe, make a case for the superiority of the French model to the Anglo one. To a system of continual vigilance and law, as one finds in the Anglo systems, the French system seems to produce periods of tremendous laxness followed by periods of tremendous enforcement. But even as we might fairly judge the French system as lacking in comparison with others, we should not rob it of the only way it knows how to respond to such crises. It is, of course, possible that France will go too far. But thus far it has done the right thing. The attacks of this past January were called the “French 9/11.” Whether for good or ill, 9/11 changed American society, too, at least for a while. Let’s see what happens in France.