On 16 October 2020, in France, schoolteacher Samuel Paty was murdered for showing his class caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad. The vast majority of French political leaders immediately declared their support for the teacher and condemned the attack. During a ceremony held in Paty’s honour, Emmanuel Macron promised that France “will not give up religious cartoons.” In response, several Muslim countries, including Iran, Jordan, Algeria and Turkey, condemned the French president and called for a boycott of French goods. Recep Tayyip Erdogan even questioned Macron’s mental health.
Since the Charlie Hebdo attack of 7 January 2015, a death threat has hung over all who might be tempted to caricature the Prophet Muhammad. In early 2020, a 16-year-old French girl received tens of thousands of death threats for criticizing Islam on Instagram; she had to change schools several times for her safety.
Despite these tragic events, Emmanuel Macron has maintained his stance in defence of free speech. He tweeted: “Our history is one of the fight against tyranny and fanaticism. We will continue that fight. We will respect all differences in a spirit of peace.” This statement reflects the traditional French conception of free speech. According to French law, insulting a religion, even in a particularly virulent way, is allowed; insulting people based on their faith is not.
Nevertheless, following several terrorist attacks, many citizens and politicians in both France and the English-speaking world continue to advocate banning religious caricatures. In this context, a review of the historical and philosophical rationales for free speech protections may be helpful.
In France, freedom of speech is guaranteed by the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 1789,” which calls it “one of the most precious rights of man” (Article XI). The foundational French conception of free speech rights differs from the American one. While the First Amendment, enacted in 1791, simply prohibits Congress from “abridging the freedom of speech,” the French Declaration of 1789 includes explicit exceptions: “no one may be disturbed on account of his opinions, even religious ones, as long as the manifestation of such opinions does not interfere with the established Law and Order”; and “any citizen may speak, write and publish freely, except what is tantamount to the abuse of this liberty in the cases determined by Law.” (French law has allowed citizens to insult religion since the 1881 abolition of the crime of blasphemy, under the 29 July 1881 Freedom of the Press law, which also legalised the related secular crime of infringing upon religious morality.) Perhaps due to this historical difference, current French law tends to limit free speech more than American law does—for example, it prohibits incitement to racial hatred, under the Pleven Act of 1972, and Holocaust denial, under the Gayssot Act of 1990.
Yet both the US and France have long seen freedom of speech as a fundamental right intimately related to democracy. Indeed, the US Founding Fathers and the drafters of the French Declaration of 1789 exchanged ideas on the topic. For example, Lafayette consulted Thomas Jefferson before submitting his draft of a Declaration of Rights to the French Assembly.
Freedom of Speech in the History of French Philosophy
The different approaches to free speech taken by the founders of the French and American democracies mirror the disagreements on the topic between Rousseau and Voltaire, the French Enlightenment thinkers whose writings helped to clinch victory against religious and political oppression in France and to inspire the US Declaration of Independence. While both thinkers defended the ideals of liberty and free expression, their different rationales led them to recommend different approaches, and their famous disagreement still reverberates today.
Rousseau argues in The Social Contract (1762) that freedom does not mean release from all constraint: rather, it means freedom from submission to the will of a more powerful person. He held that individual freedom must be constrained by the will of the general public as expressed in duly enacted law, because only submission to the law can guarantee that everyone will be treated equally:
What people lose by the social contract is their natural liberty and their unrestricted right to have anything they want and can get; what they gain is civil liberty … Whoever refuses to obey the general will is to be compelled to do so by the whole body, which means nothing other than to be forced to be free.
In sum, freedom can’t exist without equality, and equality can’t exist without the constraints imposed by law. In Letters Written From the Mountain (1764), Rousseau explains, “Freedom is less about carrying out one’s own will than it is about not being subjected to the will of others; it consists in not being forced to submit our own will to that of others.”
Voltaire, by contrast, associates the idea of freedom with the right to own property and with the independence that property ownership confers. He argues that freedom is an inalienable individual right. As Evelyn Beatrice Hall summarizes Voltaire’s position: “I don’t agree with what you say, but I will fight for your right to say it.” Thus, Voltaire’s conception of free speech rights is much closer to the US approach than to France’s.
Why We Must Always Defend Freedom of Speech
French law currently allows people to insult any belief, but it also allows that law to be changed by popular will. The differing opinions in France about the Muhammad cartoons have raised anew the question of whether France should treat free expression as an inalienable right, like Voltaire, or as a relative liberty, like Rousseau. Should freedom of expression be absolute, or should it be restricted by the beliefs of others?
In France today, a new religious preference for restricting free speech has rekindled the struggle of the Enlightenment era, calling into question not only traditional French values, but also the democratic values of liberty that France shares with the US and UK. And it is not just Islam that is challenging those values. The progressive left is also increasingly opposed to freedom of expression, and is slowly persuading people to forego democratic debate in the name of protecting people’s right not to be offended.
Humanity progresses by grappling with new ideas. Three years after Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, he drafted the Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom, which forbade state support of religious institutions or enforcement of religious doctrine. His words are worth remembering:
Truth is great and will prevail if left to herself, that she is the proper and sufficient antagonist to error, and has nothing to fear from the conflict, unless by human interposition disarmed of her natural weapons, free argument and debate; errors ceasing to be dangerous when it is permitted freely to contradict them.
No one has anything to fear from a speech. But everyone should be afraid of the erosion of our fundamental rights. This is why we should choose Voltaire over Rousseau. We should reaffirm free speech protections and refuse to concede anything to fanaticism or political correctness. Otherwise, those protections may begin to fall—not only in France, but all around the world.