Out of its 65 million citizens, France has an estimated 5.7 million Muslims. With one of the highest Muslim populations in Europe, France has also faced a high number of islamophobic cases. Burkinis, full body swimsuits commonly worn by Muslim women to the beach or pool, were banned in 26 French towns in 2016, before the law was struck down a few months later. Four years later, after the beheading of Samuel Paty, a French school-teacher, by a Russian-born Muslim student, French authorities put Muslim communities under surveillance while vigilante groups attacked mosques. It is this growing islamophobia that has driven a ‘witch-hunt’ against Islam’s followers.
The murder of Samuel Paty came after he showed his students a caricature of the Islamic prophet Muhammad. France is now questioning its long history of secular values which many believe is adding to Islamic extremism. Under the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, a human civil rights document from the French Revolution, French citizens are guaranteed freedom of expression. However, freedom of the press is a little tighter. Racism, antisemitism, racial hatred and justification of terrorism are not protected under this right and are punishable by law. The government has been working to limit free speech even more with the goal of combating similar “terrorist attacks.” Islamophobia in France will persist, as it has in a number of Western countries, but targeting specific communities because of one person’s actions is not justifiable and instead adds to a dangerous stigma.
President Emmanuel Macron has been criticized for “attacking Islam” by cracking down on radical Islamists. In late October, two Muslim women were stabbed near the Eiffel Tower in Paris, an assualt amid heightened tensions among the French people, yet it is still debated whether or not the attack had anything to do with racial or religious discrimination. Three people were later killed in Nice, France by Islamist extremists. Radicalization remains a pressing issue among policymakers in France. Whatever action is taken toward free speech will be answered with violence between both sides of the political spectrum. Those for a ban on hate toward Islam argue that such actions or speech should be likened to those of the Holocaust as antisemitism, under the law, is not allowed. While critics that are against the ban say that France’s secular practices are at risk. The “common sense” that satire in political comics is supposed to promote is now under threat. The government’s unsuccessful attempts at keeping its secular values as well as embracing those independent to Muslim migrants will continue to clash until there is no longer a middle ground.
The limits of satire are undeniably questionable but is it not hypocritical to not allow the insult of the Holocaust under the French law and still allow that of the Islamic faith? If free speech has its limitations in the European nation then it should be made fair to all religions. If not, it is unrealistic to assume that French democratic principles will surpass those of Muslim countries. Ignoring the mockery, with its islamophobic undertones, will just not happen in France. Separation of church and state is a fundamental part of democracy, especially in France. If the French government chooses to not further censor the laws that have allowed the insult of Islam to occur, then it should therefore allow the public insult of all faiths to be legal, similar to the laws in the United States. That will not lessen the risk of extremists but it does make free speech more fair and less biased.