Is France Right To Criminalize Online Hate Speech?

Facebook says it's wary of crossing the boundary into censorship but minorities say France's muscular approach on the ground is the bigger problem

The word "quenelle" near the Eiffel Tower — Reuters
Apr 20, 2017 at 1:39 PM ET

PARIS _ Illan Haddad, 31, has for years worn a baseball hat over his yarmulke in fear of being attacked because he’s a Jew. It’s been that way since he was 15 and a Muslim neighbor shouted “Long live Palestine!” before spitting and assaulting him in his hometown of Gennevilliers, a northwestern suburb of Paris.

As he waits in a metro station in the center of Paris on his way home from work, he sighs with relief, anxious to escape what he says is a daily “atmosphere of tension.”

Hate speech, both online and in real life, has been percolating in French society for years. Human rights advocates say the toxic French brands of anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and racism have resurged in the week leading up to Sunday’s presidential elections, as candidates launch their final efforts to mobilize the party and draw new voters. A Thursday night shootout, in which a gunman claimed by ISIS killed a police officer on the iconic Champs Elysees boulevard, has caused tensions to soar.

After Brexit in the United Kingdom and the election of Donald Trump in the U.S., this year’s presidential campaigns have morphed into an insidious and unprecedented competition of identity politics. Marine Le Pen, the surprising far-right frontrunner who heads the once-fringe National Front party, has brought xenophobia and the “clash” of Islamic and Western civilizations into mainstream discourse. On Wednesday, the anti-European Union and anti-immigration Le Pen wrapped up her last rally in Marseille — where a day earlier police arrested two men on suspicion of plotting an election attack — with a promise to stamp out the “poison” of radical Islam. She’s also promised to ban the head scarf for Muslim women and the yarmulke for Jewish men.

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Even Francois Fillon, the once-favored conservative candidate now polling in third place after a corruption scandal, has tapped into his conservative Catholic voting bloc who argue that the country’s Christian traditions serve as its bulwark. “Let’s stop kidding ourselves,” Fillon wrote in his recently released bestselling book, Vanquishing Islamic Totalitarianism. “France doesn’t have a problem with religion. The problem is linked to Islam.”

In a fake interview published last week on the satirical website NordPresse, the prominent French-Jewish philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy was quoted as saying, “If Melenchon is elected, I’m leaving France,” referring to Communist-backed candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon who has recently risen in the polls. The hashtag #BHL — standing for Bernard-Henri Levy — has since exploded on Twitter, and hundreds of Melenchon supporters circulated the fake interview on Twitter along with anti-Semitic comments. “Shove off to Israel or the States, you son of a bitch,” one Twitter user wrote.

France’s unusual political foray into the realm of religion, “is bad for all of us,” says Haddad.

“Jews and Muslims are being talked about as ‘others,’ but we are French above anything else,” he says. He adds that Jews and Muslims are being increasingly co-opted by the candidates, but none are addressing the real problems affecting the Muslim minority: lower access to education and housing and their over-representation in prisons where they’re exposed to radicalization. He says the Jewish community has an interest in seeing those resolved, “since we, Jews and Muslims, we share the same struggle,” and because French Muslims today carry out the greatest number of attacks against French Jews.

The French election will take place in two rounds, on April 23 and May 7. Many polls show that Le Pen will win the first round and lose to centrist candidate Emannuel Macron in the second.

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Macron, Le Pen, Fillon and Mélenchon make it a four-horse race. The “Le Pen effect” now has all four  campaigning on law and order and “national identity.” But they’ve been virtually silent on a rising torrent of hate speech that has “become commonplace” in France, according to a report last year by the European Commission Against Racism and Intolerance.

Hundreds of attacks are carried out every year against Jews, Muslims, and black French citizens. The organizations that track the trends — operating independently of the government, which forbids official consensus based on religious affiliation, and has shown little political will to get involved in the problem — say that there is severe under-reporting.

That is because French security forces provide little incentive for those coming forward with incidents not directly linked with terrorism. When Illan Haddad filed a complaint with the police more than fifteen years ago, they only responded a year later with a letter of apology but no promise of action.

In recent years, the focus on Islamic terrorism has only increased. The Charlie Hebdo massacre and a spate of brutal coordinated killings in 2015 in and around Paris, carried out by French and Belgian Muslim citizens who pledged allegiance to ISIS, shook the French consciousness and spurred new questions about the place of Muslims in French society. France declared a state of emergency that gave the state greater powers of surveillance, originally meant to be temporary but which remains in place today. The state has carried out more than 4,100 house raids overwhelmingly targeting Muslim communities, resulting in only six terror-related investigations, according to the most recent European Islamophobia Report.

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“In the wake of a series of appalling attacks, from Paris to Berlin, governments have rushed through a raft of disproportionate and discriminatory laws,” said John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International’s Director for Europe. “Taken alone these individual counter-terrorism measures are worrying enough, but when seen together, a disturbing picture emerges in which unchecked powers are trampling freedoms that have long been taken for granted.”

Critics say that national security tunnel vision meant that too few politicians have challenged the country’s claims of being colorblind and or its exclusivist state program of secularism (laïcité). Anti-hate speech organizations say the government’s muscular stance has heightened minorities’ sense of isolation, especially in France’s blighted suburbs where Muslims, Jews, and other groups live in bleak housing projects and face economic discrimination.

Many of France’s five million Muslims and 500,000 Jews coexist uneasily in the suburbs surrounding Paris. Many Muslims complain that questioning the Holocaust is forbidden by law but insulting the Prophet Muhammad is not. Many Jews say they have returned to the level of insecurity their grandparents experienced in North Africa, where anti-Jewish pogroms forced a mass Jewish exodus to France in the 1950s and 1960s. Inter-communal violence and intimidation have become rampant, as the country polarizes in one of the most divisive elections in recent memory.

Anti-hate speech organizations say that it is the responsibility of American companies like Facebook and Twitter to take a more active stance. But tech giants have been reluctant to interfere in the murky world of online anti-Semitism, which is characterized today by a casualness that is both difficult to quantify and often deeply intertwined with politics. Even if users are banned from one site, they can always find other outlets, the argument goes.

“France is one of the only countries in the world that has laws against anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial, but we’ve seen that Facebook and other companies have not lived up to their pledge to take down illegal material within 24 hours,” said Jonathan Arfi, vice president of the Representative Council of French Jewish Institutions (CRIF), an umbrella organization of Jewish organizations in France. He adds that the sluggish response of social media groups has helped inflame the problem. He says he meets regularly with the local representatives of Facebook and other companies to “put pressure on them to take more responsibility.”

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Facebook and other social media companies have argued it is not their role to police the internet, and have lagged in taking down illegal online content. They are based in the United States, where free speech, including hate speech, is protected under the First Ammendment.

But since the 2015 terror attacks, companies have slowly begun to consent to sharing some responsibility for dangerous materials shared on their sites. Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Microsoft signed the EU hate speech code, requiring them to remove illegal content within 24 hours. Audrey Herblin-Stoop, the director of Twitter relations in France, wrote in Le Monde that “some people have abused the strength [of our platform.] They shout louder than the others, even deafening the positive messages. They have distorted freedom of expression.” Ahead of the elections, Facebook, Twitter, and other sites have been cooperating with local newspapers to enhance fact-checking tools to tackle hate speech and misinformation. Facebook announced last week that it closed 30,000 “fake accounts” in France.

Yasser Louati, a board member of the European Muslim Initiative For Social Cohesion, an organization that fights Islamophobia and hate crimes, says that such actions from companies like Facebook are too little, too late, and that lax policies of social media sites endanger the lives of all minorities in divided countries like France.

But as Facebook shirks its responsibilities under the “free speech” argument, Louati says social media’s role in France’s social discord has also emphasized the complicity of the French government, which he says has responded unevenly to anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.

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“The result is a hierarchy of one-upmanship – the government is prioritizing tackling anti-Semitism while ignoring other forms of racism – and it’s fueling conspiracy theories, which say that the state is controlled by the Jews,” says Louati. He claims there’s been a rise in anti-Muslim sites claiming that Muslims are “invading Europe” and that they have gone unchecked.

He says to understand the double failure of social media sites and the French government to grapple with hate speech, you need only look at the case of Dieudonne, a French comedian of Cameroonian descent. He popularized the so-called “quenelle,” an inverted Nazi salute, which he said was anti-Zionist and anti-establishment, but not anti-Semitic. He’s called on Christians and Muslims to unite to kill Jews and has depicted an Israeli settler as a Nazi. He’s been repeatedly convicted for hate speech, advocating terrorism, and slander in Belgium and in France.

But the ongoing state-versus-Dieudonne saga has only intensified the die-hard Dieudonne fan club, which praise every encounter with authorities. Feeding off the controversies, Dieudonne has continued to provoke.

In 2015, he posted of Facebook: “Je me sens Charlie Coulibaly,” I feel like Charlie Coulibaly, in reference to Amedy Coulibaly, the Islamist gunman who murdered four hostages at a kosher market in Paris in coordination with the terrorists who carried out the Charlie Hebdo killing two days earlier. Dieudonne said he was referring to the double standard in French free speech laws that defend a satirical magazine that published an image of the Prophet Muhammed, but seeks to limit Dieudonne’s shows. He was arrested and charged with a misdemeanor: “praising terrorism.”

Since then, controversies and lawsuits have kept on coming, and Dieudonne has used them to build his anti-establishment street cred.

Dieudonne is on tour ahead of the French elections. Nice has banned him, saying his jokes about an attack last year were a “Nicoise quennelle” that insulted the victims of the attack. In that attack a man who’d sworn loyalty to ISIS plowed a semi-trailer into a crowd of people celebrating Bastille Day, killing 86 and wounding dozens others.

But fans can head to the comedian’s official Youtube channel, which regularly fetches hundreds of thousands of views. “Dieudonne goes to prison” was viewed more than 600,000 times.

“Bravo Dieudo, like Mohamed Ali you prefer to be imprisoned rather than sacrifice your values. You are an example for all of us, in this world of cowards and collaborators,” read one comment on his Youtube page.

Rafael Tyszblat, the program director of a European interfaith organization, the Muslim-Jewish council, said that “the state is clueless about what to do with cases like Dieudonne. It’s running after this repressive policy which will never be comprehensive as long as it refuses to break down barriers and open up the ghettos.”

“Criminalizing racism can never be enough,” said Tyszblat.