There is no such a thing as a First Amendment in France. One reason is that liberté de l’esprit (freedom of thought and expression, as well as irreverence toward the powers that be) has been part of the French psyche, culture, and custom for too long.
It actually predates the Revolution of 1789: the Old Regime was deemed to be “an absolute monarchy limited by satiric songs.” Under the French modern regimes in the 19th and 20th centuries, public intellectuals — from François-René de Chateaubriand to Victor Hugo to Emile Zola to Jean-Paul Sartre — enjoyed extensive influence and extensive, if not complete, immunity.
In 1898, when Zola published J’accuse (I Accuse), a devastating indictment of the handling of the Dreyfus case by a French military court, he was sued for “defaming” the military judges and sentenced to one year in jail and a 3000 francs fine. He was, however, pardoned two years later by the president of the Republic, Emile Loubet.
Seventy years later, in 1968, when Interior Minister Raymond Marcellin considered suing Sartre for supporting a subversive Maoist newspaper, another president — Charles de Gaulle — tersely reminded him: “Marcellin, one does not send philosophers to jail.”
However, recent developments may point to a completely different situation, and may turn a French First Amendment into a necessity after all.
Consider the cases of Pascal Bruckner and Georges Bensoussan.
Pascal Bruckner, 68, is one of France’s finest public intellectuals, the author of no fewer than twenty-eight books. He served as assistant or associate professor at Sciences Po (the famed Institute for Political Science in Paris) and at several American universities. A Catholic and the son of a Protestant pro-Nazi engineer, he was a Marxist sympathizer in the late 1960s.
By the mid-1970s, he had rejected both right-wing and left-wing extremism, along with such Nouveaux Philosophes (new philosophers) as Alain Finkielkraut, Bernard-Henri Levy, Christian Jambet, and Jean-Marie Benoist. This has remained his stand ever since then.
It turned him into an admirer of American democracy, a loyal — if moderate — supporter of Israel, and a critic of radical Islam: three major crimes according to French political correctness.
In 2015, shortly after the Bataclan massacre, an Islamist terror attack in Paris that killed 130 people and wounded or maimed about 368, Bruckner remarked on a radio program that such “anti-racist” militant groups as Les Indivisibles (The Indivisibles) and Les Indigènes de la République (The Republic’s Natives), known to show systematic partiality for non-Caucasians and Muslims whatever the issue, provided “ideological justification” for jihadism.
He was subsequently sued for defamation by both groups.
Even if Bruckner was cleared on January 17 by a Paris court, one wonders whether the defamation charge should have been considered in the first place, and whether it was not part of a larger attempt to harass and silence him. One reason why Bruckner may have been targeted is that he frequently wrote about anti-Semitism, including in a 2014 personal memoir, Un Bon Fils (A Good Son), in which he described his own father’s pathological hatred for Jews.
It was all the more significant, and all the more unacceptable from a left-wing or pro-Islamist angle, that he repeatedly construed “Islamophobia” as a polemical tool rather than the conceptual and ethical equivalent of anti-Semitism.
Georges Bensoussan’s case is even more troubling than Bruckner’s.
Bensoussan, 64, is a French academic of Moroccan-Jewish origin, specializing in the history of modern Judaism, anti-Semitism, and the Holocaust, and the author of several seminal books on these issues. In addition, he is the editor in chief of Revue d’Histoire de la Shoah (The Journal of Holocaust History), a journal published by Mémorial de la Shoah, the French national Holocaust museum in Paris. As such, he carries, just like Bruckner, a lot of authority in matters pertaining to racism and anti-Semitism, if not a greater authority. And just like Bruckner, he rejects any parallel between anti-Semitism and “Islamophobia.”
Moreover, Bensoussan edited in 2002 under the pen name Emmanuel Brenner, along with other French academics, Les Territoires perdus de la République (The Lost Territories of the Republic), one of the first objective reports about the spread of radical Islam in France and its disruptive impact on French politics, public safety, and the educational system. He has remained to this day one of France’s foremost experts in these matters. He just edited a sequel, Une France Soumise (Submissive France).
During a debate aired on France-Culture (France’s cultural State radio) on October 15, 2015, Bensoussan remarked that anti-Semitism was deeply rooted in the family culture of French Muslims.
He mentioned to this effect an Algerian sociologist, Smaïn Laacher, who had insisted that anti-Semitism among Muslims is part of the “domestic sphere” (“l’espace domestique”) and “almost naturally included in the language itself” (“il est quasi naturellement déposé sur la langué, déposé dans la langue”). Since this was a radio debate, Bensoussan did not quote Laacher verbatim, but used a colloquial French expression to sum up the matter:
In Arab families … anti-Semitism is being ingested with the mother’s milk.
Many politically correct intellectuals or organizations charged Bensoussan of using a “biological,” meaning inherently “racist,“ vocabulary.
Interestingly enough, no Muslim, North African, or anti-racist group formally sued Bensoussan in court. Chances are that lawyers warned about the paucity of the charges.
However, one group, Collectif Contre l’Islamophobie en France, or CCIF (the Collective Against Islamophobia In France) “signaled” the matter to the public prosecutor’s office at the very last moment. And it is the public prosecutor’s office — which, under French law, belongs to the government’s judiciary branch — that resolved to prosecute Bensoussan.
According to a 2013 decision of the European Court of Human Rights, the French public prosecutor’s office cannot be considered as an independent judicial authority.
Bensoussan’s trial started on January 25. Upon the publication of Submissive France on January 19, the French League for the Rights of Man, a venerable human rights advocacy group that evolved over the years into a left-wing group, decided to join CCIF against Bensoussan. So did SOS Racisme, an anti-racist organization with strong ties to the French Socialist Party founded in 1984.
As we said, maybe a French First Amendment will be a necessity after all.