Prosecutions Show France Needs a First Amendment to Discuss Islam

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.