Iranian protesters burn a France flag during a protest gathering against Charlie Hebdo. Picture Credit: Morteza Nikoubazl/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The betrayal of Charlie Hebdo 

The French intelligentsia has reneged on promises of fearless free speech and embraced a pervasive culture of censorship

The Critic Essay

Nine years ago this month two Islamist gunmen burst into the editorial office of Charlie Hebdo and murdered most of the staff. They did so because the satirical magazine had offended them by publishing caricatures of Mohammed.  

Four days later I walked through Paris with one and a half million French people in a show of solidarity for the dead journalists. Many held signs emblazoned with “Je Suis Charlie”, and others brandished pencils as a way of demonstrating their commitment to the freedom of expression. 

The great and good united in solidarity…for a short lived photo-op. Picture Credit: Eric BERACASSAT/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Many of those who marched, probably a majority, came from the left, as did Charlie Hebdo. When the magazine was prosecuted in 2007 by Muslim groups for having published cartoons of the Prophet, among those who turned up in court to support the defendant were Francois Hollande, then leader of the Socialist Party. “Freedom of expression is an absolute principle”, he proclaimed

In the days immediately after the 2015 attack, Charlie Hebdo set up temporary home in the offices of the left-wing newspaper Liberation. “By defending your freedom, you have defended ours”, declared Pierre Fraidenraich, the newspaper’s Operations Director. 

As it turned out, that was the last stand of Liberation in defending free speech. The arrival in France of American identity politics, which began with the MeToo movement in 2017, has demolished with astonishing speed the French left’s allegiance to liberty of expression.  

In an op-ed in 2020 to mark the fifth anniversary of the massacre, Liberation said that the “Spirit of Charlie” was “insidiously receding under the weight of the “new censorship”. Rather than examining its own conscience, however, the newspaper blamed Charlie Hebdo for this growing intellectual intolerance. “Since the attack, the paper’s tradition of irreverence has often been used as an excuse to authorise insults, defamation and hate speech,” stated Liberation. 

In other words, Charlie Hebdo hadn’t changed, it was still causing offence; it was Liberation and the French left that had changed. Irreverence had morphed into hate speech, although only when this iconoclasm was directed at one particular religion. Insulting Catholicism remains de rigueur for the French left.  

Not a friend in sight. Laurent Sourisseau publishing director of Charlie Hebdo, poses alone. Picture Credit: ED JONES/AFP via Getty Images

Last week Liberation published a protest letter from 1200 poets, editors, publishers, booksellers and actors. They were objecting to the appointment of the award-winning writer and adventurer Sylvain Tesson as patron of a prestigious poetry event because, in their view, he is a “reactionary icon” and a “figurehead of the literary extreme right”. 

This will come as a surprise to Liberation’s British cousin, the Guardian, which frequently cites Tesson’s work, and not in a critical way.  

Tesson, of course, is not a dangerous fascist and nor, incidentally, is Emmanuel Macron, described in the protest letter as running a “political project closer than ever to the far right”. 

Such hysterical hyperbole would be worrying if it came from a 15-year-old; the fact it’s on the lips of a thousand luminaries from the French arts world reveals how a collective immaturity has infected a country once admired for its intellect.  

But it’s not immaturity that is the most disturbing aspect of the letter, it’s the intolerance, from the same milieu who nine years ago eulogised Charlie Hebdo. One of the writers who put his name to the protest letter is Baptiste Beaulieu. The day after the Charlie Hebdo massacre he wrote a moving tribute to the dead, promising: “Let’s make fun of everyone and everything…. For laughter, for freedom of expression, against blind and murderous dogma.”  

There was a similar pledge from the French NGO Reporters Without Borders, whose mission statement says its role is to “promote and defend the freedom to be informed and to inform”. 

Honouring the dead journalists, RWB declared: “We will continue our fight for freedom and tolerance. We will continue it in their name and in the name of all those who have died defending fundamental values such as the freedom to inform.” 

The same NGO has spent the last three years attempting to censor a popular conservative broadcaster and is now taking the matter to the Council of State. RWB’s believes CNews isn’t diverse enough in its opinion, an issue that has never bothered them with any of the many left-leaning media outlets in France. 

The cultural left has dominated France since 1968 but that their stranglehold is weakening, and they resent it bitterly. In the past the State-run national broadcaster, France Televisions, ruled unchallenged and on the rare occasions that people like Marine Le Pen were given airtime they were insulted and mocked.

As recently as 2021 it was revealed that Eric Zemmour was not welcome on the national broadcaster, a fact welcomed by the spokesman of the Communist Party, who said it was the “responsibility” of the media not to give him a voice.  

Not allowed on the airwaves? French Presidential candidate Eric Zemmour was reportedly not “welcome” on France’s public broadcaster. Picture Credit: Laurent Coust/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Like its British equivalent, GB News, CNews is becoming a big player in broadcasting. In December it was the most popular news channel for a full week (at the time of the furious row over the immigration bill) and it is expected this year to permanently surpass BFMTV (similar in tone to Sky News) to become the most watched news station in France. 

It’s sister radio station, Europe1, is also on the up, to the horror of Liberation. Lamenting their “worryingly high audience figures”, the paper harrumphed that it was “a sign that their far-right line is finding an audience.” 

I watch a little bit of CNews in the evening, and it is not far right. It offers a conservative perspective; in the mornings I listen to France Culture or France Inter, both of which tend to view events through a more liberal left lens.   

A hallmark of a healthy democracy is a diversity of the opinion in the media, and it’s an indication of how sick western democracy has become that so many intelligent and educated people have lost sight of this fact.  

The route of the march in memory of the murdered Charlie Hebdo staff took mourners along the Boulevard Voltaire, the 18th Century writer who said: “To the living we owe respect, but to the dead we owe only the truth.” 

The French intelligentsia has undergone a radical and dispiriting transformation since 2015. Men and women who once fiercely defended freedom of expression have forsaken it out of cowardice and fear and blind stupidity. They have broken the spirit of Charlie Hedbo and dishonoured the memory of those who were murdered. They have betrayed the truth. 

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