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International Fury Against Macron and the Boycott Against French Products

Article by Pream Akkas,

On October 2, French President Emmanual Macron delivered a speech outlining his government’s proposed law, which will be unveiled later this year, to fight “Islamist seperatism.” He described Islam as “a religion that is in crisis all over the world today.” Two weeks later, on October 16, French teacher Samuel Paty was beheaded after showing his students controversial cartoons of the Prophet Muhammed published by French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo during a class on free speech. Islamic tradition explicitly forbids images of the Prophet and such depictions are offensive to Muslims. On October 21, Macron delivered a speech honoring Paty, defending the magazine, and refusing to denounce the caricatures.

Charlie Hebdo has made headlines numerous times for its offensive cartoons, including cartoons unrelated to Islam. A few examples include its crude depictions of the body parts of victims of the Sinai air crash in 2015 and of Italian earthquake victims as pasta dishes in 2016. The former resulted in criticism from Russian leaders, and the latter received widespread condemnation on social media. In 2006, the magazine reprinted controversial cartoons of Prophet Muhammed that originally appeared in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, sparking international protests over the caricatures. Two French organizations, the Great Mosque of Paris and the Union of Islamic Organizations of France, sued the magazine for making “public insults against a group of people because they belong to a religion.” But a Paris court acquitted Phillippe Val, editor-in-chief of the magazine, because “there was no deliberate intention to offend [Muslims].” Then-French President Jacques Chirac condemned the magazine’s decision to reprint the cartoons as an “overt provocation.” In 2011, the Charlie Hebdo offices were destroyed in a petrol bomb attack after publishing another caricature of the Prophet. In 2015, the offices, along with a policewoman and a Jewish store, were attacked again, killing a total of 17 people. In the days following the attacks, millions of people around the world rallied or used social media to express solidarity with the journalists by sharing the slogan “Je suis Charlie” (“I am Charlie”). This past September, Charlie Hebdo reprinted the controversial cartoons from 2015 the day before the trial of the 14 alleged accomplices involved in the 2015 attacks began. Macron stated that he refused to condemn Charlie Hebdo because, in light of France’s freedom of expression, it is never the place of a president to pass judgement on the magazine’s decision to re-publish the cartoons. However, just days before re-publication of the cartoons, Macron joined other French leaders in condemning the French magazine Valeurs Actuelles for its depiction of a Black lawmaker as an enslaved African who was put up for auction.

Macron’s remarks criticizing Islam as a religion “in crisis” and his refusal to denounce these caricatures have culminated in international fury, protests denouncing Macron, and boycotts against French products. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan responded to Macron’s comments in a recent speech and stated that Macron needed a “mental check” for “behav[ing] in this way to millions of people living in his country who are members of a different faith.” Charlie Hebdo responded by printing a cartoon depicting Erdogan sitting in his underwear, drinking a beer, and lifting up a woman’s hijab to expose her bare backside. On October 28, the Turkish president filed a criminal complaint against the magazine to prosecutors in Ankara, stating that the content amounted to “criminal libel” that is “not covered by freedom of expression.” The Ankara Chief Prosecutor’s office launched an investigation into Charlie Hebdo managers for insulting the president, a crime in Turkey that is punishable by up to four years in prison. Erdogan also called on Turks to boycott French products, joining several Muslim-majority countries where French goods have been pulled from supermarket shelves in response to the continued publication of caricatures and Macron’s remarks.

The ongoing domestic lawsuits in France and Turkey concerning Charlie Hebdo illustrate the significant difference between how international leaders weigh interests in freedom of expression and speech where expressions incite a violent response or offend religious feelings. International law grants States wide discretion in defining this balance. Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states that the right to freedom of expression is “subject to certain restrictions … [as] are necessary ...[f]or the protection of national security or of public order … or of public health or morals.” Similarly, Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights states the right to freedom of expression “may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary... for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals.” In 1995, the European Court of Human Rights found in Otto-Preminger-Institut v. Austria that the government seizure and forfeiture of a film that contained trivial imagery of Chrisitianity did not violate the right to freedom of expression under Article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights. The Court held that national authorities are entitled to a certain margin of appreciation in assessing the necessity of imposing restrictions to avoid offending religious beliefs. International criticism of Charlie Hebdo and Macron has illustrated that France has a significantly higher threshold in determining what speech necessitates restrictions relative to other countries.

While French courts have already held that Charlie Hebdo is not guilty of public libel, many Muslim leaders echoed Erdogan’s concern that the caricatures and Macron’s refusal to condemn them encouraged Islamophobia. Pakistan’s parliament even passed a unanimous resolution accusing Macron of propagating “hate-driven acts under the garb of freedom of expression.” Members of France’s Musims community have complained of increased Islamophobia over the past two weeks. Last week, two women wearing hijabs were stabbed repeatedly and called “dirty Arabs” under the Eiffel Tower, and in a different incident, two Jordanian siblings were assaulted after racist insults were continuously hurled at them for speaking Arabic. Article 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states that “[a]ny advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrmination, hostility, or violence shall be prohibited by law.” The UN Human Right Council’s Report of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, Frank La Rue states that “the right to freedom of expression includes expression of views and opinions that offend, shock or disturb” and restrictions should never be applied to “expression of opinion and dissent, religion or belief, including by persons belonging to minorities or vulnerable groups.” The standard for what speech “constitutes incitement” or is beyond “offensive and disturbing” leaves wide discretion for state leaders to determine what freedom of expression–and what justice for Charlie Hebdo–looks like.


Pream Akkas (J.D. Candidate, Berkeley Law Class of 2023) is interested in international humanitarian law and immigration and refugee law. Pream holds a B.A. in Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies from Columbia University. She is fluent in Bengali and conversational in Spanish and Arabic.



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