Freedom of speech in France : redefining French values

What really means Je suis Charlie ?

Freedom of speech in France is a fundamental right. It is also maybe the right time to stand back and highlight what Freedom of expression really means for the French nation. The slogan “Je suis Charlie” quickly spread on to the social media around the world only one hour after the Charlie Hebdo attack.  It reached the streets in France and all over major big cities in the world to protest against the killings and shows our deep attachment to the freedom of speech. Although this fundamental right is guaranteed by many national constitutions in many western countries and goes much beyond our borders, France maintains a special relationship with the freedom of speech and the satirical press.

Freedom of speech in France : a right guaranted by the constition

The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, adopted during the French Revolution in 1789, specifically affirmed freedom of speech as an inalienable right. The Declaration provides for freedom of expression in Article 11, which states that: “The free communication of ideas and opinions is one of the most precious of the rights of man. Every citizen may, accordingly, speak, write, and print with freedom, but shall be responsible for such abuses of this freedom as shall be defined by law”. Furthermore in France, the 1905 French law on the Separation of the Churches and State guarantees the right to criticise any religion.

Freedom of expression is a fundamental human right. Democracy and humanity cannot live without it. The ability to express ourselves allows for individual development and fulfilment. We must continue to have the freedom to criticize our own cultures and others, without fear of violent retaliation. Humour in our everyday lives is essential, particularly in a world in which atrocities like the Charlie Hebdo attack occurred.

The perpetrators attacked freedom of speech and freedom of the press by killing the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo, and in doing so, attacked democracy itself and the values France was built upon. Liberté is the first word of our national slogan (liberté, égalité, fraternité) and freedom is an idea the French practically created during the Enlightenment. It goes back to influential 18th century writings on freedom of expression by Voltaire. It is an ideal the French have consistently tried to uphold in France and throughout the world.

Satirical press, a tradition which dates back to the French Revolution


Satirical humour is another specific aspect of our culture. Mocking religion and rulers in cartoons date back to the Revolution when King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were favourite targets of cartoonists, who drew the king as a pig and his spouse as a serpent. The clergy were also pilloried in printed comic strips. But press cartoons really took off in the 19th century. The Catholic Church and the Vatican were prime targets for caricaturists of the day, with churchmen often drawn in embarrassing postures.

Since its beginning in 1969, Charlie Hebdo’s satirical humour followed the spirit of Voltaire. It was (is, as it will continue to be in each weekly edition, let’s cross our fingers) bold, audacious, irreverent with criticism of politicians, cultural practices, and practically every major religion. It was not only political and religious satire but also social critique, from ecology to economy and finance. Charlie Hebdo had no taboo and no limits, anything could be written about and drawn.

But whether or not anyone agrees with something that is written, the writer should have the right to publish what he/she wishes, no matter how offensive it is. As Voltaire wrote “I do not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

And it is because of its irreverent style that Charlie Hebdo was attacked by extremists claiming they had a right to "avenge" cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed.