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The French battle for freedom of speech continues

Torsten Landsberg
October 23, 2020

After the brutal murder of teacher Samuel Paty, France is once more debating its core values. "It's all up to the individual," says Romy Strassenburg, former editor-in-chief at Charlie Hebdo’s German edition.

Person holding a 'Je suis Charlie' template and a can of spray paint in France
Image: picture-alliance/Hollandse Hoogte/J. van Gennip

DW: A week ago, Samuel Paty, a teacher, was killed in Paris. France commemorated his death with a funeral service at the Sorbonne. What is the atmosphere like in Paris and in France right now?

Romy Strassenburg: The funeral service was very touching, not necessarily the entire event with the Republican Guard, but many people came together and applauded outside the Sorbonne, despite the curfew. It was very emotional and terribly sad.

Earlier, politicians had wanted to demonstrate their ability to take action: they closed a mosque suspected of harboring radical Islamist tendencies. I think it was important from a political point of view to include the people in an emotional way, and to send a strong signal with the funeral service.

French President Macron standing in front of a casket |
French President Macron held a moving speech for Samuel Paty at the memorial ceremonyImage: Francois Mori/Reuters

Samuel Paty showed his students Mohammed cartoons from the Charlie Hebdo satire magazine so they could discuss them in class. After all, schools are a cornerstone of democracy. Is the murder of a teacher perceived differently than the attack on the magazine's editorial staff in 2015?

Clearly, this most recent attack has a special quality. The future of a society depends on the values children grow up with. The ceremony underlined the significance: An attack on a teacher is an attack on the republic.

Paty did what he did out of conviction, he felt his students had to be confronted with [the cartoons], to be prepared for something like that, and to be able to stand above it. It was a teaching unit that had been prepared for weeks by a teacher who was interested in the Koran, and who also treated his Muslim students very respectfully. He wanted to show them what is allowed here and what is within the framework of the law.

Read more: Opinion: France's difficult struggle against Islamism

Photo of Romy Strassenburg |
Romy Strassenburg was editor-in-chief for the German edition of Charlie HebdoImage: Frederike Wetzels

Laicism is a key pillar of French society

Liberté — freedom — is considered of the highest value in France. Is this fundamental idea endangered?

Secularism is a cornerstone of the republic. Religion has no place in the public sphere, which is a problem in particular in schools in neighborhoods with a very large Muslim population. They face a school model based on quite different foundations. There, of course, the teachers are in the front line.

Originally, secularism was related to the Catholic Church, whose influence authorities wanted to curb. It is difficult to communicate that there used to be problems with the Catholic Church in France, that it had too much influence, which is why France decided to separate religion and state, and that this state of affairs now applies to them as well.

It contradicts the Muslim understanding of religion, which has a firm place in everyday life. If parents feel their religion not only has no place in schools but is being criticized, something is set in motion. It shows a very fundamental misunderstanding in some parts of the population about the role school has to play.

Perhaps that is a question of social acceptance on both sides?

Yes, many people identify more strongly with religion if they feel disappointed about the lack of equal opportunities. People who feel no connection to society, who do not have the same opportunities because of the color of their skin, their name, their religion, they identify more strongly with the cause that they are scrutinized for here in the first place. It is an explosive mixture if people feel that those who are withholding equal opportunities from them are also the ones making fun of their religion.

If we were to take away all the social aspects, and if people with Muslim roots were completely equal in the media or in business, I believe they would be able to deal more prudently with satirical depictions of their religion. They could look at them with a different kind of confidence.

No savoir-vivre in France

You have lived in Paris as a German journalist and TV reporter for 13 years now. How has your life there changed over the past years?

The rallying cry that goes around after every terrorist attack — "We will not let our way of life be ruined. We will not be intimidated" — is of course very important and also serves as a motivation. But these attacks leave behind traces and absurd thoughts.

My German friends have already noticed how I scan people or react when an abandoned backpack just sits somewhere. Before I had come to France, I had this idea of a country of freedom and savoir-vivre, but that doesn't exist as such.

Many districts are very international, it's very colorful. A mosque can stand side by side with a synagogue. But not everyone lives freely and gets along with everyone else. The social fabric here changed with the big wave of immigration of Moroccans, Tunisians and Algerians; racism was evident from the start. The social problems already existed back in the 1990s. The narrative of equality, freedom, fraternity simply did not apply.

Book shop in Paris
The bustling and colorful urban life in the French capital Paris can be misleadingImage: J.Demarthon/AFP/GettyImages

Once more, protecting freedom of expression is being discussed. But calling Samuel Paty a hero or wearing "Je suis Charlie" shirts won't help when everyday life picks up again in two weeks' time. What do you think?

There have always been suggestions that teaching freedom of expression should be part of the curriculum. This homage to Samuel Paty also serves the purpose of encouraging the teachers to continue in that vein. The response is of course to say, "Nah, I'm not going to do that. I'm not going to put myself in harm's way now."

But we can only counter the danger if as many people as possible participate and defend freedom of expression. President Macron said in his speech: "We will not leave you alone, we will protect you." But in the end it always depends on each individual.

'You could go crazy'

You joined "Charlie Hebdo" in the fall of 2016 as editor-in-chief of the German edition. That was a year and a half after the attack on the editorial office in Paris that left 12 people dead. In what condition was the editorial office at that time?

The idea to create a German edition says a lot about the editorial staff and how they were doing at the time: they were looking ahead, and were not going to be beaten down. The focus was more on politics at that time, and less on religion. Nevertheless, people were aware of terrorism — if only because of the police protection and security measures. But you get used to everything.

I had to drop the respect I had at the beginning; you can't think about what they had to survive every time you have lunch with your colleagues. Otherwise you'd go crazy.

The attack is in the public eye again because the trial of 14 supporters started in September. How is the editorial staff handling it?

Because of the trial, there is no way to avoid "Charlie" once again becoming a symbol of press freedom. At the start of the trial, the editorial team published the cartoons in small print, with the question: "Was it really worth it?" 

The editorial staff must bear that burden. All of a sudden, these crazy, ingenious, very talented illustrators have been put in a position of being constantly called upon as guarantors and defenders of freedom of expression and of the press.

They are expected to constantly position themselves on social issues and comment on them. And of course that detracts from the effortlessness related to the profession of the satirical caricaturist.

French policemen
France has tightened security measures since the 2015 Charlie Hebdo attacksImage: Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters

'It's not worth it'

Intimidation is also a threat to the freedom of expression, which could result in editors censoring their own work for fear of attacks. Did this have an impact on internal editorial debates at "Charlie"?

Almost every week, at editorial meetings, all the pictures would be tacked to the wall and there were moments when people would say, "It's not worth it." You know what death threats come in and you've seen how real they are. Even the editor-in-chief pointed out at that time that he was responsible for his people.

Then there were times when it was exactly the opposite: "That's what we have to do, that's our obligation. After all, we did not survive this attack and soldier on, under police protection, only to drop this.” And there was this mutual assurance of having to publish something because we owed it to the people who died.

Charlie Hebdo | Tout ca, pour ca
The front page of the September 2020 edition of Charlie Hebdo asks the question, "all this for what?"Image: Getty Images/AFP

The magazine was often accused of having contributed to the escalation with targeted provocation. What is "Charlie Hebdo" about?

Charlie Hebdo stands for laicism, feminism, ecology. These are the core issues. Many people do not know that because they do not read the texts but only look at the pictures. Charlie is always reduced to the subject of religion.

Of course, there have been phases when people said: "If we exclude Islamism from our drawings, we are giving in." But these are not people who want to publish the most blatant drawings to hurt people.

The murder of Samuel Paty and the attack on "Charlie Hebdo" have left people feeling helpless. What gives people the strength to defend their values and not to give in?

I have just read in a blog that people shouldn't show such Mohammed cartoons to children. I, too, have often wondered whether we really had to publish certain front pages. I don't find all things funny or particularly well done. But whether you like it or not should not play a role in whether you are allowed to do it.

That's why I will back something up and defend it even if I might find it in poor taste. You can say it doesn't make you laugh, but you can't question whether it is allowed to exist. It is not about Charlie Hebdo or a particular drawing. It is about the principle. You simply can't give in.

German journalist and author Romy Strassenburg (born 1983) has lived in Paris for 13 years. She was editor-in-chief of the German edition of "Charlie Hebdo" which was launched in December 2016, and was discontinued a year later. 
In 2019, her book "Adieu liberté - How my France has disappeared" was published. She currently presents the "Twist" culture program on ARTE TV.

This article was adapted from the German original by Dagmar Breitenbach.