François Héran: “Free expression no longer tolerates free criticism”

La Croix L’Hebdo : Your book develops a letter to professors published on the La Vie des Idées website two weeks after the assassination of Samuel Paty. It had aroused a lot of reactions. Were you surprised by their content?

François Héran: My first “letter to professors” was read by 200,000 readers, if the audience figures are to be believed. Many have thanked me for loosening the grip of a sort of thought police that sanctifies freedom of expression and for showing that the cartoons of Charlie hebdo may not be the best message to send to the world.

→ DEBATE. Press cartoon: is satire still possible?

We still have the right to judge that some are not only offensive to believers (which case law allows) but indulge in gratuitous contempt (which it excludes). Satire and newspaper cartoons are necessary in a democracy, but cartoonists themselves are very divided on the scope and limits of cartoons. The debate is not over.

You are very critical of the evolution of freedom of expression in our country.

F H : It tends to become absolute following the jihadist attacks, to the detriment of other rights: the freedom of belief, the dignity of the person, the fact of not harming others. The desecration of the sacred is itself sacred. This is to forget that, since 1789, the declarations of rights have enshrined the freedoms of expression and belief, but within the limits of the law.

The whole point is to ensure that these limitations are not liberticidal but reasonable and proportionate. Recent developments in France have led us to forget the sense of measure. It is a paradox: with each attack, one claims to tighten the control of the spirits in the name of freedom. Pushed to the absolute, freedom of expression no longer tolerates free criticism. The younger generations support these self-proclaimed high priests of republican dogma less and less. Like any religion, civil religion can only assert itself in a plural society at the cost of a minimum of tolerance and mutual respect.

Cartoonists argue that they do not offend people but criticize beliefs …

F H : To claim that a caricature of Muhammad does not target any particular Muslim is a specious distinction. I dismantle the legal or philosophical arguments that reduce religious convictions to mere opinions, detachable from people. It is to ignore their individual and collective roots.

→ DEBATE. Should we show the cartoons from middle school?

I observe, moreover, that the most outrageous caricatures of Mohammed (like the one that Samuel Paty furtively showed to his fourth-grade students) use a process that has nothing to do with the debate of ideas: it consists of to embody the belief in a person, himself reduced to a body given over to sexual humiliation. When we thus reduce the prostration of the Muslim in prayer, we no longer criticize a belief, we outrage the practice and the practitioners, reviving an old cliché. The distinction between belief and believer vanishes.

So what is the responsibility of the designers? How far can we criticize?

F H : In French, the notion of “critic” covers a very broad spectrum, ranging from argued refutation to the harshest condemnation. This always supposes a minimum of debate. The case law of the European Court of Human Rights admits offensive criticism as long as it contributes to fueling debate in a democracy. But the middle finger or outright degradation represents degree zero of the debate; it is no longer even a criticism, it is a way of indicating to the other that his person is so despicable that there is not even a matter of discussion! Critical thinking is quite another thing.

You insist a lot on pluralism. Is it the vocation of teachers to teach it to their students? Do they have the means?

F H : When we have to concretely initiate the pupils to life in society, we are obliged to insist on the pluralism of convictions and the rule of mutual respect. These principles are enshrined in the secularism charter displayed in all schools. They are also included in the moral and civic education program (EMC), which reminds – oh surprise – that “Respecting others also means respecting their philosophical and religious convictions”.

→ ANALYSIS. Secularism, the generational gap is widening

Students should be explained that pluralism is not synonymous with relativism. Some high school teachers thus deal with major ethical issues in debate in our society in EMC lessons, without forcing public awareness.

You attack the state for the support given to certain teaching materials which you think unnecessarily clash with the beliefs of the pupils.

F H : It is not in my style to attack the state. I put my finger on a contradiction. Article 1er of the Constitution proclaims that “The Republic respects all beliefs”. This means that the state accepts the diversity of religions and beliefs, but must refrain from interfering with their content.

There are two floors: everyone can criticize and denigrate beliefs with great freedom, but the Republic, on the upper floor, is content to guarantee this right without using it itself. Hence these two sentences from President Macron: “We will not give up cartoons” (October 21 tribute to Samuel Paty) and “It was not the French government that made these cartoons” (interview on Al-Jazeera on October 31).

However, the association Dessinez, Création, Liberté (DCL) created by Charlie hebdo after the massacre of January 7, 2015, distributes educational material to teachers that highlights the cartoons of Mohammed and does so with the financial and moral support of the State, through three ministries and a dozen public agencies.

I do not criticize the work of explaining press cartoons accomplished by this association. I simply recall that by thus encouraging the dissemination of anti-religious cartoons by its agencies and agents within the school, the State breaks with the principle of neutrality which is at the heart of secularism.


The subject

Letter to professors on freedom of expression, François Héran, La Découverte, 246 p., € 14. In October 2020, François Héran published on the site of La vie des idées a remarkable “Letter to history and geography teachers”, two weeks after the assassination of Samuel Paty. In a book, the author takes up this letter today, develops it, argues it and will gladly deconstruct the received ideas on freedom of expression, with the only rule not to give in to the ambient simplism.

The author

Sociologist and demographer, François Héran is a professor at the Collège de France. He has notably studied immigration issues (With immigration. Measure, debate, act, The Discovery, 2017).

Why read it

Because these notions are complex, relative and if we are not careful, we risk falling into a form of thought police. Because the style is punchy, very easy to read, and educational. A final, fascinating chapter allows the author to thwart all those who deny the existence of discrimination in France.


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