Focus Gaza-Israel

In France, Freedom of Speech Flouted and Repressed

Since 7 October, the acts of war in the Middle East are the object of commentaries non-stop. However, a parallel process remains off-screen: the shrinkage of the space allotted in Europe and especially in France to the expression of any form of support for the rights of the people of Palestine.

Demonstration in solidarity with the Palestinian people, organised by the CGT, Solidaires and FSU trade unions, and authorised in Toulouse, on 4 November 2023
Lionel Bonaventure/AFP

From the very next day, we were struck by the breadth of the stigmatisation of any demonstrations in France in favour of the Palestinians. Promoted by the government, by various political parties and many media, this stigmatisation took the form, for example, of a veritable juggernaut aimed discrediting the left-wing led by Jean-Luc Mélenchon. The outraged reactions to the latter’s declarations made it possible to pretend not to understand the nuances that are contained in and his insistence on the historical context, suggesting that he, like MPs Danièle Obono and Mathilde Panot, were approving terrorism.

The authorities’ position was expressed in orders to ban demonstrations handed down to the prefects by the Minister of Interior Affairs, Gerald Darmanin and by a circular from the Minister of Justice, Eric Dupont-Moretti. Both directly embody the extension of the limitations on freedom of speech whenever the Israel-Palestine issue comes under consideration. Thus Dupont-Moretti believes that to present the 7 October attack as a form of legitimate resistance is tantamount to advocating terrorism.

The outright ban on demonstrating was overturned by the Conseil d’Etat in a decision taken on 18 October 2023, and diversely applied by the prefects. A demonstration was banned in Paris on 28 October but authorised for example in Marseilles. The fact remains that the government’s equation of these demonstrations with the expression of support for Hamas significantly reduced their size, marginalising them by assigning them de facto a radical political meaning.

The grotesque Benzema affair

Another episode symbolises the excesses of official authority in France: the left-wing Palestinian activist Mariam Abou Daqqa had been invited many months ago to France and had obtained a visa to attend various conferences in the associative sector as well as with elected officials. Several weeks after the beginning of her tour, the Minister of foreign affairs ordered her confined to restricted residence in Marseilles pending deportation and forbade her speaking in public. Again, a decision of justice reversed this deportation order four days later, but the Minister lodged an appeal. At the same time some ten CGT activists, including several cadres of the Northern Federation, were arrested at dawn on a Sunday and placed in preventive detention for advocating terrorism on the basis of a tract they had distributed.

A few days later, the Paris Education Authority suddenly decided to cancel the screening in a college festival of a Norwegian animated film, Wardi, the story of a Palestinian refugee in Lebanon. To justify this decision, the institution pointed a finger at ‘the context of extreme international tension,’ forgetting how this children’s film had been unanimously praised by the critics when it was released in 2018, without the slightest polemic. This sequence illustrates to a ridiculous extent the continual pressure the French government exerts on the figures and rhetoric embodying solidarity with the Palestinians or simply shedding light, for the public, on what amounts after all to the daily lives of Palestinians.

The most grotesque example of the government’s offensive is no doubt attached to the football star Karim Benzema. A right-wing senator, Valérie Boyer, called for him to be deprived of his French nationality for a tweet of solidarity with the civilians of Gaza. Gerald Darmanin had already relayed accusations that the athlete, recently based in Saudi Arabia, was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, claiming on television, ‘to be especially interested in him for the last few weeks (CNews, 16 October). With these words he illustrates the ignorance of many media and political figures regarding Islamist movements, using absurd categories. The definition of “brotherism” is nebulous, to say the least, and has been abundantly fostered in France it is true by the dubious rhetoric of the academic Florence-Blackler.

Petrified media

Thus, faced with the combined effect of stupefaction caused by the level of violence that occurred in Israel (often referred to as “primary violence”, i.e., disconnected from the history of Israel’s occupation and the resistance it has met with) and the repressive policies encouraged by European rulers, the latitude offered to explain, contextualise but also to express plain and simple solidarity with the Palestinian people is shrinking fast. And yet simply to point out this shrinkage has become taboo, impossible to explain in public via the mainstream media and consequently shoved to one side.

Outside the strict perimeter of political power, the media themselves are active participants in this shrinkage of the space left to those who would speak in favour of the Palestinians and their cause. In this constrained context, various specialists or academics studying Palestinian society, however accustomed they are to radio or television appearances have refused to intervene. Others have seen their invitations suddenly cancelled by the same media that had just invited them: they had become too hot to handle for editorial staffs that are walking on eggshells.

When Palestinian director Firas Khoury ventured to mention on public radio the need to consider a binational state in order call into question the religious and ethnic nature of the State of Israel, he caused an audible malaise among the journalists present who cut short their guest and apologised the next day for having allowed such words to be aired! This reaction probably illustrates less an assertion of pro-Israeli sympathies among the journalists than a form of ignorance in a context where the limits of what one may say are constantly shifting, paralysing the men and women whose job it is to generate debate. The consequence of this s situation is to make analysts extremely prudent. In the future it will become increasingly difficult to force our way through against these new red lines. It is then probable that denouncing phenomena as self-evident as the occupation, the injustice, the crimes, and the racism is likely to be confined to confidential circles.

Defending academic freedom

In the French university world, October 7 attacks were sometimes followed by a logic of delation. If there is one space where contradictory and informed opinions produced by specialists should be at home, it is that of academic research. Yet recently and repeatedly, sometimes at the of the heads of universities, “reporting” has been observed, i.e., denunciation requests by colleagues to the university authorities. Some have been accused of advocating terrorism because they showed sympathy for Palestinians by posting an image or a text on a social network. This accusation, deadly serious and quite unusual in a milieu which has known violent debates – especially in the sixties and seventies – shows utter contempt for the confrontation of ideas which is characteristic of the academic world and prefers a form of slander with legal consequences that are potentially very serious.

In reaction, a collective response from male and female searchers worried about the restrictions at work has been widely circulated in the form of a petition. Academic freedom has already been curtailed by various legal procedures, but also by restrictions placed on our access to the field, as well as by prison sentences such as that of the Franco-Iranian anthropologist Fariba Adelkhah, finally released on 17 October 2023 after over four years in an Iranian prison. Their defence requires the preservation of critical, committed discourses, based on sound knowledge, threatened today by self-censorship, pressures from above and the criminalisation at work in the scientific domain of the Middle East which has made itself brutally felt since 7 October. Thus, a new level has been reached. In 2019, the respect for academic freedom was reasserted against the governmental accusations of “Islamo-leftism”: the CNRS and the Conference of Univesity Presidents had counter-attacked alongside the academic community. Such it seems is no longer quite the case.

Brutal return of the pendulum

The sequences which had preceded the Hamas attack in Israel had been quite different. The criminalising procedures had already long been at work in parliament but still brought judiciary setbacks for the majority, such as the recent decision by the Court of Final Appeal on 17 October 2023, declaring for the second time that calls to boycott Israeli products cannot be confused with hate speech.

From NGO reports to scientific studies, from elections pushing the parliamentary majority further and further to the far right, in the racist statements from Jewish supremacist politicians, Israel’s swing towards an illiberal democracy seemed increasingly recognised in the European public sphere. Once outlawed, the qualification “apartheid regime”, even if it divided the French left, moved out of strictly militant circles to be adopted by the mainstream media, including public radio and television channels.

True enough, there were still slanderous accusations made which could be based on legislative restrictions confusing ant-Zionism with anti-Semitism, or certain often laughable spokespersons, including on the benches of the Assembly or in government cabinets. The fact remained that Israeli policies, both in domestic affairs and as regards the Palestinians, were less and less justifiable. It was possible to express empathy for the Palestinian cause, the words resistance, occupation, boycott seemed dicible, even though they had little weight on the ground in the Middle East.

The German exception

Thus, there occurred in October 2023 a brutal shift, one which was hardly surprising but the extent of which is disturbing if we consider it in the light of the scale of Western societies. True, the movement is variable from one European country to another. In the present instance, restrictions placed on the freedom of speech seem most acute in France and Germany. This can be explained by historic factors linked to the Holocaust, but they are also sociological, characterised by the presence of Muslim minorities and by a large Jewish community in France.

In the United Kingdom, but also in Spain and Italy, despite the declarations by political leaders in favour of Israel, demonstrations of support for the Palestinians and against the Gaza bombings were not banned and were often massive. The media often relayed courageous positions. Thus, the editorial staff of the BBC defended its decision not to use the label “terrorist” to designate Hamas, pleading in favour of more neutral adjectives. This position did not prevent some of its journalists from criticising the pro-Israel bias of the British public service, nor the Tunisian journalist Bassem Bouenni from announcing his resignation from the channel in protest.

One sign of an accelerated process of criminalisation of speech in Germany, the Frankfort Book Fair – the most important even of its kind in the world – put off the presentation of an award to author Adania Chibli who was accused at the same time in the media of peddling anti-Semitic rhetoric in her recent novel by recounting the rapes perpetrated by Israeli soldiers during the Nakba. Denouncing the “banalisation of terrorism” the social democratic mayor of Frankfurt stormed out of the hall during a lecture by philosopher Slavoj Zizek who had merely called, ten days after 7 October, for a contextualisation of the violence in Israel and Palestine.

Above and beyond the direct consequences for the men and women who speak out to defend the rights of the Palestinians, this regression in Europe, especially in France and Germany, has disturbing effects. By constraining analysis and correlating it with an emotional register, our comprehension is undeniably affected. Who can reasonably believe that combatting Hamas’ violence can be achieved by the same means as those employed by the international coalition against the Islamic State Organisation (ISIS)? Yet this is the strategy proposed by Emanuel Macron, visiting Tel Aviv.

Moreover, outside of Europe, but also within certain segments of its population, these restrictions have harmful effects. The bans placed on demonstrations, the unilateral declarations of support for Israel by European and US leaders – even after the Israeli bombings of Gaza had caused thousands of civilian deaths – contribute directly to confirm the impression that the West has lost its way, cares nothing for the rest of the world, no longer bothers to pretend to defend universal values. This being the case, will its rulers and the European media really be surprised to find it can no longer communicate with their neighbours to the South and see their appeals to support Ukraine or some other cause demonetised or simply despised?