Is religion a hot topic in France? Ask that to François-Jean de la Barre. He was a young man who was judged, tortured, and beheaded in 1766. Why? Because he hadn’t taken off his hat while a procession was passing by. Catholicism, which was the state religion at that time, was not kidding when it came down to blasphemy.
This story spread all around Europe thanks to Voltaire and the other philosophers from the Lumières. They strongly condemned religious intolerance and were, in a way, trailblazers in the fight for laïcité. The Revolution ruled in their favor: it allowed blasphemy and laid the basis of freedom of conscience and free speech.
Ever since 1789, “No one may be disquieted for his opinions, even religious ones”. Yes, it is written in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen: “even religious ones”. In France, religion’s perceived as an opinion – and it’s handled as such, without any special treatment.
But what does it mean? It means that my opinion can change, as well as my religion. It means I’m allowed to mock and criticize other people’s opinions and religions, as they’re allowed to mock mine. It’s kind of a contract between myself, the citizen, and the state. It allows France to protect free speech and freedom of conscience.
As a Christian, a Jew, or a Muslim, I can feel like my faith is being attacked: French caricatures are sometimes hard on religions. If I ever feel insulted, I can take it to court: the law doesn’t recognize blasphemy, but it forbids insults and hatred against believers. No one’s allowed to call me a “nasty” Christian, Jewish or Muslim.
Swearing, slander, incitement to hatred…: freedom has limits. They’re legally supervised.
What makes you laugh speaks volumes about you. What a country allows to laugh at also speaks volumes about it. France allows making fun of religions, just like it does of every opinion. That’s equality.
To go further (for those who learn French).
Here are a few exercises on the imparfait/passé simple, passé simple verbs ending in -i or -u, and plus que parfait.
You can find here a funny video on the limits that apply to freedom.
Free speech in drawings: those from Cartooning for peace, a network of 162 international artists.
Discover the virtual exhibit of the Bibliothèque nationale de France, BNF, filled with pictures: Can we laugh at everything?
France and religious opinions. An interview of Didier Leschi, expert in laïcité.
You can find out more about laïcité on the MOOC Ensemble en France, with short videos and testimonies from foreigners (subtitled in 9 languages).