France Insider/Paul Ben-Itzak

January 2, 2009

J’accuse! ;) (kidding! Don’t sue me!)

If Philippe Val can call on Voltaire to indict those who (unsuccessfully) sued his mag Charlie Hebdo for his re-publication of the infamous caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed — he’s now published a book called, “Return, Voltaire, they’ve gone crazy,” (which I’ve not read) — then I can reference Zola on the Dreyfus Affair to call attention to Val’s ludicrous statement on France Culture last night that there’s no contradiction between on the one hand, publishing these cartoons which he knew would offend Muslims and on the other hand firing the humorist Siné for refusing to apologize for a commentary Val had already published and which was later attacked as being anti-Semitic. According to Val, the Siné commentary, in which the veteran cartoonist says (among other things, and as it turned out, erroneously) that Jean Sarkozy, ambitious scion of the president, is marrying a Jewish business heiress and thus moving up in the world, invokes racial hatred; whereas the caricatures of the Prophet, including one where a dark-skinned obviously Arab character wears a bomb as a turban, are in Val’s view part of a noble ideological combat. As the French say, Hmm. (For a great breakdown of the Siné controversy, which not only reprints the commentary in question but Siné’s eloquent defense and the cartoon defenses of some of his colleagues, check this article on Rue 89.)

Apparently the Voltaire parallel comes in because the great French writer and philosopher was, like Val, brought to court for practicing freedom of speech, or something like that.

Val obviously knows Voltaire better than I do, but I can’t help but think the comparison ludicrous when I recall Voltaire’s post-humous celebration of the Chevalier de la Barre. This was a young man of 19 who had the temerity to not remove his hat and chant insolent ditties at a passing parade of nobles in the late 18th century, about 20 years before the Revolution, thus becoming its harbinger. For the ditties, the authorities chopped off his tongue; for refusing to take off his hat, they releived him of his hands. Then they burned him at the stake. (Later, in typical French fashion, they put up a statue in his memory. You can see it in Montmartre right below the Sacre Coeur.) What’s my point? The kind of freedom of speech Voltaire would defend would seem to be more the type that thumbs its nose at authority — *thus taking a mortal risk* — than the kind of anti-Muslim piling on (in fact regardless of intention) in which Val indulged himself.

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