France jails people for irony

French comedian Dieudonne has been arrested over an apparently for an ironic comment.

It may sound like an ironic joke, but it isn’t. Less than a week after the huge rallies in defence of “free expression” after the murders of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists, French authorities have jailed a youth for irony.

The arrest is part of a harsh crackdown on free speech in the country that has prompted criticism from national and international human rights groups.

A 16-year-old high school student was taken into police custody on January 15 and indicted for “defending terrorism,” national broadcaster France 3reported.

His alleged crime? He posted on Facebook a cartoon “representing a person holding the magazine Charlie Hebdo, being hit by bullets, and accompanied by an ‘ironic’ comment,” France 3 said.

The teen lives at home with his parents, has no prior judicial record and, according to prosecutor Yvon Ollivier quoted by French media, he does not have a “profile suggesting an evolution toward jihadism”. The boy told prosecutors that he posted the cartoon because he thought it was “funny.”

The media reports do not include the drawing ― presumably that could put journalists afoul of the law. So we do not know for sure what the youth is accused of sharing.

This incident sums up the sheer hypocrisy of France’s national mood. Anything mocking and denigrating Islam and Muslims is venerated as courageous free speech, while anything mocking those who engage in such denigration ― even using the same techniques ― can get you locked up.

Wave of arrests

“A string of at least 69 arrests in France this week on the vague charge of ‘defending terrorism’ risks violating freedom of expression,” Amnesty International said in an understated press release on January 16.

“All the arrests appear to be on the basis of statements made in the aftermath of the deadly attacks against the magazine Charlie Hebdo, a kosher supermarket and security forces in Paris on 7 and 9 January.

“Some of the recently reported cases in France may cross the high threshold of expression that can legitimately be prosecuted. Others, however offensive the statements made, do not.”

The most high profile arrest was of French comedian Dieudonne ― also apparently for an ironic comment.

Many of the arrests are simply absurd, and it is impossible to imagine what purpose they could serve other than to allow the French government to look tough amid an increasingly right-wing and xenophobic political atmosphere.

They include:

* A 14-year-old girl charged with “defending terrorism”. She allegedly shouted at a tram conductor: “We are the Kouachi sisters, we’re going to grab our Kalashnikovs.” Cherif and Said Kouachi are two French brothers authorities say carried out the Charlie Hebdo attack.

* A 21-year-old was caught without a ticket on a tram, and subsequently sentenced to 10 months in prison for allegedly saying: “The Kouachi brothers is just the beginning; I should have been with them to kill more people,” according to Amnesty International.

* In the northern city of Lille, authorities suspended three school workers for allegedly refusing to observe a moment of silence in honor of the victims of the attacks, and then justifying their action. One is being charged with “defending terrorism”. He denies that he refused to respect the minute of silence, but said he did “debate it with colleagues outside work hours”.

* In Paris, one man who was drunk and another who suffers psychiatric problems were jailed for 14 and three months respectively for “defending terrorism” for comments they made.

* In Bordeaux, police carried out a traffic stop. A very drunk 18-year-old passenger in the car allegedly hurled abuse at the police and made comments sympathetic to the Charlie Hebdo attackers. She was charged with “defending terrorism” and sentenced to 210 hours of community service. Prosecutors had asked for a four-month jail term.

In almost every case where a name is provided, those arrested would appear to be of North African ancestry ― suggesting that France’s crackdown is quite targeted.

If it is not calculated to further alienate the country’s large, young population of French citizens whose parents or grandparents came from France's former African colonies, there’s a good chance it will do that anyway.

The cases also suggest a pattern where minor encounters with police ― with drunks and youths ― quickly escalate into terrorism-related accusations. This is in a context where young people of colour have long complained that they are targeted by police.

Islamophobic attacks

Monitoring groups have collected reports of at least 83 Islamophobic threats and attacks in France since the Charlie Hebdo attack.

There were at least 21 incidents of shots or grenades being fired at buildings.

Police are investigating if the murder of Mohammed El Makouli, a Moroccan man in the eastern town of Beaucet, was motivated by anti-Muslim hatred. El-Makouli was stabbed seventeen times by a neighbor who invaded his home, allegedly shouting anti-Muslim slogans.

It may seem surprising that French authorities can charge and jail people so quickly. These summary trials and long custodial terms are the result of a change in the law in November in which the charge of “defending terrorism” became a criminal offence subject to fast-track trials.

France’s Human Rights League MR Zine reports, because of Said’s book Fuck France and a Z.E.P. song with the same title.

The song’s refrain states: “Fuck France and its colonialist past, its paternalist smells, stenches, and reflexes. Fuck France and its imperialist history, its capitalist walls, fortresses and delusions.”

Z.E.P., ironically, stands for “Zone d’expression populaire” ― Popular Expression Zone.

It is only a matter of time before these laws are used with renewed vigour against a whole range of speech that might upset the French state, especially those who advocate for Palestinian rights and for the boycott of Israel.

[Abridged from]

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