Blasphemy is indeed against the law in France
While the Charlie Hebdo attacks are moving some democratic governments to reconsider the blasphemy laws on their books, for the moment at least, one country has expressed no such intentions. That country is France, where the only case of prosecution for blasphemy is taking place now, and involves… Charlie Hebdo.
Many in France are surprised to hear that blasphemy law exists in the country, at least until they hear where and how. The law is still on the books in three départements of continental France: Haut-Rhin (Strasbourg), Bas-Rhin (Colmar), and Moselle (Metz). These are the three départements that correspond to French territory annexed by the German Empire after the 1870 Franco-Prussian War. When they returned to France after World War I, the population was guaranteed that the laws, in particular those corresponding to the more progressive social welfare laws that had been implemented in Germany, would be maintained. This was known as the “statut local”, the “local status”.
Not only welfare laws were concerned. Religious matters in this part of France remained those of Napoleonic France and the Concordat, which aimed to put an end to the conflict between free-thinking revolutionaries and the Catholic church by authorizing and even encouraging religion, but a religion under state control.
After the fall of Napoleon, conflict continued between the partisans of rationalism and the republic and the conservative and religious monarchists. This conflict was ultimately resolved by the 1905 law of separation of Church and State, which imposed a wall (in fact, a very porous one) between government and religion.
Thanks to its timing, when the three départements of Alsace-Moselle were German, the law does not apply in eastern France. There, Catholic priests, Protestant ministers, and Jewish rabbis are paid by the government. And there, the law on blasphemy remained on the books, although unenforced since 1918.
Unenforced until 2013, when the Ligue de défense judiciaire des musulmans (Muslim legal defense league) was created specifically to make the most of the blasphemy law to sue Charlie Hebdo in a Strasbourg court for blasphemy for its cover showing an Egyptian holding up a Koran with a bullet hole through it and a speech bubble stating: “The Koran is shit: it doesn’t stop bullets”.
There was little chance of the lawsuit proving successful, and in fact, it was thrown out of court on technicalities. But the goal of the LDJM was less to damage Charlie Hebdo than to force the French government to add Islam to the three religions covered by the Concordat, which would mean state-financed imams, state-financed Islamic schools, and so on.
Most French people have a strange attitude toward the “statut local”. They consider it a historical legacy rather than a glaring paradox in contradiction with the official policy of “laîcité” or secularism and the official separation of Church and State. It’s just an oddity that is always defended by the people of Alsace-Moselle.
And yet in a France where the imaginary crime blasphemy has resulted in the real deaths of over 15 people (and counting… as I write this, the death toll from the hostage crisis at the kosher supermarket porte de Vincennes is unknown), it is time for this aberration to end. At the very least, blasphemy should be taken off the books, and the case against Charlie Hebdo should be thrown out of court. To encourage the government to do so, I’ve launched a change.org petition here.
UPDATE: I’m supporting this petition that has more signatures.