By Randall Erickson / Special to the OB Rag
PARIS, FRANCE. Political debate in France is generally rather civilized and simplistic name-calling of opponents is not common and even when it happens, it is more subdued than in the U.S. Religion is rarely mentioned. However, France has small minorities of fanatic Catholics and Muslims and Jews who readily take violent action.
The most serious incident recently was the fire-bombing with a Molotov cocktail of the offices of the satirical weekly magazine, “Charlie Hebdo” (Charlie Weekly) on the night of November 1-2. “Charlie” had published an issue they called “Charlie Hebdo”. They had Muhammad as its imaginary invited editor and who commented on the subjects of the day, with of course cartoons of the man. On the cover is a cartoon of Muhammad saying, “100 lashes if you don’t die of laughing”.
It included dozens of cartoons in more or less bad taste–actually more than less–as is its wont, on Shariah law. This was in response to the new leader of Libya saying that the Shariah would be the basis of new laws and the success of the Islamic party in the Tunisian elections. Obviously this didn’t please some people and three of the cartoonists, one the editor, are now under police protection. The site of the magazine was hacked and rendered inoperative. This action has been traced to a group in Turkey. These Turks have threatened a cyber-attack on the newspaper “Libération” which has given office space to “Charlie”, which has set up a blog. An amusing side effect is that the very rightwing Minister of the Interior had to defend the magazine and freedom of speech on television.
The weekly has previously published satires of Islam and the Catholic church and in this issue also had an article on Catholic extremists that have disrupted a play by Romeo Castellucci, ” Sur le concept du visage du fils de Dieu ” (On the concept of the face of the son of God) at the Théâtre de la Ville à Paris, a theater run by the city of Paris, that they consider to be blasphemous of Jesus. They have invented a new word, “Christianophobia”. Maybe it can make sense in a weird way to attribute an imaginary fear of an imaginary being. Religion–any religion–lives on imaginary fears so it is not surprising that it projects them onto other people who don’t believe the dogma.
In France the state and the church have been legally separated since what is known as “the law of 1905”. As the editor of “Charlie” said, there is not and cannot be an offense called “blasphemy” in a secular country like France.
The play is still going to be presented at another theater run by the city and the mayor has said that he will bring legal complaints against those who try to continue such acts. This is not the first instance of violence by such Catholic groups. In 1988, one or more of them fire-bombed a theater that was showing “The Last Temptation of Christ” by Martin Scorsese. It is curious that the much more biting film, “The Life of Brian”, by Monty Python caused no outrage.
A few years ago, a group of Jewish extremists attacked a bookstore where pro-Palestinian French writer, Alain Soral, was doing an ordinary book signing event. The group armed with bats and clubs broke windows and beat many of the people attending the event. As far as I know, the police never arrested anyone for the aggression. There have been other such attacks as well, but that was the most violent.
As to mainstream politics, first a short review of certain things I have mentioned before. In most European countries including France, religion does not enter the political debate or influence elections. It was the parliament of a majority center-right along with the opposition socialists and communists that voted for the right of abortion. The Catholic church was of course opposed, but couldn’t influence the outcome. Incidentally, the current president makes a point of being Catholic and likes to talk about Europe’s “Christian heritage”, but he is divorced and re-married. A socialist majority voted for the abolition of the death penalty and even the leader of the rightwing opposition and later president, Jacques Chirac voted for. There is no debate about whether a candidate believes in the Bible or not, and the fact of evolution is accepted and taught in the schools with no controversy. There are even socialist Christians.A popular television mini-series is on the history of the Borgias, who gave the church the Pope Alexander VI who had many mistresses and many children from them.
Another subject that is not in the political debate is birth control. Schools have real sex education classes and junior and senior high school students can get free condoms and prescriptions for the pill, as well as counseling, by qualified nurses and counselors and not priests.
Sexuality including homo- is at most a secondary issue. The socialist mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoë is gay and has been elected twice. An ex-justice minister of the current rightwing government, Rachida Dati, had a child out of wedlock while in the government and has never revealed who the father is. No one holds it against her. She was elected to the city council of Paris in a safe conservative district and plans to run for parliament in another relatively safe one and maybe then for mayor. She is also famous for lapse in language in a televised interview: “”When I see some of them looking for returns of 20 or 25 percent, at a time when fellatio is close to zero, and in particular in a slump, that means we are destroying businesses,” The Socialists voted a law allowing civil unions of same sex couples, which even the right accepts now, and now marriage is on the table and may well be voted. The main opposition is adoption by same sex couples, but recently a court allowed a couple to adopt a child.
But one bad tendency in the political debate is that the government politicians avoid the word “debate”. They prefer to use the word “explanation”. They think people are ignorant and just don’t understand their policies, which for the government are the only ones possible. So for the government, if people oppose its policies, it is because they haven’t been “explained” well enough. It isn’t that there may be a debating point.